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‘With technology, they’re right there with it’

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Frances Curry, first-grade teacher, trying out a device that will help her students learn to read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.  – First-grade teacher Frances Curry had an iPod Touch in her fingers and a pair of headphones on her ears. She peered at the three-inch screen, her fingers tapping.

Then she paused. And smiled.

“The kid reads a word,” she said, “and then the program tells him to say the word. And then the kid hears it back, in his own voice.

“And then the program asks them, ‘Did you read that correctly?’ “ 

She sounded as if she had experienced a marvel.

Would her students benefit?

“Oh, my God, yes. They love technology!” she said. “When I talk to them, it’s just …”

She fluttered her fingers — an illustration of an attention span floating away into thin air.

“But with technology, they’re right there with it.”

Curry, who teaches at inner-city Sunland Park Elementary, was sampling an Innovations for Learning program that her young students will hold in their hands, a small package of creative software that vastly improves the teaching of reading.

She was among some 45 teachers, reading coaches and principals who gathered after school last week to train for a major initiative coming this month to six Broward County elementary schools. All located in low-income areas in and around Fort Lauderdale, the schools are newly equipped with $76,000 worth of laptops, iPod Touches and MP3 players and a resolve to try a new approach to teaching reading to beginners.

They are the first of 13 Broward schools scheduled to adopt Innovations’ TeacherMate system this year — a bet by the school district that smart technology in the hands of turned-on teachers will make a dramatic difference in the lives of children who badly need the boost.

For two afternoons last week, the Broward staffers gathered at North Fork Elementary School to learn how to get started with the system, scheduled to launch in classrooms the week of Sept. 9. They reviewed everything from how to turn on an iPod to how to roll up a clutch of power cords. And most important, how to use the lively software to create differentiated learning plans for each of their students.

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Carmen Valdez, teacher ambassador, with books beginning readers will use

Michele Pulver, Innovations’ director of teacher services, came down from Chicago to lead the sessions. She was joined by teacher ambassadors Jessica Nasset from Seattle, Melinda Cunningham from Chicago, and LaVonia Martin-Chambers, Kim Sanders and Carmen Valdez from Fort Lauderdale. (Teacher ambassadors are Innovation employees who are assigned to specific schools. They back up teachers to make sure TeacherMate runs smoothly, and monitor the whole process of literacy instruction by modeling best practices and giving guided support.)

“You are the pioneers for a digital approach to learning,” Michele Rivera, the school district’s director of literacy, told the group at the sessions’ outset. She said the partnership with Innovations was designed to lead “to our ultimate goal: to get kids ready for college and the real world. To get them to work independently, collaboratively, to problem-solve and be technologically competent.”

The teachers broke into small groups to become familiar with three “stations” they’ll be setting up in their classrooms. At one station, up to 10 students will work on interactive word-building lessons, using iPod Touches. In another, a second group of kids will listen to a story from a narrator over an MP3 player while reading along from a book. At the third station, the teacher will interact personally with a group of students, teaching them decoding and comprehension strategies and guiding their reading practice.

After sessions that last about half an hour, the student groups will rotate from station to station.

Each student’s progress will synch via the cloud to the teacher’s laptop computer, giving her a precise read on how quickly each kid is learning each concept and allowing her to adjust the next lessons accordingly.

The Broward staffers sounded enthusiastic about their first brush with the system.

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Broward teachers getting to know the “Listening Station”

“I love how it blocks out all the other sounds,” said Chris Carney, principal of Bennett Elementary, after hearing a story read over a headset. “That’s going to really help some of our guys” — children who are easily distracted.

“We know that as soon as reading scores go up, everything else — the science and the math, the writing — they all go up,” said LaFerne McLean-Cross, assistant principal at Sunland Park Academy, which was an F-rated school two years ago, but saw 88 percent of its students make learning gains last year and hopes to continue the momentum. “That’s why we’re putting so much focus on this.”

The next seven schools are scheduled to get going with TeacherMate in a few weeks. Training for that staff is scheduled for Sept. 27, assuming that Title I federal money arrives on time. Innovations for Learning laid out the $76,000 needed to equip the first six schools, in the interest of getting the program off the ground.

In October, if all goes according to schedule, the district will add Innovation’s program of virtual tutoring, called TutorMate. It will link volunteers from corporate workplaces with first-graders for one-and-one sessions via the Internet.

Broward County Public Schools is in the midst of a fundraising drive, looking for $500,000 to fully equip the 132 classrooms in the 13 schools with hardware and seeking 620 volunteers to tutor children, remotely by computer hook-up for half an hour a week. For more information, please click here.

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Michele Rivera, Broward County Public Schools’ director of literacy, welcomes the “pioneer” staff who will be the first to bring digital learning to first-grade reading education in the Fort Lauderdale-area district

Story and photos by Howard Goodman

It’s World Read Aloud Day!

litworldwrad13badgeToday is World Read Aloud Day, a celebration of oral storytelling that’s meant “to show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people,” its sponsors say.

It’s the fourth year for the holiday, “in which children from Harlem to Haiti and Inwood to Iraq tell stories, share books, gather in ‘Lit Clubs’ — and revel in the beauty and poetry of hearing the written word spoken,” says the New York Daily News.

“The idea is to use literacy to change the world,” said [founder Pam] Allyn, who worked for the reading-and-writing program at Teachers College at Columbia University before founding LitWorld, an international literacy nonprofit, in 2007.

With the goal of teaching 1 million kids to read by 2014, LitWorld, based on W. 57th St., began organizing the Read Aloud event in 2010; in only four years, its reach has expanded to include all 50 states, 60 countries and hundreds of thousands of participants.

Publishers such as Pearson, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Scholastic donate books to kids, and to promote the March 6 event, best-selling authors Harlan Coben and James Patterson, along with media darling Arianna Huffington, will be tweeting throughout the day.

In New York, for instance, a double-decker sightseeing bus will take Clifford the Big Red Dog to schools around the city.

Founder Pam Allyn wrote this in today’s Huffington Post:

I am asked — often — if there is a magic bullet for cultivating a love of reading, for boosting literacy levels and improving test scores. Actually this question has been answered for years: Just read. And for children: read aloud to them every day. Give all children access to books in any form and a reader you will have.

This week the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research published results from a six-year longitudinal study of children’s reading skills showing that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead of children who do not receive daily read alouds. The truly astonishing finding from this study is that the positive and dramatic developmental outcomes of reading over even longer periods of time occured “regardless of parental income, education level or cultural background.”

In our tech forward culture we sometimes fixate on flashy and sleek solutions, we only want something if it looks like it came out of a Jetsons episode. Somewhere along the line we’ve linked innovation with technology and yet, here’s the amazing thing: literacy itself is humankind’s greatest and most lasting innovation.

Don’t misunderstand, I love technology because it is our power tool for the innovation of literacy. Literacy itself is already mobile, portable and democratic. Technology simply amplifies this power.

If you’re like us, you didn’t learn about this event until it was upon us and too late to take part. But there’s no reason to confine reading aloud activities to March 6. As Allyn says, the important thing is to read to children every day.

Some facts about world illiteracy, courtesy of LitWorld:

Global Literacy Statistics

  • According to the latest data (2009), 793 million adults – two thirds of them women – lack basic reading and writing skills. Included in this statistic are 127 million youth aged 15-24. (UNESCO)
  • Since 1985, the female adult literacy rate has risen 15%, which is about double the growth of the male literacy rate in the same time period. (UNESCO)
  • On tests involving 4,500 to 10,000 students in 43 countries, half of the girls said they read for at least thirty minutes a day, compared with less than one-third of the boys. (UNESCO)
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, girls have less than a 50% chance of  finishing primary school. In some Asian countries, girls also struggle: 41% of girls in Pakistan and 30% in India fail to finish primary school. (results.org)
  • Poorly-literate individuals are less likely to participate in democratic processes and have fewer chances to fully exercise their civil rights (UNESCO)
  • A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5 than a child born to an illiterate woman. (UNESCO)
  • A literate and educated girl is three times less likely to acquire AIDS, she will earn at least twenty-five percent more income, and she will produce a smaller, healthier family. (UNESCO)
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