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What vacation? These schools work to avoid the summer slack-off

Back to School Summer Learning

Educators at a Chicago elementary school spent the summer redesigning their reading program for the first and second grades.

They came up with the “CY-BEAR.” This fall, each student will receive a stuffed animal to read aloud to.

Sounds goofy, but principal Shawn Jackson says it reduces the anxiety to read in front of others and can help improve scores for the many children whose parents don’t read to them. That accounts for a lot of Jackson’s 930 students at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. About 85 percent read below grade level and nearly all are from low-income homes.

It took about two months to come up with the plan — an example of how schools increasingly are seizing the summer break as an opportunity to innovate.

“During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them,” Jackson told the Associated Press.

According to a story by AP reporter Philip Elliott, Jackson and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund’s Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.

“Most people would take the time to relax,” Jackson said.

Instead, he and his team rewrote the school’s reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.

Elsewhere, educators are seeking to prevent the learning loss that many students experience while school’s out for summer

Without classes to attend, most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.

That’s according to the National Summer Learning Association, But summer learning programs targeted to low-income students can help close the achievement gap, the association says: “The effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after participation,” long-term studies indicate.

In Harlem, 40 students attended a day camp this summer intended to keep up their reading skills. At LitWorld Camp, they could read whatever they wanted over the six-week period.

Elliott writes:

If students show an interest in cooking or animals, hip-hop or vintage toys, leaders find books that match up with their interests. Students wrote songs based on books on hip-hop and designed their own toys based on the ones they read about from the Depression, Colonial times and ancient Egypt.

Read more about creative uses of summertime here.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews: Youngsters attending LitCamp.

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Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

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Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work. 

Today: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

Tutor: ‘I am very proud to be part of it all’

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With the school year ending, many Innovations for Learning tutors are visiting the classrooms to meet in person the children whose progress in reading they’ve been guiding long distance, via telephone and computer.

Jacqui Howze, an administrative assistant at the law firm DLA Piper LLP in Chicago’s Loop, remotely tutored a young boy at Fiske Elementary on the city’s South Side. Her office is in a gleaming office tower created by famous architects. At Fiske, 95 percent of the children are classified as low-income.

She visited the classroom the other day for the first time — and loved it so much that she sent this note to the teacher:

Good morning Mrs. House,

I would like to thank you for allowing me and the Innovations For Learning tutors to visit your classroom yesterday.  It was the highlight of my day!

I enjoyed meeting Kavin and the other children. You have a wonderful group of students who display a passion for learning and who have respect for you, their fellow students and their school.  I am very proud to be a part of it all.

I would like to say Kudos to you for the way you handle your class and for all that you do for those lovely little minds.  You too are wonderful!

I look forward to tutoring next year and I would like nothing more than to continue to tutor Kavin, but in the event that I cannot, I know that whomever I tutor will be just as bright and eager as Kavin.  Thank you again Mrs. House for having us and I hope to visit your classroom again next year.

Have a wonderful Summer!

Jacqui Howze

The teacher replied:

Hello Jacqui,

What a beautiful note! I was very enthusiastic, as were my little ones, to meet you guys as well! With your support, my kindergartners have skyrocketed in their levels of reading and writing. I know because all of the skills that you worked on were revisited by me and I saw the major jumps.

It feels so great to know that all of the hard work is seen because I am working constantly to keep the kindergartners at a higher level than the  norms. I am so grateful to TeacherMate/Innovations for Learning and my students were eagerly waiting for your calls/sessions. I watched them go from dependent, curious minds to independent, conscientious thinkers, still curious (smiles).

I, too, agree that you should stick with Kavin and the other tutors should stay with their little ones. You can definitely track the growth by following. Thanks so much and talk to you soon…

Tenesia House

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— photos of Fiske Elementary by Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

Staff reflections: Seth Weinberger

DSC_0032 - Version 2In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here. 

He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:

 

Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation.  The teacher is a first year novice.  Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.

Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved:  the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level).  The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.

This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success.  She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.

Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible.  And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.

Every student reading, most students flying.

— Seth Weinberger

TutorMate makes splash in Seattle biz press

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Some 100 volunteers from 10 Seattle corporations and the Port of Seattle are helping impoverished children learn to read through Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program — and the Puget Sound  Business Journal has the story:

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To read the entire story requires a subscription.

It gives a good background on IFL’s programs (“the brainchild of Seth Weinberger, a former Chicago attorney. Two decades ago he decided to do something about illiteracy among children in disadvantaged communities. His idea: use technology that makes computer games so vivid and enticing to help young children read well from the get-go.”)

And it shows the enthusiasm with which volunteers embrace the tutor experience.

Introduced in Seattle this fall, TutorMate opens a door to community involvement for busy professionals who can carve out 30 minutes a week to tutor a student online but not the additional time needed to travel to a school.

“It’s very hard to break away from the desk and the building,” said Martin, a senior business analyst with Federal Way-based Weyerhaeuser. “This really fits the bill for me.”

Thanks to writer Brad Broberg, for capturing the program so well.

 

 

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner

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In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

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