By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Kate Harvey is a first-year kindergarten teacher at Carver Elementary School. One look into her classroom is clue enough to the portion of her day occupied by teaching literacy.
The rug on the floor contains the letters of the alphabet, columns of vocabulary words fill the board, and boxes of reading activity books lie in wait on her desk.
“At the beginning of the year, my class was very unbalanced when it came to their ability to read. I could tell the ones that attended pre-K from the ones who didn’t, who didn’t know the letters or couldn’t write their name,” she said.
What’s a teacher to do?
Harvey said she started from square one. During the fall semester, students learned the names of the letters in the alphabet one at a time, then learned the sounds corresponding to those letters. This semester, they are taking those sounds and stringing them together to make words.
“The hardest part has been meeting each different learner. Fifteen students means 15 different sets of needs,” she said. “The difficulty jumps so much from kindergarten to first grade that they need to know how to read by the time they leave kindergarten, and need to be able to read words like ‘describe.’”
Though she utilizes techniques learned while at Mississippi State University, Harvey structures her lessons on a day-to-day basis according to a program called Reading Street, which continues through sixth grade and is used in all K-6 Tupelo schools. Though Harvey spent her senior year of undergraduate work student teaching, and her junior year observing, she said the point-by-point guidelines laid out by Reading Street have helped her more than anything.
“I don’t know what I would do without it,” she said. “It puts everyone through sixth grade on the same page, the same track. There is no doubt about what goals need to be met and when.”
LACK OF CONSISTENCY
Angela Rutherford, director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction, said Harvey’s experience points to a number of flaws in the state’s educational structure.
In Mississippi, each district is left to address literacy as it sees fit, whether through programs like Reading Street, literacy coaches, inclusion teachers or remedial summer reading camps. The lack of a common timeline with common checkpoints creates schisms between school districts and even among schools in the same district.
“We do not have that continuity and consistency in our state,” Rutherford said. “We are so tied to local control to the detriment of our children, in my opinion.”
Rutherford pointed across the border in Alabama, to the Alabama Reading Initiative, a statewide program that provides every K-3 school with a literacy coach highly trained by the state Department of Education. Furthermore, every teacher in the school goes through a standard training in a week-long summer academy, so everyone is focused on the same goals and how to get there.
Rutherford said such a unified initiative is crucial in professional development in teachers after they have entered the field.
“We can only do so much in two years,” Rutherford said. “Even when teachers come out of teacher preparation programs, their professional learning doesn’t stop and it is up to good administrators to make sure they continue to support that,” she said.
Shannon Middle School principal Keith Steele, agreed that teachers must be life-long learners, constantly rethinking their techniques and strategies by collaborating with other teachers.
“Universities are doing a noticeably better job at preparing their teachers in literacy. The new teachers we’ve had come in have improved their competency level quite a bit in comparison to previous years,” he said.
“Once they are here, they go to every professional development possible, whether it be a conference or a webinar. It’s crucial to hear how different people are doing it.”
Shannon Middle School’s own literacy teacher, Jo Ann Duke, said the shift in thinking about literacy has extended beyond merely decoding words.
“Everything requires communication, and that’s what true literacy is, the ability to absorb information and use it for other things,” she said. “It’s a problem when a student can find the right answer in the text but can’t give it to you in their own words.”
The catch with comprehension, Duke said, was that some students are natural comprehenders, a talent that has nothing to do with IQ. Students in her sixth- and eighth-grade literacy classes keep running journals where they reflect or summarize the material they encounter in class. In a unit on the Middle Ages, students chose their own topics and researched them, from castle architecture to Queen Elizabeth’s political motives.
“Annotating their research helps, and in projects like this they use discretion about what information is important and how it contributes to the subject they are writing about,” she said.
Especially with the onset of the Common Core standards that Mississippi and 45 other states have adopted, comprehension is just as essential to literacy as reading. Even in Harvey’s kindergarten class, students are sharpening their comprehension skills right alongside their decoding abilities.
“I use anything I can to get them talking and communicating, because that’s what Common Core is all about,” she said. “We have an exercise called ‘think-pair-share,’ where they think about the word I give them, explain it to a partner, then share it with the class. At home, I want their parents to ask them questions. What was the setting? The characters? What happened at the beginning, middle and end of the story?”