Grant-funded Collaboration Impacts Literacy Education
By Robert Schroeder
Hillary Clinton made famous the proverb "It takes a village to raise a child."
When it comes to teaching literacy, National Louis University's Dr. Susan McMahon and Roberta Buhle say it takes an entire school to teach a child to read.
Their Whole School Literacy Collaboration (WSLC) is the outgrowth of more than a decade of prepping and pushing literacy educators in Chicago Public Schools.
In 2000, Chicago Community Trust invested grant funding in National Louis University and other Chicago institutions to reverse declining literacy rates. National Louis University's Reading Center launched the Advanced Reading Development Demonstration Project (ARDDP), which grew into the Chicago Literacy Initiative Partnership (CLIP).
After ten years, only National Louis University and the University of Illinois-Chicago earned new grant funding from Chicago Community Trust to continue the project as the WSLC. The new collaboration represents best practices from ARDDP and CLIP and provides comprehensive curriculum investigation and assessment of school infrastructure.
"Over time, patterns and themes started emerging of what was common, and the work we're doing now with WSLC is bringing those themes together," said. Dr. Susan McMahon, professor in the National College of Education and co-director of WSLC at National Louis.
The collaboration's biggest push is to establish shared leadership models in schools. McMahon and fellow co-director Roberta Buhle, adjunct faculty at National Louis University, believe that without buy-in and a sense of responsibility from every level of administration in a school, the curriculum aspects they aim to impact will not be reached.
"Even more important than the strategy that you teach in class is the organization of the school in which those strategies are enacted," Buhle said. "Does it support a teacher who is doing something that is not in the teacher's guide, but she has learned that the children need?"
McMahon and Buhle are working both within the confines of standardized practices to give teachers wiggle room for innovation. They promote the use of an assessment wall, a purely formative assessment in which each student is noted by a card or a pocket on a wall, and a teacher can track the progress of each student across the chart of cards or pockets. In addition, McMahon is working on a set of assessments that go beyond standardized test data and provide teachers with insights into how each individual student is managing their learning.
On a human capital level, McMahon and Buhle advocate for each school to use literacy coaches and to train teachers across grade levels to create effective, cohesive literacy units. While individual teachers may be skilled in literacy, working in an environment of differing tactics and procedures can bog down literacy education.
"There are competing tensions in schools, and teachers are expected to do everything better," McMahon said. "The challenge is, once they leave our classroom and go to their school sites, it is really difficult to implement."
Currently, the WSLC works with individual schools within CPS. Buhle and McMahon hope the program can expand into an entire district in which administrators have identified what support each individual school needs. Buhle envisions a day when districts utilize their own evaluation systems to identify when they need literacy programming like WSLC.
"Working with individual teachers is not enough anymore; even working with individual schools is not enough anymore," Buhle said. "When you look at all that we have learned, all these layers need to be in agreement that they are looking for reform."