In the intrinsic origins of my interest in literacy, my reasons were as selfless as they are as the end of my time at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. My initial interest in literacy was spiked as a student-teacher based in a dual-language program within the School District of Philadelphia. With my work being based in both a Kindergarten classroom and a first-grade classroom it was my goal to begin to help students develop early understandings of phonics and phonemic awareness skills to ignite early literacy behaviors within them. The program that quickly came to my attention was that it was extremely difficult for me to understand where to begin with the process of reading with students. After completing all of the needed coursework in the literacy-based courses during my undergraduate program at Penn State there were still many gaps and misunderstandings that did not allow me to feel confident to walk into my own classroom the following school year and eagerly scaffold students in their development of reading. This brought me to realize that for the best interest of myself as a confident educator but more importantly for the educational experience of my future students pursuing a master's in education with a focus on literacy was the best next step following my graduation from Penn State. This realization brought me to Penn GSE’s Reading/ Writing/ Literacy with Reading Specialist Certification program. It was my goal to ensure that my education was from the best in the field and Penn could offer me that opportunity exactly. After a rigorous program and learning so much about literacy from reforming curriculums to understanding how to incorporate digital literacies, multiliteracies, and multicultural textual options for students within any curriculum context. In addition, a lot of the work we have done in literacy has been centered within culturally sustaining pedagogies. It is through these experiences and research opportunities that leaving Penn GSE allows me the confidence and grit to continue pursuing new advances in the field of literacy. As a public school educator and teacher it will be my goal to continue being a leader in literacy no matter which district my journey takes me to and as a future leader in educational administration, literacy will be at the forefront of my policy adaptations and changes within the school context. We need new leaders in education to reform the literacy programs we have in our schools that do not reflect newly found best practices and advances in research surrounding literacy and it is my goal to be one of the leading educators moving our schools into providing students the best and latest offerings the field has to offer.
Throughout my time in the Reading/ Writing/ Literacy program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, it was my goal to seek outside resources and professional developments to further my educational experience with programs that were centered on social justice, latest research, and explained new resources that were able to accompany my teaching philosophy centered around culturally sustaining pedagogies. One of the professional developments included a curriculum resource explanation of the phonics program “Fundations.” It was key for me to learn about this program as it would assist me with understanding the curriculum and how to best utilize it in my classroom to ensure my students had a strong foundation in the phonics needed to decode, blend and eventually gain automaticity in reading words. This professional development really assisted me with understanding sustainable and powerful interactions that could occur during instruction centered around the Fundations curriculum. Another professional development was a session about the UDL (Universal design for learning). This session allowed me to understand how the UDL framework works and how as educators we must ensure that we are as intentional as possible when creating lessons that are tailored for all learners. This professional development also allowed me to reflect on my personal practice and how it is important for me to use as many resources possible to reach all the learners in my classrooms. Finally, another professional development was centered around multicultural education. This session talked about inclusive practices in instruction to ensure that all learners of diverse cultures were being met in the midst of lesson planning and implementation. This session allowed me to learn more steps to take that also tie into culturally sustaining pedagogies. Professional development is one of the most critical aspects of being an educator. Without taking time to continue to learn and continue to grow as educators we will lose touch with new research. It is my goal and plans to continuously pursue professional development opportunities to further enhance my understanding and to best equip myself continuously with the tools needed to educate my students. This also ties into being a leader in literacy research as leaders must exemplify for others what it means to truly be a literacy researcher and educator. Part of my professional development journey will also be to share my new findings with other educators so we can all learn and grow.
During the Reading/ Writing/ Literacy program at the University of Pennsylvania, there were many opportunities to engage in the field using the resources and ideologies that were exposed to candidates in the program. My main source of fieldwork was centered in my very own classroom. Through the many assignments that were centered around focusing on the reading capabilities and behaviors of students. From implementing diagnostic assessments such as running records, the diagnostic reading assessment, and the dibels assessment to implementing true guided reading lessons with small groups, there was no other way to truly help put theory to practice than the scaffolding that was granted through the many assignments that were so meaningful in the program. One of my most impactful assignments was centered around having to complete a case study about a student. In this case study, it was important that my student and myself worked together very often throughout the semester so that he and I could form a strong connection. Through this connection was it evident that reading behaviors that the student had along with the many needed additions that the student needed. This allowed me to push the student in our shared time together during guided reading and along with pushing him during his independent reading time as well. The student truly needed to be well understood in the reading capabilities in which he already possessed before a professional such as myself pushed him anyway. Through the case study assignment in conjunction with the fieldwork, this program has not only made me a researcher in the field of literacy but also a practitioner that has had intense experience truly looking at the whole child as a student before pushing them forward as a reader. Another very key assignment that made my fieldwork much more prominent was the fieldwork journals that we needed to create very consistently based on our experiences in the field. These journals allowed me to document the key moments in my experiences and allowed me to joint down fresh thoughts and inquiries that would further link to research interest. These journals were the cornerstone of my time in the program and are testimonials of the growth in myself as an educator and also an observer of the wonderful children that were part of my fieldwork experience.
Collaboration efforts in the educational experience of English Language Learning Students; how can the classroom teacher and reading specialist work together to solidify student success?
When we consider the many dynamics of classroom teaching, we often look at classroom management, data-informed instruction, considerations of school, district initiatives, prescribed curriculum, the implementation of these curriculums, classroom normalities, and grade group structures. We often leave out best practices for out-of-the-classroom relationships. One of the most sought out and in-demand positions in the elementary and secondary educational realms is that of a reading specialist certified instructors. These specially trained educators take diverse components of linguistics, differentiation, accommodations, modifications, and curriculum frameworks to deliver a specified educational experience to students who are identified as emergent bilinguals, multilingual, struggling readers, enrichment readers, and many other titles. The relationship between the classroom teacher and the reading specialist is one that is imperative to the literacy students' educational success.
The dynamics of the relationship between the classroom teacher and the reading specialist are quite diverse. First, these two instructors need to be in consistent communication in an attempt to have an open dialogue regarding where current curricular instruction is at, what skills are being addressed, and the current development of literacy students within that institutional area as understood by the classroom teacher via informal assessment along with formal assessment. This information must be passed and communicated consistently to the reading specialist teacher so that it may inform and influence instruction and guidance of instruction delivered by the reading specialist teacher. “In many schools, there are more barriers to collaborative teaching than support. Some barriers include the lack of allocated, common planning time (Friend, 2008), the absence of administrator understanding for structuring collaborative teaching for literacy learners (Theoharis & O’Toole, 2011), innovation weariness (Hargreaves, 1994), and a status differential placing the ESL specialist as inferior to the classroom teacher (Arkoudis, 2006; Creese, 2002, 2006), which may lead to ESL teacher resistance to collaborative teaching (McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010).” (Bell, Baecher. 2012). As outlined, it is important for schools to begin allowing dedicated planning time for both the classroom teacher and reading specialist teacher to discuss this important classroom data and information for the advancement of instruction.
There are other underlying issues that cause a lack of collaboration between these teachers in addition to non-allocated time. The collaboration relationship culture in education is one that is very recent. For decades, a long-standing tertiary mindset has dominated the educational realm and teachers have adopted their own ideologies based on their experiences and their educational background. “The Curriculum and Learning Development course is aimed at helping the undergraduate students prepare themselves to be an elementary school teacher. By the end of this course, the students are expected to master the concept of curriculum planning procedures and curriculum implementation. The students are also expected to be able to understand the concept of curriculum, learning approaches, models, methods, strategies, materials, and media. In addition to that, the students are also required to be able to analyze, reconstruct and modify the curriculum, the learning approaches, models, methods, strategies, materials, and media innovatively.” By supplying teacher candidates with a curricular planning course that is inclusive of ideologies and the processes of co-planning and collaboration, they would have a collaborative spirit ignited at the beginning of their careers and be intrinsic collaborators which will translate to a stronger educational experience for all students and a more seamless collaborative relationship with the reading specialist teacher.
While collaboration is certainly a very useful and necessary tool in education another issue associated with it is the differences educators may have in their pedagogical approaches. We also must understand our own epistemologies, as we all have predetermined understandings and we must allow these understandings to be challenged and transformed in the process of collaboration. “While the committee leader, a White administrator from the central office, invited a diverse group of people to participate in these open discussions, she clearly was not prepared to handle the issues they raised. She was troubled that parent and student perspectives were, she said, far afield from the committee’s focus on language education.” (Marxx, Saavedra. 2013). Just as the committee leader did during this meeting regarding ESL education in this particular school, many educators are willing to have a conversation about new approaches in practice but often have a comfort zone in their understanding and wish to not be taken out of that comfort zone. While we collaborate, diverse perspectives will arise and we must be willing and able to fully understand, adapt and challenge our own understandings to engage in true collaboration in education.
While simply discussing the importance of collaboration in education, we must look to resolutions and implications for practice. First, we can begin to understand that the curriculums we are differentiating and creating accommodations within for our students are not created with their diverse needs in mind nor are they intended to be used by these students, they are created for middle-class families that are predominantly of caucasian backgrounds. “Championing the needs of students who have been historically marginalized is a central premise of the growing call for social justice leadership (Dantley & Tillman, 2006; Scheurich & Skrla, 2002; Theoharis, 2007a). Scholars and practitioners argue that students who are learning English have been marginalized with respect to access to the curriculum, the achievement of the curriculum, and their social standing within the public schools in the United States (Crawford, 2004; Walquí, 2000).” (Theharis, O’Toole. 2011.) We must begin to develop new mindsets as educators and allow these mindsets to influence our pedagogies and approaches to our teaching practices. We must also begin to develop and help students acknowledge their postionionalies within society, especially literacy students. While it is the responsibility of school leadership to begin the conversation of fostering an inclusive education it also comes down to everyday educators to adopt this mindset within their practices. “Principals who effectively enact social justice leadership for literacy students are informed and buoyed by two sources: an asset-based orientation toward language and knowledge of the research on second language acquisition. Language orientations, according to Ruíz (1984), are dispositions that mirror one of two conflicting public sentiments: that language is a problem or that language is a right.” (Theharis, O’Toole. 2011.) We must begin to foster socially just mindsets in our students to better inform them of their positions in society and how they can become successful in their lives regardless of the privileges that are not open to them. One way we can do this is through the use of postmodern picturebooks, “Teachers can tap into the generative energy embedded in postmodern picturebooks to prompt debate and discussion about issues that touch the lives of their students. Immersion in the literature that generates a critical analysis of the status quo can open students to new perspectives, prepare students for current and coming challenges to traditional ways of being, and perhaps even stimulate them to launch their own challenges to the old order. In short, Paula Geyh (2003) concludes, “Postmodern literature, then, is literature to think with” (p. 12).” (O'Neil, 2010). We have the tools to use to ignite our students and it is within our power as educators to utilize these tools for the sustainable benefit of our students. The long-term effect of effective collaboration in education between the classroom teacher and the reading specialist teacher is that of a sustaining and impactful foundation for the student to see connections between curriculum and language and their positionality in the world that will last a lifetime after their time in the classroom.
Another implication for practice regarding collaboration is the proper use of proper resources. We recognize the intervention used in the literacy practices of reading specialists must include certain areas of literacy to ensure successful outcomes for students. Dr. Angela writes “Building on their evolving understanding of surface-level conventions of written language, English language learners are also acquiring self-monitoring strategies for generating meaning. They ask themselves if what they have read or written makes sense, and continue to develop a knowledge of letters, sounds, spelling patterns, and words that supports them in this sense-making process.” Children need a strong foundation in phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and phonics in an effort to be able to apply such skills to their reading behaviors. Through the use of these skills, students will be able to properly make meaning and build comprehension of the text they read. Additionally, students need to be able to make connections and access properly their experiences during their reading journeys. However, students who are grappling with early literacy skills and just beginning their experience in reading books need to be placed in an environment in which there is intentionality against fatiguing the reader. There are a number of resources literacy experts and practitioners rely on to scaffold students into engaging in book reading, “Currently, the trends in beginning reading materials are moving away from the one-dimensional approaches of the past. In fact, the top-selling basis combines decodable texts, literature, and qualitatively leveled texts within their basal packages, and these materials coexist in classrooms across the country (Foorman, Francis, Davidson, Harm, & Griffin, 2004; Hoffman, Sailors, & Patterson, 2003; Mesmer, 2006; Stein, Johnson, & Gutlohn, 1999).” We recognize that students need to be able to read books at their reading levels, which is where leveled text plays a role. We also understand that students need to be able to notice that the phonics skills they learn in the classroom are viewable in the text as well, this is where decodable text plays another role. All of these resources play key roles in the literacy development of students and they are all valuable. However, it is my argument, that the literacy practices of students do not stop here. These kits delivered through purchasable curriculums are not the entirety to ignite a socially just reader. Students also need exposure to current event news, students need exposure to digital literacies, and they also need exposure to multiliteracies that are also multimodal in delivery. In an effort to be culturally sustaining, educators need to present diverse literacies to their students.
One of the most prominent forms of literacy is the use of digital literacies. Along with the cultural backgrounds of students at the forefront of the 21st-century educator’s mindset, there is also the digital age that educators find themselves in and those digital advances need to be evident in their classroom practices as well. Literacies are not just digital through online playing, rather, they are digital because of so many online elements that take literacies digital. “Critical digital literacies, then, are those skills and practices that lead to the creation of digital texts that interrogate the world; they also allow and foster the interrogation of digital, multimedia texts.” (Avila, Pandya. 2013). Through digital literacies, we are able to allow students to utilize twenty-first-century technology to express themselves and engage in newly found literary devices. This is interdisciplinary as students could use digital literacies in any subject and be able to explain, elaborate, and report their findings while engaging with the entire class community and beyond. This also ties to culturally responsive teaching as many students want a cultural experience in their classroom and many cultural norms have shifted to include digital tools as well as traditional customs. In the decade of the 2020s, we find ourselves engulfed in a social media age where much information is transmitted online, we can tax on these interactions by engaging students in social media pedological opportunities in the classroom, making a new avenue in the arena of culturally responsive teaching. Collaboration plays a key role in these practices as teachers can support one another with engaging and adapting to new technologies that are available for students to begin to use in the classroom. Collaboration and communication between educators are what pieces all of these wonderful resources together as the sense of togetherness between educators create powerful growth mindsets for these collaborative teams.
In addition to best meeting the students where they are and providing strong collaborative efforts, educators also need one another to ethically and fully support students in regards to the implementation of culturally responsive pedagogies. One of the most commonly used terms in education today is the teaching framework of culturally responsive pedagogy. When we look at the origin and beginnings of this teaching framework, we begin to understand that this framework was spiked from the interest and inquiries of an educator. Billings explains in her article “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” about the very questions she had while learning about new best practices for students. This led her to come to the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy, later expanding into culturally responsive pedagogy (Billings, 1995. 2004.) Inquires like those that Billings has had can create long-standing inquiry questions such as culturally responsive pedagogy. When engaging students in powerful classroom experiences we need to keep their cultural influences in our mindsets at all times. Providing instruction with students’ cultural strengths at the forefront of instruction requires critical inquiry from teachers. Community pillars, local supermarkets, local sports teams, and local family centers are just a few items of inquiry educators can look to in an effort to become informed about the community of their students. Using these very local establishments in instruction at any given moment truly creates a culturally responsive classroom experience for students. Geneva Gay and Gloria Ladson-Billings each describe culturally responsive pedagogy as encompassing the social-emotional, relational, and cognitive aspects of teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students. Students need opportunities to connect the content they are learning in the classroom to their background knowledge and often that is based on the community pillars around them, this is the center of work around what providing culturally responsive teaching is all about. Educators from historically marginalized social groups are becoming highly regarded assets in districts across the state. It is imperative that they are in collaboration with their white colleagues who may not know much at all about the racially diverse, religiously diverse, and socioeconomically diverse students sitting in our classrooms. In my personal experience, many of my white colleagues have reached out to question me about how they could best support their students of color. This is what it takes, as collaborative educators, to best serve our students in the 21st century. This is how the community engagement piece of culturally responsive teaching begins, in the school and in the teams that compile our schools.
There are many reasons for educators to begin to collaborate with one another. With so many new trends in education being highlighted by districts through professional developments, it is more important now than ever before for educators to count on one another. The reading specialist and classroom teacher have tremendous labor ahead of them. Together, they can truly make a large difference in the educational experience of each child they encounter. The next step is for districts across the country to begin to see the value in intentional collaboration and begin to deliberately separate adequate planning time for educators to collaborate.
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