K-3 teachers spend week learning literacy strategies

About 800 teachers attended the training, which promotes the District's goal of all children reading proficiently by 4th grade.

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

School has only been out for a week, but teachers are already back in the classrooms. This time, however, the teachers are in the role of students, sitting in desk chairs, raising their hands, and learning from one another.

These teachers are taking part in the Early Literacy Summer Institute, a weeklong program sponsored by the School District that is designed to give K-3 teachers, special education teachers, and teachers of English language learners the skills they need to teach reading and literacy most effectively. About 800 teachers from 53 schools attended this year’s program, being held June 27-July 1 at Samuel Fels High School.

“Our most important resource is our teachers,” said Diane Castelbuono, the School District’s deputy chief of early childhood education. “This is all about investing back in our teachers.”

This mission – to give teachers the training and support they need to help students – provided the framework for the activities throughout the week. Each day, teachers participated in different sessions that gave them strategies toward specific goals. They included helping students to write, working with ELL students, strategies for promoting independent reading, and engaging families in children’s literacy development.

The Institute, funded by the William Penn Foundation, the Lenfest Foundation, and the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, is part of a citywide push to get students to read on grade-level by 4th grade. Known as READ! by 4th, the campaign stresses that students who are reading by 4th grade are more likely to stay on track throughout their academic career, including graduating high school, and even later on in life.

Students who don’t reach this benchmark are far less likely to have a successful academic career and graduate.

In Philadelphia, where poverty, among other things, poses a challenge to academic success, the benefits associated with literacy offer a brighter path.

“Education has to be the pathway to opportunity,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, who was the keynote speaker at the institute on Wednesday.

Noguera was one of five keynote speakers this week. The others were Susan Neuman, Nelson Flores, Carol Jago, and Karen Mapp. Each approached the topic of literacy from a different perspective. Neuman is an educator and former U.S. assistant secretary of secondary and elementary education. Flores is an assistant professor in the educational linguistics division of the University of Pennsylvania, and spoke about bilingual students on Tuesday. Carol Jago is the former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, and Karen Mapp is the faculty director of the Education Policy and Management Master’s Program at Harvard University.

Noguera discussed some of the challenges that schools across the country face and offered ideas about the type of environment that students need in order to thrive. He also stressed the importance of building support and placed it within the context of reducing inequity.

“Poverty is not a learning disability,” Noguera said.

For many teachers in the audience, this message struck a chord.

“[Noguera] really seemed to be in touch with what was going on in Philly,” said Catherine Memmolo, an English language arts teacher at Kirkbride Elementary School. “I think everybody needed to hear that.”

Memmolo, who has been working in Philadelphia schools for 14 years, then attended the session on how to develop writers among the youngest students. Carol Roth, a former teacher, guided participants through different steps involved in teaching writing to K-3 students. First, they observe what the teacher does, then they help, and finally they write on their own. Teachers also worked in groups to discuss a sample of a student’s work for each grade level from kindergarten to 3rd grade.

The Institute sent teachers home with new resources, skills, and the ultimate prize: books for their classrooms for “leveled” libraries. These classroom collections include books that are color-coded for different reading levels. They support the instructional strategy of meeting students where they are; the children know which books they can handle and they have an incentive to move up to the next level.

Gregory Sacharok, a 1st-grade teacher at Nebinger Elementary School said the books were an incentive to attend.

In addition to a leveled library for K-3 classrooms, each school whose eligible teachers successfully complete the weeklong program also receive a literacy coach.

Many teachers said that they valued the opportunity to work with other schools this week and that they recognize that how they use their new training will prove to be most important.

“I think we all kind of have a mutual feeling about learning in general and taking something home with you,” said Devonie Upchurch, a kindergarten teacher at Carnell. “It could just even be something small that somebody does in their class that’s more effective than something that you do in yours that helps with the students or makes something that you do more effective.”