Program’s goal: Turning students into readers

June 21, 2013

By CHET BAUMGARTNER

According to one estimate, the average person reads several hundred words a day.
Bluffton-Harrison fourth-grade student Mason Schwartz read about 5,500.
Between August 2012 and May 2013, he conquered more than 1,000,000 words as part of the elementary school’s Accelerated Reading program.
Throughout the county, students and teachers in the four public elementary schools reviewed and revived reading programs this school year to deepen and expand students’ abilities to process the words in front of them.
They transformed doorways into book covers and make-believe into real life; both local celebrities and nationally-known authors visited, and teachers constructed students’ vocabulary by dissecting words’ meanings and vowel sounds.
“No matter what program you choose, the people who are implementing them are the most important part of it,” Bluffton-Harrison Elementary Principal Julie Meitzler said. “Our people love the kids, work diligently for the kids and want them to do their very best. It’s the people that make the difference.”
Since August of 2011, all schools have dedicated 90 minutes of their school day to uninterrupted reading time. They don’t schedule guest speakers or convocations during that time; instead, students are reading to themselves, reading to each other, writing about what they’ve read and preparing presentations about books.
Beyond that, though, each school has incorporated unique strategies into the classroom to further develop students’ reading skills.
For instance, Ossian Elementary and Lancaster Central Elementary, both within the Northern Wells district, started using a nationally-known and scientifically researched six-step process to teach students vocabulary at the beginning of the 2011 school year, and they continued using it this year.
The six steps, Ossian Principal Susanne Tieman said, first introduce students to a new word through a description, explanation or example, but then they ask students to restate that word in a way that is “meaningful to them,” the principal said, and construct a picture or graphic representation of that word.
Teachers later weave these new words throughout the year, using specific activities and games to fortify students’ understanding and asking students to discuss those words with others.
“We are wanting students to make progress … not just in their writing, but using context clues — what they know about other words — to learn other words … (and) what it means to know a word,” Tieman said.
Within the Bluffton-Harrison Elementary School, teachers and administrators this year expanded the Accelerated Reading program, which comprehensively tests students on books they read to ensure that students understand the content.
Students who do well enough earn points, which reap rewards like lunch with the principal or a shoe-free day.
Previously, the program only tested students on school books, but the expanded initiative includes many more books, and it has inspired students to read even more, Meitzler said.
Bluffton-Harrison also introduced the Reading BURST program this year for students struggling or at risk of falling behind. The program builds “foundational” reading skills, such as pronouncing short vowels, and it groups students together by their BURST scores and builds their vocabulary and reading skills through cumulative lessons. Students’ progress one day determines their plans for the next, Meitzler said.
At Southern Wells, teachers are adapting a “multisensory approach,” Principal John Purcell said.
For instance, he said, students might write the words “note” and “not” in colored sand to help them visualize and apply the differences in the two words.
Teachers can then show how the letter “o” creates a different sound when the letter “e” is missing.
This upcoming school year, students will also use a program called Audacity to read to themselves, listen to themselves and then correct themselves.
Teachers will also monitor students’ progress with Audacity, and Purcell wants to train teachers to further help students struggling and push students excelling.
Teachers, for example, will help students decipher the “little squiggles on the page” that adults just intuitively know, and when students are struggling, teachers can more precisely diagnose why, even pinpointing what vowel sound or vowel pairing is causing the student trouble.
“We’re developing the teacher’s knowledge of reading,” he said. “It’s a very complex task.”
Teachers and staff don’t just rely on the classroom, though, to help students open a good book.
At Bluffton-Harrison, they also opened doors.
In February, students and teachers decorated their doors with book-related themes to celebrate the school’s inaugural “We Love Reading” month in preparation of Read Across America.
Students and staff at the school were hoping to read 10,000 books by Friday, March 1.
They exceeded the goal.
To provide more motivation, though, students and staff competed to create the best door decorations.
Two groups of judges, adults and students, each designated the best door among the grade levels and among nonclassroom doors.
The judges then each nominated a best overall door from among their earlier choices.
At Lancaster, teachers and students started a new chapter in its Young Authors program, which encourages students to create their own books, after they had to cancel it several years ago due to budget cuts.
“Any way we can excite kids about reading and get books in their hands, that’s the primary goals,” said Lancaster teacher Lyn Rodgers, who coordinated the week’s activities at the school.
Though students didn’t technically leave the school that week, they still attended a Taylor Swift concert and visited Indonesia, and on Thursday of that week, they met a talking penny.
Award-winning author Julia Cook, who has written more than 40 books, particularly encouraged students to keep reading and — perhaps — create books of their own.
Cook visited for the entire school day, meeting with the kindergarten through second-grade students in the morning and the third through fifth-grade students in the afternoon. She answered students’ questions, and she discussed the publishing process.
Through her own books, she introduced her students to Penny, a one-cent coin teased by the other coins because of her worth.
Local author Kayleen Reusser also visited that Tuesday to read from her nonfiction books on Swift and Indonesia, and she returned Friday to read more.
High school students visited their former school to read, and some even read the books they wrote in elementary school.
Finally, Mayor Ted Ellis, Superintendent Scott Mills and Norwell graduate and Colts player Chandler Harnish visited to show that “everyone is a lover of books,” Rodgers said.
Ossian Elementary has continued its Young Authors program through the years, and Cook visited there as well during Young Author’s Day, a “day pretty much dedicated to reading,” Tieman said. Students read to each other and invited parents to participate.
The entire third-grade staff also dressed up as their favorite book characters, from Fancy Nancy to Pippy Longstocking.
“The students loved that,” Tieman said. “They were so excited.”
Southern Wells would like to encourage after-school reading clubs next year, particularly for higher-level students to debate a books’ themes and characters’ decisions and dilemmas, Purcell said.
And the school would like to host family reading nights and invite students, their parents, their siblings and others to come play reading games such as Boggle and Scrabble Junior.
“There are just a bunch of fun games,” Purcell said.
Perhaps they’ll even decide to play them at home, and the reading will continue, he said.
“I know I enjoy playing games with my wife and grown-up kids,” he said. υ

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