This month is National Principals Month, when school principals across the country are celebrated for their dedication and commitment to their schools. Throughout the many CPS schools that WITS partners with each year, principals champion our volunteer-powered and teacher-focused programs to enable student and teacher growth. I had a chance to speak with some of the amazing principals WITS works with to learn more about what they do to empower their school communities to advance literacy.
Creating Literacy Advocates
Creating positive learning environments starts by creating a positive school culture around reading and providing teachers with the resources and flexibility to instill their love of literature in their students. Principal Plocher at Burley Elementary has worked over the last decade to anchor her school’s ethos in literature. She believes, “you have to be a reader to work here” and ensures that everyone who joins her staff values reading and its impact on students. From there, she has worked with her staff to nurture this philosophy through such practices as a staff-wide book club where all of Burley’s educators are always reading a text together and discussing it. She encourages teachers to stay up-to-date with and read the books their students are reading as well so they can nurture their students’ passions through questions and active discussions. She has also advocated for the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award program. Nineteen Burley teachers participated in the WITS Summer Institute and received extensive professional development to bring back and implement in their classrooms this school year.
Principal Franklin from the LEARN Hunter-Perkins campus, a fellow WITS principal, shares Principal Plocher’s vision. Franklin believes that every student can learn and as a staff, they just need to give them the tools to do so. By creating this growth mindset, teachers at LEARN Hunter-Perkins can bring in materials they believe their students will better connect with to further their learning. Principal Belville at McAuliffe Elementary further stressed this point, as he works to provide his teachers and staff with access to high-quality literacy materials, from a large quantity of bilingual books to serve their large Hispanic student population, to digital devices that teachers share with their students to complement their learning.
Advancing Literacy Outside the Classroom
The process of cultivating life-long readers extends from the classroom all the way home. Principals like Belville and Franklin, engage families by hosting literacy nights. These events teach strategies for reading with their students. At book fairs, families can learn about and acquire new books their students are excited about and meet authors of books they are reading. These opportunities engage families and help them share the excitement for reading being fostered in their students. At McAuliffe, their Parent Advisory Council and Bilingual Advisory Committee host regular parent workshops to teach families about a variety of topics including literacy practices so that they are better prepared to help their students at home. At Burley, parents are sometimes invited into the classroom as secret, surprise readers to conduct a read-aloud with the students. Many of these schools also have community libraries that families and community members can take books from to share with their students. Ms. Plocher shares, “Reading is interwoven in the community and culture” at Burley.
At LEARN Hunter-Perkins, students are applying their reading skills outside of class, as students are joining book clubs where they can choose the books they read, discuss, and learn from one another. Ms. Franklin, at LEARN Hunter-Perkins, explained that the students in their fifth and sixth grade book club voted to read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and that the discussions the students had around this difficult topic were amazing! Students were thoughtful and vulnerable, relating the story to their experiences and supporting one another through the process.
At Burley, students share and celebrate their identities as readers. Everyone makes public what they have, are, and plan to read and have active conversations about how these stories impact them. “We are building normalcy around the idea that we all read,” shared Principal Plocher. In doing so, students can grow and take ownership of their lives through the stories they enjoy.
Propelling Literacy One Step Further
For Principal Plocher at Burley, one way to further advancing literacy is to find a healthy balance between the immediate importance of testing and data and the long-term vision of developing students into authentic, life-long lovers of reading. She revealed how one of her students used to hate reading with every fiber of his being. But one day, he found one of the books from the Dog Man series and he fell in love with these books. Now, he shares his unbridled excitement about these books with her. He just needed the right book to come to love reading. Having the power to prioritize this outcome over test scores is her vision.
Inspired by his visit to Oodi, the central public library in Helsinki, McAuliffe Principal Belville is focused on improving library accessibility so that his students can find those influential books.
“The public library is the ultimate ‘free space,’” Principal Belville shares. “[It’s] a publicly-funded place of learning that is open for everyone, for free.” He would like the power to invest more in libraries and schools and ensure that they are more than adequately funded to promote literacy and empower citizens.
Throughout her fifteen years in education, Principal Franklin at LEARN Hunter-Perkins has seen the evolution of the Common Core curriculum. She believes, “teachers are placed in a box right now and cannot necessarily build the joys of reading into their classroom time.” She would like the power to return to a freer style of learning and use a balanced literacy framework so that students can use and apply the skills that they learn, but also develop a love of reading. She envisions an education system where students enjoy reading every single day and teachers can adapt curricula to better explore relatable and relevant texts and advance learning. All of these principals have ambitious visions for the future of literacy in their schools. WITS works to align with school partner goals and to support those principals’ missions. As the program year begins, WITS looks forward to supporting principals Belville, Franklin, and Plocher in making their visions a reality.
86% of principals say WITS programming helps advance their school-wide literacy goals.