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Marie Nitke/FOCUS Cora Hunt, left, and Amber Venzke, swap stories during a Reading Workshop in Ms. Kim Flatau's first grade class at HOTL last Friday.

A new look at literacy in Perham, Minn.

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A new look at literacy in Perham, Minn.
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

At Heart of the Lakes Elementary School in Perham, learning to read looks a lot different than the experience most adults will remember.

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Gone are the days of purely basic, core reading programs. Kids are no longer thought of in terms of 'good' readers or 'bad' readers. They no longer all read one common textbook. And 'silent reading' is not so silent anymore.

The modern approach is a bit more complicated.

Kids today are assessed multiple times per year to determine their reading levels, which go up a very specific scale from A all the way to Z. Every week, they choose guidebooks that exactly match their current reading levels, and read - often aloud - during daily 'reading workshops.'

Then, like adults in a book club, the kids meet in small groups or with peer partners to talk about what they've read and what they've learned from it. They also meet with teachers, who utilize a mix of phonics and individualized materials and instruction to accommodate each student's unique reading needs.

Rather than reading a book once and putting it aside (where it may quickly be forgotten), students today read and re-read their guidebooks, helping them to recognize words and concepts.

Teachers begin each workshop with a "mini-lesson," in which they demonstrate strategies and practices used by strong readers. These mini-lessons are always linked to a high-quality text, which the class examines as a whole.

There are also intensive phonics readings in the earlier grades, interactive read-alouds with teachers, and a "20/20 Challenge" program that keeps kids reading outside of school.

Accelerated Reader, a computerized comprehension tool, is regularly used in many grades. Kindergartners also have Reading Buddies, adult mentors that visit the classroom for one-on-one reading time.

Then there are visits to the library every other day, and book fairs twice a year.

And that's all just for reading. There's a similarly complex learning model for writing, which includes lessons on persuasive and informational writing in addition to the more traditional fiction.

It's all part of what Principal Kari Yates calls a "balanced literacy" program - "a complicated approach of teacher skills, kids' needs and materials."

Literacy is a hot topic at Heart of the Lakes lately.

Yates believes the school uses a good mix of "best practices" in reading instruction; yet students are struggling to meet proficiency levels on standardized tests. The school is currently in 'needs improvement' status under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law because of low reading scores.

School officials and some parents and community members have expressed concern.

While the school is "constantly going back to assessments to guide instruction," said Yates, HOTL's main goal with its literacy program is "to create people who can read and write and think deeply. We want, first and foremost, for our kids to be excited about reading."

"Of course we want our kids to do well on standardized assessments, and as a school we don't want to be in AYP," she added. "But to me, that is not the focus of reading instruction."

AYP stands for Adequate Yearly Progress, a measure of NCLB. The school is considered to be "in AYP" and staff is devising an improvement plan to raise reading scores.

Administrators and teachers are currently examining the existing literacy program to seek out areas that could be adjusted to better meet standards.

In the last two weeks, school staff has participated in two major surveys regarding the literacy program, to help determine what should be protected, and what changes need to be made. They're also currently collecting instruction ideas from other school districts with similar demographics - districts that have consistent success on reading tests.

HOTL's current model for literacy instruction got its start in 2005, kicked off by the introduction of the Literacy Collaborative, or LC. The LC is a research-based instructional framework for the development of language and literacy; schools are able to adopt and practice it on their own.

The LC framework "is more and more prevalent" in schools today, according to Yates, though not necessarily in other schools around the Perham area.

Since first adopting the LC standards six years ago, Heart of the Lakes has taken some of the "best" pieces of those standards and blended them with "other common sense ideas and research about what kids need," said Yates; HOTL staff found that "some things not LC worked better for them and their kids."

The result, said Yates, is that the LC became more of a "hybrid" program at HOTL.

And it's still a work in progress.

"We're trying to find that 'just right' place in reading and writing - not too easy, not too hard," said Yates. "We have to meet kids where they are."

In addition to the teacher surveys and looking at other schools, HOTL staff is analyzing student data.

"We will definitely make adjustments," said Yates. "We have to."

By next fall, Yates said, the school district will have a plan in place to make sure all kids read well by third grade. All school districts in the state will be writing such plans; Minnesota recently implemented a literacy incentive aid program to reward or penalize schools based on test scores of third grade readers.

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