Occupation: English Language Arts and World Languages Coordinator Grades 6-12, Houston County Board of Education
Q: There was a national focus on literacy in November. How do educators view literacy?
A: It’s the Rosetta Stone indicating how a child is doing in all areas of learning and fundamental to their ability to make meaning of the world. It has an immense role in their becoming contributing members of society and goes beyond the individual to make or break our community and its economic development. It has that major of an impact.
Q: The public idea is probably just knowing how to read and write. You say it’s more complex?
A: Reading and writing are chief components but so are speaking and listening. Critical thinking and the ability to evaluate information and make conclusions are part. Being literate doesn’t just come from reading class. It’s taught across all subjects and is key to learning all subjects.
Q: Is there a shift in thinking about and teaching literacy?
A: Instruction has shifted from what many of us knew in school. It once was a matter of lecturing or having students read something, letting them know what they had to know then they repeated it back. Today, it isn’t just repeating back what someone else thinks, but about thinking critically and coming up with your own narrative. We give information and want students to think it through and apply it to other, broader contexts. That’s much more than surface level, it’s connecting information to other information and making use of it.
Q: Are you saying there’s less regard for facts and more emphasis on how an individual interprets facts?
A: Facts are the basis, but we’re looking for more than correct answers. We’re looking for opportunities for students to answer in meaningful ways what they’ve drawn from different information and thought critically about. Kids today are inundated with information sources and some are reliable and some aren’t. Some facts presented to us are actually quite skewed. Plus, 50 years ago there might have been one or two information sources but now they’re almost limitless.
Q: So how do you measure literacy?
A: Formally and informally. Formally through state mandated tests with formal milestones. We also have internal measures in Houston County beyond state testing. We assess how students are growing as readers, thinkers and whatnot. We also informally assess children’s literacy and literacy needs in ways such as teacher observations. There are strategies for this like regular times when students read with teachers. There’s also more partnership learning between students and classroom projects to help them learn to listen and speak effectively and collaborate.
Q: So what’s the literacy level among Houston County students?
A: Overall literacy has so many aspects there’s no specific measure I can grab. It’s not just reading or writing but a multifaceted sum of many things. We look at student data like reading performance, growth as a writer and listener, where they’re struggling, where they need help and then we work toward appropriate ends.
Q: Then there’s no number?
A: I will say this: everyone in the system — and that certainly includes me and Amanda Yoh, who serves a similar role for grades K-5 — are excited about success we see reflected in test scores, state accountability, the increasing number of students graduating and other indicators.
Q: What graduation indicator?
A: Newest information shows we rose a point to 87.6 percent graduation. Having students graduate and be prepared to pursue college, technical training or the workforce is obviously a good measure. Among the state’s largest districts we rank fifth-highest. Another measure might be moving schools away from their Focus School designation.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Schools are designated Focus Schools due to achievement gaps between student subgroups. Miller and Pearl Stephens Elementary and Huntington Middle School were designated Focus Schools in 2015. Miller made gains and was removed from the list in 2016 and we just got news Pearl Stephens and Huntington have made strides and are no longer Focus Schools. As a system, we’re always evaluating, responding and working to meet needs and help students be successful. Though we’re pleased to see things like an 87 percent graduation rate, what about the other 13 percent? We have to help them be successful, too.
Q: What’s the key to making those strides?
A: That’s a huge question involving all the work all of us do all the time, but I can’t help but say the greatest factor is our classroom teachers.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: Teachers make the difference, and we go to lengths to hire the best teachers we possibly can and provide them ongoing professional training. We invest in our teachers and their abilities. There’s also the aspect of teachers and students and parents all working together.
Q: What’s an example of all working together?
A: One example is shifting the concept of homework and reading from being an assignment to creating a love for reading, writing and listening to their own thoughts and to the thoughts of others. This includes not just book reading, but embraces e-readers, online reading and even tweeting and social media. Even something as simple as letting students read around their interests can be key to creating a love for reading. I used to get excited about getting to go to the library every week to get a book, but now we give students constant opportunities to get books or do reading on topics that interest them. We want them to be thoughtful readers who love to read, not just finish an assignment.
Answers may have been edited for length and clarity. Compiled by Michael W. Pannell. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.