'Each One Teach One'

This Denver program is tackling the literacy gap. Trump’s budget proposal puts it at risk.

Greenwood students Ja'zione and Arinze practice spelling the word "possessions" at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Photo by Marissa Page)

School has been out for weeks at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Montbello, but on a recent weekday morning three students sit around a table littered with neon-hued notecards and richly illustrated books. They listen attentively as longtime Denver Public Schools teacher Mary Ann Bash leads a lesson on “Ubiquitous,” a picture book about ancient organisms.

“What’s the oldest life form?” Bash asks.

The table is silent for a moment. Then one student, a soon-to-be fifth grader named Marissa, lights up. “Bacteria!” she shouts. And she’s right.

“She learned that from a book in 3rd grade,” Bash said. “They don’t forget anything they’ve learned here.”

This level of comprehension is exactly the objective of Each One Teach One, an after-school and summer program Bash created a decade ago to narrow the 30-million-word literacy gap for low-income students and students learning English throughout Denver. Now, all that is at risk as the federal program that is the main funding source for Each One Teach One and programs like it nationwide will be cut if the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget passes in its current form.

Already, Each One Teach One is coping with budget problems. Its initial five-year federal grant expired at the end of April, and the U.S. Department of Education denied the program’s application for a waiver that would have extended funding for another year. As a result, Bash said she had to cap summer enrollment — and will not be able to run after-school programming for the 2017-18 school year.

Bash said the federal grant funded 51 percent of Each One Teach One in previous summers, which was supplemented this year with a combination of private funding and DPS support.

All of the after-school programming, which includes a horticulture club, biking club, literacy service and English classes for parents learning the language, was federally funded. Bash said Each One Teach One’s after-school program will cease to exist unless it can find an alternate funding source.

The program, which combines intensive literacy training with hands-on activities such as art, gardening and biking, started in 2007 at College View Elementary in southwest Denver. Variations on the program have since run in seven schools, and Each One Teach One has operated at Greenwood in the primarily Latino Montbello neighborhood for the past eight years. The summer program runs mornings through the end of June.

Each One Teach One also includes instruction for parents for whom English is not their first language. Some of these parents in turn teach sections of the program’s classes in Spanish and English.

Students work in small groups of up to five, diving into thick picture books rife with illustrations. As they learn new vocabulary words, many based off the drawings and not solely found in the text, they practice spelling and use. Once they’ve learned a word, they write them on color-coded index cards — “keys to the future,” as Bash calls them — and carry them on lanyards.

Bash said she writes all of Each One Teach One’s curriculum and selects the books, which explore themes of the natural world and “giving back to your community.”

“We’ll talk about a word in the book like tendrils, and then we’ll go out into the garden and see what a tendril actually looks like,” said Micheala Carbonneau, a first grade teacher at Oakland Elementary and first-time Each One Teach One instructor. “It goes beyond the book’s vocabulary… They actually experience these words in a meaningful way.”

Closing the literacy gap for students learning English takes a lot of time and individualized attention. According to data from the 2014-16 school years, 58 percent of Each One Teach One participants narrowed the 30-million-word gap, which is believed to increase over time without rigorous instruction.

“The gap gets bigger and bigger for students that had less of this rich oral learning,” Bash said. “When they don’t have that, they don’t get as much out of their classroom instruction, and then they go home and don’t get it reinforced and the gap just gets bigger.”

Good reads

How one Nashville school uses classic novels to get young students ahead in reading

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Second-grade students read The Magician's Nephew at Nashville Classical Charter School.

For John Little, the hardest part about reading The Magician’s Nephew as a second-grader wasn’t the book’s mid-century British vocabulary, or the fact that the C.S. Lewis classic is on a fifth-grade reading level.

It was the temptation to read ahead of his classmates at Nashville Classical Charter School.

“That would spoil it!” said the 8-year-old, referring to daily group book discussions that he enjoyed last spring at his K-5 school.

At Nashville Classical, reading the classics is foundational to the school’s philosophy on learning to read — and reading to learn.

“For us, it’s important for students to be reading across a variety of genres, a variety of cultures, for students to be reading across a variety of times,” said Charlie Friedman, the school’s founder and leader.

Magician’s Nephew is a really wonderful book,” he added, “because it’s full of all of these phrases that are sort of mid-century British phrases, and it forces students to step out of our time, culture and place and read something that really opens doors and windows to them.”

Nashville Classical was borne out of concern that 75 percent of its neighborhood public school students were behind in reading. Friedman and community activists partnered with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2012 to open the charter school with literacy proficiency at its core. It now has about 375 students.

While the world is changing quickly, Nashville Classical leaders believe that reading the classics is one of the best ways to prepare for college and career. Such texts are challenging to students and build their knowledge about geography, history and culture, they say.

The idea is that learning to read goes beyond sounding out words; it’s also about learning about different people, places, and ideas.

But that mindset also has critics. Much of classic literature lacks racial and gender diversity to the point that it’s sometimes characterized as stories about “dead white men,” especially concerning for a school that serves mostly minority students from low-income families.

Friedman says teachers at Nashville Classical draw from a deep well of texts and resources and strive to make the material relevant to their students.

“We really think about it more as stories and ideas that have stood the test of time and those come from a variety of cultures,” he said. “We think it’s really important that our canon represents our students. At the same time, we think that text selection should be a mirror and a window.”

During the first half of the school year, John’s second-grade class used the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was briefly used district-wide in Nashville more than a decade ago before being scrapped because it didn’t align to state tests at the time. The curriculum was designed by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch to address “knowledge gaps,” a challenge that can be particularly acute for low-income children who have less access at home to books and other enriching activities. The second half of the year focused on reading and discussing novels such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Boxcar Children series and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The novels for second-graders are selected to be enjoyable reads, but also to introduce students to cultural vocabulary that they might not encounter elsewhere, as well as geographical landmarks far from Tennessee, like Central Park in New York City.

Students are broken into groups based on how well they can do things like read aloud, write out their answers, or read to themselves. To an outside observer, it’s unclear how the students are grouped, or which groups are more advanced, but it’s based on scores from a literacy assessment designed for urban educators by the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Cucci reads "The Magician's Nephew," by C.S. Lewis, to second grade students at Nashville Classical Charter School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

In John’s group with teacher Kathleen Cucci, students took turns reading aloud to one another, and were urged to read with expression.

“We believe really deeply in the power of reading aloud,” Friedman said. “It’s an opportunity to model joy, and to model reading as a social activity, which is really important to us.”

In another group, teacher Emma Colonna read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to students who were struggling to comprehend the material after reading it silently to themselves. Then they talk together about what happened.

Still another group was free that day to pick out their own books from nearly 500 volumes in bins lining a classroom wall.

“The purpose is giving autonomy and choice over what they read, and letting them read their favorite authors or series about their favorite topics,” Friedman said. “Reading for pleasure is how you develop that lifelong love for reading.”

Reading, especially in the early grades, is a statewide focus in Tennessee. State tests show that more than half of third- and fourth-graders are behind on reading skills. And on the most recent test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

But the state is also making strategic investments through Ready to be Ready, an initiative launched last year through the State Department of Education that highlights many techniques already in use at Nashville Classical. Those include an emphasis on reading aloud and picking material that’s fun for students to read. The goal is to get 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Recognized as an exceptional reader, John Little was part of last year’s kickoff event for Read to be Ready. He even read a story to the crowd, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

On average, Nashville Classical students score better than 77 percent of students nationwide on the NWEA/MAP reading test required in many Tennessee districts. And according to to the STEP assessment designed by the University of Chicago, 91 percent of the school’s students read at or above grade level.

The school has some advantages over other Tennessee public schools. Parents have bought into the model and chosen to send their children to the charter school. While about 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and about 80 percent are of color, many families who are white and middle income are also choosing Nashville Classical, making it one of the most diverse schools in rapidly gentrifying East Nashville.

Eventually, the school is slated to expand to the eighth grade. And as it grows, literacy, with a focus on canonical novels, will be at its core, says Friedman. Next school year, all Nashville Classical students will take a daily “Great Books” class modeled after the reading discussions in John’s class.

“We want to push a love of reading from the moment they enter kindergarten,” said Colonna. “It’s not something you ever teach explicitly. It’s something we try to have as our culture.”

First Person

When my students got aggressive, my school agreed to help. Here’s how we changed a class reputation

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Certain students arrive in your classroom with a reputation.

I work at school in Southwest Denver where more than 90 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and my current group of fourth-graders were known as quite the handful — to put it mildly — when they arrived at the beginning of the year.

In the first few weeks of school, a couple of things became abundantly clear. One was that this class was unlike any other I had ever taught, but not for the negative reasons that were advertised.

Were the students physically and verbally aggressive at times? Yes. Was that concerning? Absolutely. But at the same time, they were (and are) amazing and resilient. As I learned more about them, I saw that many of them they had been through more in their nine or 10 years than I have in nearly 30. That gave me hope.

I laid awake at night trying to figure out what to do. It was obvious that, to succeed in class, they needed something different, and it was my job to provide that something.

The root cause of their behavior issues seemed obvious: trauma. Many of my students were dealing with a lot at home, from incarceration to proximity to physical and verbal abuse. But, I realized, no one had taken the time to teach these students concrete strategies for coping with the stressful situations they faced in and outside of school. How could we blame them for their behavior when we hadn’t given them the tools to succeed?

I spoke with my administration about taking the time to teach true social-emotional skills to my students, not just character traits. I was lucky: within weeks, my vice principal provided me access to a curriculum called Second Step. It begins by teaching kids how to identify strong emotions. Then, students come up with a “stop signal” that they can use as a reminder to use strategies that help them calm down.

There are lessons on deep breathing and positive self-talk, and it also walks students through steps for problem-solving: say the problem without blame, think of solutions, explore consequences, and pick the best solution.

As soon as I began using the curriculum, I saw and felt an immediate difference in my classroom. The environment became upbeat because my students felt empowered.

A moment I will never forget took place a few days after a lesson on compassion. The situation involved one of my best students, a charismatic and deeply kind boy who also struggles with anger and impulse control.

That day, my student found himself without a partner to play a game with when he had finished his independent math work. I watched his anger rise, and braced myself for his reaction, which in the past sometimes involved knocking things over or kicking classroom furniture. To my surprise, he stormed over to the door, sat down, and started taking deep breaths.

It didn’t stop there. His entire math group, about five kids, approached him. Soon after their conversation ended, he came over to me with a huge smile on his face and said, “Miss! A whole group of kids just showed me compassion. They saw I was upset and invited me to play the game with them.”

This story is just one of many that occurred throughout the year, none of which would have been possible if I hadn’t taken the time to focus on what truly mattered.

As educators, we face a daily battle of being pulled in every direction; the feeling that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that we want to do for our students. I understand the feeling that sometimes there just isn’t the time or the resources to do something extra.

But the combination of a curriculum that made sense for my students and a supportive administration willing to trust that teaching social-emotional skills would pay huge dividends is why I was able to do this work. For that I will be forever grateful, because taking the time to teach concrete coping skills changed my classroom, my students, and me for the better.

Emily Taets is a fourth grade teacher at Gust Elementary School and a 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellow.