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Monday, May 2, 2016

It's not your old English class at St. Mary's

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Many adults may remember their language arts and reading classes where each student in the class read the same book. Some students flew through the book while their classmates may have struggled or not even finished the assignment. Educators are now working to offer all students success at their reading levels.

Educators in St. Mary's School have found unique ways to deal with the challenges of teaching reading to students of different skills in their classrooms. Although St. Mary's students historically test well on standardized reading tests, educators constantly look for ways to improve their methods.

Grades seventh through ninth language arts instructor Erin Olson said that during her first year of teaching at St. Mary's, she had a class with students in reading levels from second grade through college level. She chose books in the same genre at different levels for the students. The students may all be reading non-fiction, or minority authors, mysteries, historical fiction, or others.

"It's nice to have students reading the same book, but some may find the book too hard and stop reading. My goal is to have all students reading," said Olson.

Olson has taken a cue from talk show giant Oprah Winfrey and created "Olson's Book Club" to have her seventh-grade students choose books from their educator's collection.

Elementary educators are using the research-based Guided Reading program to provide a similar leveled approach for the younger students. Students are pre-tested at the beginning of the year to determine at what level they should be reading. The educators can choose books for their students appropriate for their skills.

"When working with students with differing abilities, Guided Reading helps teachers have a better idea where their reading levels are and their fluency," third-grade educator Heidi Larsen said.

The leveled programs both in the elementary and middle school grades are helping to entice the students into reading, and all students are finding success in their language arts classes.

"We saw this year's freshman class jump three levels in reading from last year's eighth-grade students," Olson noted. "I've never had a student not participate, not finish a book."

Elementary educators said the Guided Reading program is piquing an interest in students about reading - students who may not have been motivated to read in the past.

"(And) all students are doing well on comprehension," said fourth-grade educator Lisa Weber.

In addition to reading the books, the students participate in other activities in conjunction with what they've just read.

"They would conference with me, journal, have vocabulary words and projects at the end of each book. We've even had food inspired from books, an art piece inspired from a book and poetry," Olson said.

The middle-school students recently participated in an art show of the projects inspired by books in their classroom. In addition to viewing the pieces, the students were asked to dress formally and learn proper etiquette for a formal event.

Students might also research topics inspired through the book, such as civil rights and the NAACP in addition to the other activities.

The elementary students also go beyond reading the books assigned to them. Aside from a comprehension check test at the end of a book, they participate in cross-curricular activities such as science concepts or historical events discussed in a particular book. Educators say the students learn more with these methods of including other subject areas and additional projects.

"They can do long-term projects afterward," Weber explained. "Then they present it to the class, working on their speaking and listening skills."

Students in the elementary and middle-school levels are also taking single principles from their books and expounding upon what they've learned.

"We're doing a unit on cause and effect and applied it to the books at (the students') reading levels. The students are all doing well," Weber said.

Olson also tries to use a number of techniques to reinforce concepts and vocabulary in her classroom, such as having students videotape "commercials" for books made into movies, present talk shows, create scrapbooks, or perform skits.

"We do lots of skits in here. Research shows anytime you use tactile methods, versus lecture-based teaching, it's best. The students retain the information much better," she said.

Students can even act out the meaning of words, such as "porous". Once it's acted out, the students retain the meaning of the word.

Regardless of the technique, skill level, or age of the student, the St. Mary's educators strive to engage all students into reading with these programs, and adding a measure of fun.

"We love it," Larsen concluded. "We'd used the old basal reading previously, but this is so much better. Kids are excited about books."

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