Trainings like this one by the Children’s Literacy Initiative advise teachers on how to build a “community of learners” in their classrooms. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)
“I changed my whole room,” said Kelly Strusiak, of Greenfield Elementary in Center City. “I got rid of my clutter. They provided us with a whole new library, leveled readers, book bins. It really made the kids light up: ‘Ooo, brand new books!’”
These teachers know that their students, mostly 2nd graders, stand at a critical cognitive threshold, moving beyond “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”
They can understand character, plot and content, discuss what they read with teachers and classmates, and chart their own progress through reading levels. And perhaps most important, the teachers say, they’re old enough to get a thrill from reading and learning.
“The exposure excites them,” said Allen Garner, from the Russell Byers Charter School. “They think, ‘I can go rock climbing! I can go parachuting!’ It encourages them to want to be part of that book – to immerse themselves.”
But they’re also old enough to feel isolation and embarrassment when they struggle.
“All children love reading when they’re very young,” said Walker, the librarian. “[But when] you see them start to slip behind … you see a loss in confidence, a loss in the pleasure of learning. They want to read to learn, but they’re struggling with the mechanics. … They’re already embarrassed.”
“As adults we forget how serious childhood is,” Walker said. “They have all the same feelings we do.”
The CLI approach includes a lot of group work. Students read together, agree on class rules, and help each other make progress.
“I don’t have them at their desks. They’re around the room, they’re talking about books, getting excited,” Strusiak said.
And as a result, the teachers say, the entire classroom runs more smoothly as students learn to communicate, collaborate, solve problems and enjoy success – skills that will serve them well in school and life.
“It carries over from literacy into math,” said Onesti, of the St. Thomas Aquinas Mission School. “It’s the way your classroom is run. It’s a community.”
Smith calls CLI a “shining star” in the push for grade-level reading. In Philadelphia, that effort is now backed by an ambitious, new “READ! by 4th” campaign, a local collaboration of over 50 organizations, including the School District and the Free Library of Philadelphia, that launched last summer with the goal of helping all 4th graders reach proficiency by 2020. (READ stands for “Ready, Engaged, Able and Determined.)
Told about the CLI teachers’ experience watching their students learn to work together, Smith said that shows what’s truly at stake: not just literacy, but community. The student who can read can engage with teachers and peers, experience success, and take command of their own education, he said.
“They become an advocate for themselves, a co-author of their academic destiny,” Smith said. “Literacy is a doorway to membership and citizenship.”
The cavalry isn’t coming
But for the students left on the far side of the literacy gap, Smith said, the experience can be profoundly isolating – especially for those in typical Philadelphia schools, where classroom resources and adult attention are infamously scarce.
“The kid who looks around and realizes that other kids are reading to learn, and that he or she cannot read, [realizes] two things,” Smith said. “One, they can figure out that they’re in trouble. And two, they figure out that there’s no cavalry coming. The adults aren’t mobilizing to help them.”
Such students don’t have a lot of incentive to become good citizens, he said.
“It’s not surprising that you can pick up all these behavior problems beginning in 4th grade,” Smith said. “Playing by the rules, buying in to the system and respecting adults – that calculus changes.
“It’s sometimes said that while kids leave school in 9th grade, they actually ‘drop out’ in 4th. Because by 4th grade, this kid knows something no adult will admit: It’s game over.”
Smith has been working on this issue since he was a Philadelphia School District official in the 1980s, and since then he’s concluded that this is “a nationwide problem, not merely a Philadelphia problem.”
It’s also solvable, he thinks. Districts can better assess young students’ literacy challenges. The necessary interventions aren’t always impossibly expensive or complex. For many, skill-appropriate books, well-trained staff, and focused instruction go a long way.
But much of the literacy gap springs from factors outside the classroom. Many students – particularly low-income students – don’t get much preschool reading experience. Chronic absenteeism and “summer learning loss” also hold students back.
Reversing those trends requires effective partnerships between families, schools, and community groups, Smith said – the kind of collaboration that Philadelphia’s broad READ! by 4th campaign hopes to model for the nation. “This is really about parents and caregivers,” Smith said.
Back in West Philadelphia, librarian Walker says it’s easy to tell which kids come from reading-rich environments – even when they’re toddlers like Rio.
“Even children this young, I can tell if their parents read to them,” she said. “They know what to expect. They know I’m going to turn the page. They’re looking at the book.
“When I meet kids who don’t have as much reading time, the concentration level is different. It’s much more difficult to read an entire book.”
Jamilla Manigault knows which side of the literacy gap she wants Rio on.
“It’s really disheartening to see the kids on the other side,” she said. “You can see there’s a ‘want’ to learn, but they don’t know how.”
And when Rio’s ready for school, she knows she wants him around other kids who love reading too, so that he can learn even more.
“I have older boys, and they’re ahead of their level,” she said. “A lot of times the teacher ends up having them help out the other kids. A little of that is OK, but they need to be challenged.
“Just because you can read, because you’re above level, doesn’t mean they should say, ‘Oh, he’s OK.’ He needs that engagement to get higher.”
Disclosure: The Notebook is a partner in the READ! By 4th campaign; it has committed to provide independent news coverage of the effort.