If you visit Sandy Johnson’s kindergarten classroom at Edison Elementary during reading time, something may seem strange to those accustomed to traditional reading lessons. In one corner of the room, you may find a group of boys clustered around a tablet, reading a text about cars or sports. In another, a group of girls may be reading about ballerinas. In both cases, the lesson being learned is the same; it’s the content and method of delivery that’s different. The same scene is becoming familiar in classrooms across Centralia.
Elementary teachers throughout the district are pioneering new techniques that are designed to improve student engagement in the lessons by presenting them in ways that are relevant to each individual student, rather than by relying on one standard text for everyone. It’s called "choice reading." Students learn together about literacy topics such as inference, for example. They are then tasked with finding examples of inference in texts that they have selected themselves. In theory, the practice helps students stay interested in the lesson longer. A Hispanic boy, for example, may not be interested in a story about ballerinas, however in a standardized text environment, that may be the only choice they have for the lesson. That doesn’t always bring positive results according to Ann Grande, a district instructional coach.
Grande gave a presentation to the district’s Board of Directors in December. It focused on the district’s recent redirection of efforts in early literacy. Her conclusion was that old methods no longer work in 21st century classrooms where students come from many different socio-economic backgrounds. “The good old days of sitting students in neat little rows to learn the same lesson the same way are long gone,” says Grande. Statewide assessment data supports her findings. Centralia has seen mixed results in literacy proficiency in recent years according to the Smarter Balanced assessment used by the state to determine student learning performance. Grande and her team set out to find a solution.
Delegates from each elementary school attended literacy conferences in Spokane and Boston over the summer break. Each conference was an opportunity for staff to collaborate with other teachers and experts in the field, and to become experts themselves. “This opportunity, for the first time in my 36 years in Centralia, made me feel like we are valued in this district as professional teachers,” said Julie Broom (3rd grade, Fords Prairie). Her sentiment was echoed by her colleagues during the board meeting.
The teachers who attended the conferences came back to Centralia to share their newly acquired knowledge with their colleagues, and the practices that were developed during summer meetings were put into practice this fall. Administrators and teachers won’t have to wait for the next round of state assessments to see if their efforts are netting results. The district has invested in tools that give real-time student progress measurements, which will further help create lesson plans for individual students based on their areas of need.
“With these new practices and tools in place, I’m expecting to see a tremendous improvement in literacy growth over the next few years,” said Kristy Vetter, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning. “We have amazing teachers in Centralia and we are going to make whatever investments are necessary to help maximize the benefit our students can receive from their expertise and dedication.”