Ready or Not

The greatest educational gains are made at the earliest points in pupils' lives. Reading is key to early and continued success. With the changing demographics of his school, Principal Hanson seeks to involve outside consultants and his own teachers in shaping a literacy program that will meet the needs of a diverse community. Has he discovered the basic principles of building collaborations to advance data-driven solutions for children in need?

Paula Taylor and the rest of the kindergarten focus group meet to evaluate Jeffers Elementary School’s literacy programs.

It is 4:00 on a Thursday. The breezy May afternoon beckons outside my window. Inside Jeffers Elementary School all is relatively quiet. The students are gone and teachers are wrapping things up for the day. Jeffers serves 310 students; sixty-five percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunch. Our students are forty-five percent African-American, ten percent Hispanic and other ethnic groups, and forty-five percent Caucasian.

Our principal, Mr. Hanson, is holding year-end meetings with each grade-level. I glance at my watch, finish my Snickers, and head to the library where I’ll meet with him, Linda, our new reading specialist, and Judy, my kindergarten teammate. Our challenge, I think, is to look back and forge ahead; Mr. Hanson wants us to use current data as a springboard for planning for next year’s students. Mustering enthusiasm for this is difficult when we haven’t yet scrubbed the fingerprints off of this year’s desks.

Mr. Hanson

Mr. Hanson arrives in a rush a few minutes after I do and puts a bag of bagels on the table. “I thought the least I could do since I asked you all to stay late is to bring everybody a snack,” he says with a big smile. “There’s cream cheese and I brought a jar of peach preserves from home that my wife and I made last summer.” I regret my Snickers and forgo a bagel.

I’m always amazed by my boss’s enthusiasm for all that he does. Today is no exception. I watch in awe as Mr. Hanson dives right in to his bagel and the meeting agenda, simultaneously. “As you know, we’ve been under a lot of pressure this year from parents and the school board. Sixty percent of our district’s fourth-graders scored below the fiftieth percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in reading this year. At our school, the percentage was sixty-eight.”

I’m also usually impressed with my teammate Judy’s uncanny ability to find a sliver of annoyance in a bounty of issues. “Surely you’re not blaming kindergarten teachers for these poor scores?” she asks.

“I’m not blaming anyone,” he answers. “I think the responsibility for our children learning to read belongs to all of us in the school—and to the children’s families. I hope we can improve literacy for all of our students and see the improvements reflected in our scores. I want us to evaluate what we are currently doing and develop integrated intervention programs across grade-levels.”

I steal a glance at Judy. She’s looking as tense and uneasy as I’m suddenly feeling. Our plates are already so full that I can’t imagine fitting in anything else. I reach across the table for a bagel.

Linda seems to understand what has not been said. She’s shown that her years in the regular classroom haven’t faded from her memory. “We have a good solid base on which to build. You’re already doing a lot of what we’ll need. Our kindergarten classrooms, thanks to your hard work, are already rich in reading and writing activities.”

This comment and the smile that accompanies it ease the tension in the air a bit. Nevertheless, my mind drifts to all the challenges we face, to the thirty students I have, to their diverse backgrounds and abilities. “We could do even more if our classes weren’t so large,” I say. “It seems to take more time every year to just get the children socialized and ready to ‘do school’.”

Teachers listening to Mr. Hanson

Linda nods. “I think those are both good points, Paula…I’ve been looking over our literacy activities, and I think our challenge lies in providing individual children with the specific activities they need to help them learn to read and write.”

Judy looks angry. “But how can we provide individual instruction when we have thirty children in each class? They hardly start settling down and behaving until December.”

Mr. Hanson holds up both his hands. “Listen, we all know we have seventy to eighty percent of our students entering kindergarten without the prerequisites they need for literacy and that a lot of our students are ELLs. I also know you have had a particularly rough year this year because classes are so large. I’m hoping to remedy that next year by adding another kindergarten teacher to the staff. The budget isn’t finalized yet…I’m working on it.”

See Data about the home-reading connection below: 

See Shifting US demographics below: 

Mr. Hanson continues, “Also, I think it will really help to have better pre-assessments. I’ve got some ideas that I think will really help you find out what your students know from Day One so you can group students and target your instruction more easily.”

Although I understand the need for improvement, I’m not clear on the means. As I chew on my bagel, I read the memo Mr. Hanson has just shared, and feel thankful for the lengthening days. If I hit the traffic right, there should be just enough time for a walk before dinner and a first stab at year-end report card comments before bed. I’m looking forward to having some time to reflect during my walk.

See a copy of Mr. Hanson’s memo below:

Anna gets bad news about her son Joey.

Anna is tired when she arrives home from a meeting with her son’s kindergarten teacher. Her day has been long and dreary, and this meeting was a fitting end to it. She worked her 7:30 a.m to 3:30 housekeeping shift at the hospital and then rushed to catch the bus to Jeffers Elementary school, only to get bad news.

She hears the TV going, so she knows Joey is home. She makes a point to greet him in English. “Hi, Joey. Turn off that TV and do your homework.”

“I don’t have any homework. What’s for dinner, Momma?” Joey asks as he dashes into the kitchen for a hug. The new baseball cap she’d gotten him for his birthday bumps sideways as they embrace.

“I’m not sure yet. What do you want?”

“I don’t know, but make a lot of it. Tengo hambre!” Joey bounces out of the kitchen, and she hears him changing channels in search of his favorite cartoons.

Anna sighs and opens the refrigerator. She wonders how she will tell Joey about her meeting with his teacher. She wonders how to tell him he might not be going to first grade.

His teacher said Joey still didn’t know the letters of the alphabet and was having trouble with letters and sounds. She said that speaking Spanish at home might be hurting Joey’s chances of doing well in school. Anna feels angry with the school, with Joey’s teacher, and with herself. She doesn’t know what to do.

She remembers how she felt when she had to repeat the ninth grade. Humiliated. Stupid. Embarrassed. Anna dropped out of school as soon as she was old enough. She still doesn’t read very well. She feels awkward trying to read to Joey, scared that she won’t know a word or that she’ll pronounce it wrong.

Data regarding ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and dropout rates

She has wanted to get her GED, but she’s afraid she’ll fail. She feels sure she’ll be working in housekeeping at the hospital forever.

Since they moved into this apartment three months ago, Anna has watched older boys in the neighborhood flounder in school and drop out. They couldn’t find jobs, but they could sure find trouble. She wants a better life for her son than that. She wants a better life for him than hers.

Ms. Taylor, Joey’s teacher, invited her to come to a Family Literacy Celebration next month with Joey. She said lots of other parents and children would be there. Maybe she and Joey should go. Ms. Taylor said they were having a picnic for everybody, too.

Linda Shepherd shares the results of this year’s pilot intervention program.

Judy and I nearly knock each other over as we round the corner from opposite directions. It is 4:00 on the following Thursday afternoon, and we’re headed into the library for the next in our series of literacy meetings. Still laughing from our near miss, we join Mr. Hanson and Linda.

Linda is well prepared. She has a television and VCR and overhead projector already set up, and there are homemade cookies and juice on the conference table. Eager as ever, she jumps right in. “Thanks for coming today. I’d like to start by showing you the spring results of an assessment I gave my pilot intervention group. I used the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening Benchmarks. This is the same assessment I administered to all the kindergartners in the fall. The children in this group were chosen because their fall scores showed they needed extra support to build their phonological and phonemic awareness.”

“Hang on…What exactly is phonological awareness?” Judy asks. “I keep hearing lots of different terms to describe the same thing! I mean, don’t phonological awareness and phonemic awareness mean the same thing?”

Linda chuckles a little. “You know, I’ve struggled with that, too. But they’re not the same, just similar. Phonological awareness is the understanding that oral language can be divided into smaller units. Spoken language can be broken down in many different ways – sentences into words, words into syllables, onset and rhyme, and individual phonemes. Being phonologically aware means having a general understanding at all of these levels.

“The most complex level of phonological awareness is phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the understanding of how to manipulate these phonemes by segmenting, blending, or changing individual phonemes within words to create new words. So, phonemic awareness is only one part of a bigger picture called phonological awareness.”

Linda puts up her first overhead and continues. “Here are the literacy benchmarks along with the students’ spring summed scores. All the students that received the intervention tested out of the program this spring.”

The students’ spring summed scores

Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening Benchmarks

Literacy definitions the teachers were discussing

Judy Allen, Paula’s kindergarten teammate

Without looking at any scores, I know that my students who were in Linda’s group have improved dramatically this year. I’m not as worried about them as I am a couple of students who didn’t get that extra help. I am especially worried about Joey and his pending retention, but I know I have to put that issue aside — for now.

Mr. Hanson is so impressed with Linda’s results that he slaps the table and lets out a little laugh. Judy, on the other hand, looks insulted. “Is this your way of telling us we failed as teachers?”

Mr. Hanson pipes up, “We’re not talking about failure. This data tells us that we need to provide children with more concentrated instruction than they may be able to get in the regular classroom. Linda’s intervention program provided the kind of concentrated help that those students needed.”

As I listen, I think back to the day I saw Linda working with the intervention group shortly before Winter break. The children had been totally absorbed in sorting a variety of little objects into separate containers. Stuff like seashells, string, all objects beginning with “s” went into one bin while buttons, a tiny ball, a piece of bark, all objects that started with the letter “b” were sorted into another container. I couldn’t quite picture pulling that off while also creating and reading student books with those who were ready to move ahead. “Will we be expected to do similar kinds of activities in our classrooms?” I ask.

“Well, Paula, that’s the reason we’re talking today… It’s best if… We want to see some coordination between instruction in the classroom and the intervention program. Before we discuss that, let’s let Linda finish her presentation.”

Undaunted, Linda forges ahead. “What I’d like to show you now is a series of video-clips that show instruction that teaches children the same skills we assessed. Research shows that these skills are the building blocks of reading and writing. Let’s look at one phonological awareness task that I had the children do early in the year and then again in March. I want you to notice how much easier the task is for them the second time..”

The footage is impressive. The students appear happy and engaged. Most impressive, though, is the clip showing them in the spring. I can see that clear progress has been made. “It does seem like something really clicked for them after a few months. I liked the way you used the children’s own names for this activity, too. Kids love to work with their own names.” Out of the corner of my eye, I actually see Judy nodding in agreement.

A scene from the video

“The kids have really done well! I think a lot of these activities can be done in the classroom, and the kids love them. You can target phonemic awareness through direct instruction in segmenting words, identifying sound in various positions—beginning, middle, and end—identifying words that begin or end with the same sound, and manipulating sounds in a word. For example, students can explore word sounds by saying a word without its beginning or ending sound. Children like matching games with letters and picture cards, rhyming songs and stories, syllable puzzles, beginning sound bingo, and name games!

“Some of these activities might be harder to do with a whole class. They are geared for small groups. I would really appreciate it if the two of you would visit the web site I emailed to you. Check out the activities to see how you think they might fit in your classrooms.”

A website offering classroom activities in phonological awareness

Mr. Hanson looks at his watch as he brings one more issues to the table. “Next week at this meeting time, Dr. Young from the university will help Linda present a workshop for you, our first and second grade teachers, and our family literacy coordinator and volunteers. I’d like for both of you to present as well. Pick an activity or a project that you used this year that you and your children really liked and that you feel really worked.”

Ugh. Besides root canal, there’s not much I like less than presenting in front of my colleagues