The Wisconsin Idea In Action
Literacy by the Lakes helps educators across the state
open a world of possibilities for their students
The Wisconsin Idea is front-and-center in many discussions about the value of UW–Madison and its importance to the state and beyond.
But this general principle that education should influence people’s lives outside the limits of the classroom is much more than words on a page. The Wisconsin Idea is embedded in the DNA of this world-class institution.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a farmer or an engineer, a nurse or a teacher, faculty members at this university are connecting with people across the state so we can work together and share ideas to make Wisconsin an even better place,” says School of Education Professor Mary Louise Gomez. “Literacy by the Lakes is an effort I’m very proud to be a part of because it’s an outstanding example of the Wisconsin Idea in action.”
Many participating in this new initiative led by UW– Madison literacy education experts Gay Ivey, Dawnene Hassett, Catherine Compton-Lilly and Gomez echoed those sentiments. All four are faculty members with the School of Education’s No. 1-ranked Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
Literacy by the Lakes kicked off Aug. 17-19 with a three-day conference at the Fluno Center on the UW–Madison campus and was attended by 120 educators from 18 school districts across the state. The initiative, made possible thanks to generous support from alumni John and Tashia Morgridge, is built on the premise that we must direct attention to supporting children and youth in developing and sustaining literate lives.
Participants in Literacy by the Lakes note a range of ways in which this program is both valuable and unique. First, educators signed up and attended the conference as school-based teams — which included at least one administrator or instructional leader.
“This was important because after working with educators here on campus we knew we were sending a team back to a school where they could work together to implement what they are learning,” says Hassett, an associate professor. “This was also significant because we knew the educators would have the buy-in of the administration or instructional leaders to try new things.”
In addition, educators who committed to Literacy by the Lakes didn’t have imperatives thrust upon them. Instead, participants were asked in advance of the conference to highlight literacy areas of interest and goals they wanted to aim for. Breakout sessions and afternoon planning meetings during the conference then provided conversation across and within groups for reflection, planning and curricular design.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Literacy by the Lakes is the fact that educators who attended the three-day conference are receiving ongoing support over the course of the 2016–17 academic year from the team of UW– Madison literacy experts. This backing not only includes instructional and professional development materials, but on-site visits from School of Education professors and their graduate students in an effort to build stronger relationships between UW–Madison and school districts around Wisconsin.
“I love the fact that it wasn’t simply a three-day training opportunity and they then sent you on our way to implement changes on our own,” says Thomas Ellenbecker, the principal at Mishicot High School, which is located near the shores of Lake Michigan, about 150 miles northeast of Madison. “The fact that they are willing to meet with us over four additional days this school year means they care about our success and truly want to see us succeed.”
Compton-Lilly — a professor who visited each of the schools she is working with, including Mishicot High School, two times during the fall semester and will head out two more times in 2017 — stresses that this is a “long-term commitment and we are building relationships.”
Adds Compton-Lilly: “We are listening to the teachers and hearing what literacy issues they want to explore. It’s not like we have a menu of items the educators can choose from. So we are creating communities of inquiry where we’re centering our literacy efforts around the needs and ideas of educators in the classroom.”
A ‘bridge’ connecting UW-Madison to literacy resources schools need
Ensuring that children learn the skills and strategies associated with literacy should be a shared goal of families, teachers, school administrators, teacher educators and policymakers, says Ivey, who is UW–Madison’s Tashia F. Morgridge Professor of Reading Education.
But during this era of high-stakes standardized testing, an increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and growing efforts to make sure K-12 schools are preparing students for “career readiness,” the value of quality literacy education can sometimes get overlooked.
“To ignore literacy education or have it take a back seat to what we perceive as being more important to securing a stronger economic future is extremely shortsighted,” says Ivey, who was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in July 2016. “I’m less interested in finding ways to produce higher test scores and more interested in using reading as a tool for helping students make sense of their lives, each other and the world.”
Educators participating in Literacy by the Lakes have generally focused their efforts on learning more about: reading and writing in ways that are engaging for students; creating dialogue in classrooms as a way to bolster literacy learning, and intellectual and relational growth; writing and drawing interactively from complex texts; exploring ways in which innovation, imagination and play are essential to literacy success and literate practice; and how equitable literacy practices are essential to building a just society.
The ongoing support to educators provided by the UW–Madison faculty members and graduate students has included everything from delivering literacy professional development around these topics to providing highly engaging books and reading materials to K–12 schools via funding provided by the Morgridges. The Literacy by the Lakes team has also connected educators to the wonderful resources available through the Cooperative Children’s Book Center within the School of Education, and provided free tickets to on-campus book talks for partner educators.
“I think of myself not so much as an educator telling teachers what to do but as a bridge to these districts that can link our partners to what they need,” says Gomez.
As just one example of a recent Literacy by the Lakes outreach effort, during the fall semester Ivey visited East Elementary School in Jefferson, Wis., which is located about 35 miles east of the UW–Madison campus. At the request of the East Elementary team that attended the Literacy by the Lakes conference, Ivey and UW–Madison doctoral candidate Erin Quast delivered a literacy workshop for all the teachers at the school.
While most educators are aware of different ways to teach reading skills, the teachers in Jefferson wanted to learn more about strategies that would most increase student motivation and enthusiasm for reading. The Jefferson teachers were also looking for coaching and modeling around the topic of “classroom talk around books,” with the goal of producing more engaged readers.
In this regard, Ivey mentors educators on how to prioritize engaged reading, instead of specific, assigned readings. As a resource, Ivey brought 15 highly reviewed children’s books to the workshop, leaving them with the East teachers so they could use the publications in their classrooms.
Ivey explains that when students are exploring their own reasons for reading and are really engaged with a text, they not only develop competence as a reader but engaged reading also has intellectual, social and emotional consequences that are linked to the development of the whole person.
When asked why these literacy efforts are so important, Jefferson’s district-wide Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Barb Johnson, notes that research has shown a key indicator of a person’s school success is linked to whether or not a student can read — and understand what he or she reads — by the end of third grade.
“Teaching someone to read opens up a world of possibilities,” says Johnson. “If you can read, you can learn to do anything.”
At the end of the workshop she led in Jefferson, Ivey says that one of the Literacy by the Lakes participants shared with the entire East Elementary faculty how she had already implemented what she learned at the institute. This teacher also noted that she was seeing her kids read and talk about books more, and more excitedly, than ever before.
“She is truly amazed by it, and I could see that her enthusiasm was contagious,” says Ivey.
The UW–Madison faculty members involved with Literacy by the Lakes all shared similar success stories.
“I must have been thanked 50 times during the course of the conference,” says Gomez. “It was so heartwarming I was just walking around for days smiling.”
Ivey is hopeful that the Literacy by the Lakes initiative can one day be used as a model for how universities can be of service to children, teachers and schools.
“Literacy is how we learn,” says Ellenbecker, the principal at Mishicot High School who called Literacy by the Lakes one of the best professional development opportunities he has ever been a part of. “It is impossible to teach our students everything that they will need to know in order to be productive members of society. Therefore, we need to teach them how to learn new skills and concepts that may be important after high school. Literacy is how we do that.”