Teachers put their literacy training to work at Taylor Elementary

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Es tiempo de limpiar y regresar a sus mesas,” said Carolena Lescano as she called the attention of the 26 2nd-graders in her dual-language classroom at Bayard Taylor Elementary School in North Philadelphia. Then in English: “It’s time to clean up and return to your tables.”

It was the last few minutes of guided reading time. Near the windows, Eli, Fernando, and Jacqueline were lost in their headphones listening to stories on the site Raz-Kids. Stretched out on the carpet, a handful of students independently paged through picture books.

In the center of the room, Randy and Jeremy, one of five pairs, switched between English and Spanish as they used colorful magnetic letters to spell out “high-frequency,” or common vocabulary words at the “word work” center. Nearby, four upturned faces hung on to every word as Lescano read El Papalote by Alma Flor Ada, a story about a mother who passes on a family tradition of kite-making to her children. “¿Cual es esta palabra?” Lescano asked Yasarie, a girl with dark shoulder-length hair in the group. “What’s this word?”

“¿Que sonido hacer esta letra? What sound does this letter make?” she asked, pointing to words on the page. The teacher continued around the circle like this, asking Maria, then Ingrid, and then Anelis, who all read at a 1st-grade level, to pronounce words and read sentences until they covered each page of El Papalote. The girls were learning that strong readers self-monitor their understanding by stopping to ask questions while reading.

When guided reading time was officially over, students scrambled back to their seats. “Dame un abrazo,” some said as they hugged each other. A few students settled for high-fives. Before long, they were quietly awaiting Lescano’s directions for their seven-minute exercise break.

As random as it might seem, the scene in Lescano’s classroom is carefully scripted, part of Philadelphia’s renewed effort to make sure that all children can read proficiently by the time they leave 3rd grade. Over the summer, the District held a weeklong early literacy institute for K-3 teachers from the District’s lowest-performing schools. Nineteen of Taylor’s 26 K-3 teachers were among about 700 who attended the training, which was grant-funded as part of the city’s READ! by 4th campaign.

The goal is for children to spend more time practicing “authentic reading and writing” while freeing up the teacher to spend more time with individual students and smaller groups, explained Sara Lazrow, Taylor’s early literacy specialist. That approach is known as “balanced literacy,” and it allows instruction to meet the needs of all students, despite the disparate reading levels in one classroom.

“We’ve adopted the District’s balanced literacy framework and we’ve adopted the Children’s Literacy Initiatives’ (CLI) best practices,” said David Laver, now in his second year as Taylor’s principal.

CLI, which has promoted best practices for teaching young children to read since 1988 in Philadelphia and elsewhere, is working with Taylor to make instruction consistent across classrooms.

“A lot of teachers were doing great things, but everybody was doing their own thing to a large extent,” said Laver. Significantly, most teachers did not break down their classes into small groups so students could get more focused attention.

Helping teachers like Lescano do this effectively is Lazrow’s main job. She coaches Taylor’s K-3 teachers through CLI in partnership with the District and tries to see each teacher at least twice over a three-week period.

Throughout classrooms in Taylor’s main building and annex, balanced literacy was in evidence. In Samantha Cafaro’s morning literacy block, she led a whole-group activity around “word families” with her 2nd graders. Students raised their hands to volunteer “family” words, meaning words that are related, for example, because they end with “-an,” “-en,” “-in,” or “-un.”

Subsequently, students dispersed around the room into small, differentiated groups. They organized words into word families at their desks, put together word parts using Legos, or picked among the color-coded books to reach their independent reading goals.

In Cheryl Veney’s 1st-grade classroom, students read in pairs. Under this model, the two students switched between the role of coach and reader.

This independent reading was also mirrored in Nicole Molino’s 3rd-grade classroom.

“I like to read with others so I don’t get bored and I understand the book better,” said 3rd grader Seinnel Cruz, who read a book titled Animals of the High Mountains by Judith E. Rinard with a classmate.

With a grant from United Way, Taylor implemented a 100-Book Challenge this year, through the American Reading Co., which supplied leveled libraries to all K-3 teachers who attended the District’s summer institute.

“We adopted the 100-Book Challenge because students in one classroom may be on different reading levels,” said Leah Perucci, Taylor’s school-based teacher leader. “The challenge allows students to read on their independent level based on a book’s color band, and as students’ skills go up, they change color bands. It allows teachers to set power goals, and pretty soon all students will know these goals.”

As part of the challenge, Christian, a 3rd-grader at Taylor, reads on level 1-Red, equivalent to 2nd grade. To make it to the White level, which represents where he needs to be for 3rd grade, Christian must meet his goal of decoding three-syllable words, said Lazrow.

To meet such goals, students spend at least 30 minutes a day reading and practicing their skills in school and at home.

In addition to the schoolwide shift to balanced literacy and the 100-Book Challenge, teachers at Taylor have physically altered their classrooms to establish a student-centered classroom culture.

“Coming out of the summer training, the focus of my coaching at the beginning of the year was the physical environment,” said Lazrow. “Teachers needed a lot of support with that. The physical environment includes setting up basic classroom procedures, teaching children around the classroom culture, and making sure small-group and large-group areas exist.”

In keeping with student-centered spaces, no K-3 classroom at Taylor has a teacher’s desk. Students handcrafted all the alphabet charts on the walls. The colorful posters that catalogue classroom rules and procedures are living community documents – students build on them as the year progresses.

“Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible,” was a phrase that appeared on a bulletin board in every room, accompanied by a list of student-friendly action steps to help them meet these class culture goals.

“I like to have responsibility in class,” said 9-year-old Louis Duprey. He explained: “That can mean that I only interrupt the class if I have an emergency.”

Veney established her classroom culture around the book I Like Being Me, by Judy Lalli. “I’m so glad they introduced it to me at the training this summer,” she said.

“The poems in the book give my students ideas they can relate to, and I’ve formed a community in my classroom because of it," she added. "They talk about their feelings and they learn about the feelings of others. This goes a long way with management and the learning process. Not much teaching can go on without this kind of community.”

This strong sense of community is also what kept the doors at Taylor open in 2013, when the District attempted to shutter the school for low performance on standardized tests.

The school’s 2013-14 progress report shows that 20.5 percent of 3rd graders scored proficient or advanced on the PSSA, compared to the District’s 41 percent average. The results were similar in grade 4 with 20.3 percent of students at Taylor meeting proficiency, compared to 41 percent in the District.

“Our biggest challenge is our very large ELL [English language learner] population,” said Laver, the principal. “This is a Latino community, so a lot of students are coming from homes where English is not the primary language. They don’t have that base when they get to us in kindergarten. A lot of them don’t have that literacy foundation in either language.”

Taylor is located among rowhomes adorned with Puerto Rican flags and Latino establishments like Ashley’s Dominican Beauty Salon, Diaz’s food market and Iglesia Evangelica Bautistia. Students at Taylor are a part of this culture.

Three-quarters of students identify as Latino, and 19 percent identify as Black, with the remainder identifying as Asian or "Other." All of the school’s students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

“It’s great that we allow them to use their first language to learn,” said Lescano. “It gets challenging, because I have a lot of kids with strong literacy skills to begin with, but I also have kids who are very low because they have low background knowledge. This is a 2nd-grade classroom and a lot of them are reading at a kindergarten level.”

Veney, the 1st-grade teacher, saw similar patterns in her classroom. Of her 20 students, she said, “I have five on grade level, which is a level J in the leveled library. The rest are on the yellow levels, levels A and B for pre-K.”

To address students who are far below proficiency, teachers regularly use AIMSweb, a screening and progress monitoring system, to track student reading levels throughout the school year.

“We have a lot of challenges,” said principal Laver. “We are working with parents and the community, and with these new implementations, we are moving in the right direction."

Fabiola Cineas’ coverage of early literacy in the Notebook is supported by funds from the Free Library of Philadelphia.