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Early literacy is top priority with two local counties in Southeast Michigan

Eastern Michigan University Professor Cathy Fleischer is one of the university partners that is working with SOEL participants to strengthen their knowledge of literacy instructional methods.

They leap over obstacles, tackle tough tasks, and use their knowledge-power to change outcomes. These modern day super heroes aren’t in Gotham City, they’re in the classroom, tackling the challenges of improving literacy in our youngest learners. Once a month a core group of educators from Washtenaw and Livingston counties meet for the Study of Early Literacy (SOEL), a long-term professional development that is arming them with new approaches to transform the way they teach literacy. Washtenaw and Livingston counties’ Literacy Instructional Coordinator, Melissa Brooks-Yip, oversees SOEL and, based on current information, she said the time has come to aggressively bolster literacy.
“Studies and educational initiatives aimed at early childhood education all point toward an achievement gap in literacy, with low literacy levels being used as predictors of high school drop-outs and incarceration rates,” she says. “The Study of Early Literacy began in an effort to prepare teachers to not only teach students to learn to read, but to read to learn from the start of their literacy journey.”
Brooks-Yip structured SOEL to focus on an approach to teacher professional development (preschool through grade three) that empowers and leverages teacher knowledge and everyday experiences working with students. Currently there are 40 educators from 10 school districts participating in SOEL.
“Meaningful improvement in teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge happens through education, not training,” Brooks-Yip explains.  “We are setting the stage for deep, collaborative learning over time, to empower teachers with their own knowledge of content, best practices and instructional decision making skills. This confidence building helps teachers become adaptive to their student’s needs and are better able to provide authentic learning experiences for their students, rather than following a script written by someone outside of their classroom. Effective teachers, matter much more than materials, or programs.”

During the first year of SOEL the group conducted an intense study of research anthologies of early literacy and tapped into the knowledge of early literacy experts at top universities. As a result of the study, five “Big Learnings” emerged that captured what is crucially important in preschool and early elementary literacy education. They are:
  • Classroom Culture
  • Prior Knowledge and Vocabulary
  • Integration
  • Inquiry and Collaboration
  • Assessment 
In year two, participating educators are spending the school year identifying their own research question, observing and collecting data, analyzing that data, reporting results, and determining next steps in instruction and teacher professional development based upon their findings.
Kate Rossetter, a Howell Public School District second grade teacher, says engagement in SOEL is making a difference.
“The Study of Early Literacy has impacted my teaching by giving me the boost I needed to find unique ways to cover the common core standards and yet engage and inspire my students to want to learn,” Rossetter says. “I am really working on being more of a facilitator than a teacher with my students. I am also using integration of the subject areas instead of teaching each subject area as a separate piece of the day.”
Lynne Gronvall-Fountain, a first grade teacher with Dexter Community Schools, says she has been impressed with the results of putting SOEL practices in place.
“I am watching what happens when first grade readers and writers share common language and strategies between reading and writing.  It has been fascinating to see some of my youngest readers and writers understanding and looking at text in a different way,” Gronvall-Fountain says. “They are noticing things that in the past, most of my readers did not notice.  As writers, they are working in concert with mentor text and mentor writers and deepening their understanding of what it means to be a writer.  They are applying skills to their writing I never imagined a six year old would understand.” 
Brooks-Yip is gratified by the professional growth of SOEL participants and what they are able to bring to their districts.
“Many teachers now have a very intentional focus on building student’s background knowledge and vocabulary. We learned that this may be the single most important factor in students’ understanding in school,” Brooks-Yip says. “Being aware of this gap, and knowing that the highest rate of vocabulary development occurs during the preschool years, we know that educators have time to intervene to help children make gains in vocabulary development.”
Rhoshawda Miller has been a teacher for 14 years and says participation in SOEL has impacted her first graders at Ypsilanti Community Schools.
“Meeting regularly helps build off of the last session and to stay focused.  A lot of the material that we are learning in SOEL supports our district vision, including building a better classroom culture and building students’ vocabulary,” Miller says.  “I am inspired and confident in teaching more authentic literacy instruction.  As soon as I learn something in my workshop I can’t wait to get back to my classroom to try it out.” 
Many educators describe the literacy work as a “gift.”
“SOEL allows us the gift of working collaboratively with our colleagues. Sustained, embedded, focused, professional development is a powerful way to grow as a teacher,” Gronvall-Fountain says. “It is amazing what our youngest learners are able to do when we use best practices in instruction, supported by collaborative work with our colleagues.  We have to build time in our school year to allow our teachers to work together as professionals if we are going to meet the needs of 21st century learners.”
Rossetter, a 16-year educator, agrees that the camaraderie strengthens their skills.
“It is important for teachers to collaborate and allow them the space to try and feel comfortable with new ways and approaches to teaching that don't have to be a purchased program. Knowledge is power,” she says. “I feel blessed to be a part of this amazing group and look forward to each session.”
Follow the latest develops in literacy and SOEL through Melissa Brooks-Yip’s blog.
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