Middle School: A Return to Learning and Literacy Success
by Wendy Farone on July 29, 2020
“We are committed to raising the bar and closing the gap of learning for ALL students; improving the current and future lives of the children we serve” (A. Archer, 2020).
After time away from live classroom instruction and what middle schoolers knew as the “norm,” how can we make the transition back to school easier, to engage students in learning immediately, and to effectively create literacy success for all students?
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect upon what we have accomplished in the past three months! Without warning, many of us have learned to successfully work from home while trying to meet the needs of our families. Not to mention, we are doing all of this on Zoom while our own children are running around, dogs are barking, and the neighbors mowing are drowning out our voices while trying to teach a lesson on syllabication. We have become Zoom masters! We have learned new software, new apps, and new programming platforms. We have built stability in our students who are afraid or unsure. To all of you—I am honored to be your colleague.
The next challenge set before us is how to fully return to instruction. Going back to school under ever-changing circumstances is daunting. We are creating a variety of reopening plans which are trying to meet state requirements of social distancing, masks, hand sanitizer, and bussing. In addition, we are determining where to start, how to continue to be flexible while keeping our main focus on students and learning success. We ask ourselves: What can we put in place to ensure the transition is as calm and focused as possible? The answer is simple—a plan. Consider writing a personal plan of your intentions. Start your plan with one non-negotiable...a moral imperative you feel is essential to your classroom and student success. Many of us have doubts about what the near future holds. However, with a bit of intentional planning, targeted support planning, and open communication, I believe we can step up once again and be the glue that holds all of this together. It is critically important we remember our goals—to teach, to learn, to grow, and to accomplish success in all students!
A moral imperative or statement of purpose can guide us in our work when times are changing or are difficult. It reminds us of why we are here and what we need to do to move forward. It answers the question, “What am I committed to accomplish this year?” Maybe your commitment statement includes continuing to learn more about the science of reading which may include online book studies with colleagues reviewing Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (Kilpatrick, 2015). This can lead to ensuring all of your students are progressing in reading as efficiently and effectively as possible by aligning instruction with science. Another possibility is to create a statement such as, “I commit to ensuring that high-quality, explicit, systematic instruction and interventions are offered to my students” (see Explicit Instruction, Archer & Hughes, 2011-explicitinstruction.org) or “I commit to become focused on student outcomes by being willing and open to evaluate, learn, and advance my present practices.” Pause here and reflect on your statement of purpose.
Students will return with the same struggles and barriers to learning they were experiencing before we had this break in instruction. But now, students are even farther behind. We cannot change lost time. Yet, we can change our approach toward addressing and responding to this lost time. Once we are committed, our statement of purpose has been written, and our goal is set, we should evaluate our present system and our place within it:
- Do we truly have an effective core instruction program which meets the needs of approximately 80 percent of our students?
- Do we offer direct, explicit instruction in the core and supplemental materials as well as intervention?
- Do we have fidelity to the programming we do use?
- Have our teachers been properly trained in the programs we are using?
- Have we offered professional development in the science of reading to ensure all students have the best opportunity to “catch up?” Offerings such as LETRS® (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) have been the turning point for many professionals in truly understanding the science of reading.
With your commitment and focus, we can gather as professionals to develop a plan. This is all new territory and we cannot fit the old model into this new situation. This may be just the nudge we needed to make critical change. These changes in me, my colleagues, my school, and my district can occur to move us forward in ensuring all students are readers.
Let’s tip our hats to the parents who have stepped up to this challenge! Parent engagement has become critical to ensure students remain responsible for learning online. Katy Bowman (2020), John Hopkins University states, “Students’ academic growth, or the learning loss they encounter during many months away from school depends on a number of factors, including access to technology, resources, nutrition, and parental and teacher support.” Those students who had the benefit of these things will be farther ahead. Unfortunately, some students have some of these risk factors with them when they return. We will continue to need parental engagement and a plan to continue in collaboration.
It is important we evaluate our students in their present learning as they return to school. For those who struggled prior to the closing, we can administer diagnostic skill assessments such as the PAST (Phonological Assessment Skills Test, Kilpatrick ), a phonics screener/spelling inventory (e.g. Really Great Reading-adolescent version), oral reading fluency passages, a comprehension measure, and a writing sample to determine areas of needed support. Leveraging these assessments can help to guide our instruction, especially for students in need of intervention. Do we have data team meetings to discuss programming and intervention? Do we have interventions to meet those needs? Are we monitoring our progress in meeting the needs of all of our students?
Whether we are live, hybrid, or online, we are empowered to continue this commitment to literacy for our middle school students. Our students need us to create stability, engagement, and learning that makes a difference in their lives—now more than ever. We accomplish this by creating a plan and a commitment. Through purposeful planning, commitment, creation of support for teachers and students in plan implementation, and reworking strategies when the plan is faltering, we can create an effective and efficient, science-aligned system of literacy for ALL students. The time is ripe for purposeful change as we see the incredible innovation and intentional work of educators and schools across our country. Let’s build on this momentum!
Archer, Anita L., (2020) Pennsylvania Literacy Symposium. Archer, Anita L. & Hughes, Charles A., (2011). Explicit Instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. NY: The Guilford Press (see also www.explicitinstruction.org for instructional videos).
Bowman, Katy;, (2020) Predicting and mitigating the knowledge gaps caused by COVID-19 (phys.org/news/2020-06-mitigating-knowledge-gaps-covid-html).
Kilpatrick, David., (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, NJ: Wiley.
Kilpatrick, David., (2016). Available at thepasttest.com (free!)
Really Great Reading Complimentary Assessments, Advanced Decoding Survey Plus. Available at reallygreatreading.com (free!)
Wendy S. Farone, Ph.D.
Wendy S. Farone, Ph.D., is an educational consultant with the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN)/Bureau of Special Education/PA Department of Education in Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. Farone serves as the Western Pennsylvania state lead in literacy. Her current projects include Response to Intervention (RtI), PA State Dyslexia Pilot, Pennsylvania State Systemic Improvement Plan (SSIP). Dr. Farone also is a national LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) trainer, a certified Orton-Gillingham tutor, and DIBELS® mentor. Before joining PaTTAN, Dr. Farone spent 14 years as a public school teacher, reading specialist, and private tutor.