December 19, 2008
Smith librarian, teacher team up to foster literacy
Three pairs of Smith Elementary School fourth-graders stood in front of the city Board of Education Tuesday and read words they had created for picture books.
One student held the book and turned the pages while his or her partner read a script of dialogue and description they had created for the story.
Poised as they faced the beaming board members, their families and the team who had created this project seated behind them, the children described sea creatures and dinosaurs, even imitating voices for each character.
The board was seeing the results of a project developed by Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES where librarians and teachers collaborate in helping students learn.
Called Partners in Achievement: Librarians and Students, or PALS, the fourth-year program has attracted national attention, according to Judi Dzikowski, BOCES library science specialist.
PALS offers a way to close gaps in what students need to know for state assessment tests. Dzikowski said she has spoken about the program at American Library Association conferences.
In this case, Dzikowski said, the Smith students were trying to improve their English Language Arts performance.
“They needed more work, from what the state expects to what their district tested them in,” she said.
Dzikowski said 17 of the 23 school districts in OCM BOCES have tried the program since it began in 2005-06, for a total of 38 librarians and 47 teachers. The districts include McGraw, Cincinnatus, Marathon and Cortland, where three librarians convinced former Superintendent of Schools John Lutz to let them try PALS: Kim Hay at Parker Elementary, Patty Nelson at Randall and Annette Herbert at Smith.
Herbert said she reviewed three years of ELA test results and saw that fourth-graders were struggling to understand a story’s main idea, supporting details for characters such as the relationships among them, and using graphic design to understand passages. After a few months, she realized the program needed a teacher’s input and began working with the school’s two fourth-grade teachers.
Herbert and teacher Maria Kohne spent that summer planning projects that would show students the value of library resources and help them learn.
They tried two projects. One focuses on research: the solar system that first year, then explorers of New York state after the state began testing in social studies the following year. The other project involved creating words to go with books that had only pictures.
“I didn’t realize how closely information literacy standards for the library matched ELA standards,” Kohne said.
“The library tends to be isolated,” Herbert said.
Students usually spend time in the library as a class once a week, but for the roughly two weeks that the book project required, Kohne’s students began to visit the library for 45 minutes every day, as Principal Angela Wanish built “flex time” into Kohne’s schedule. The school has only one fourth-grade class this year.
For the book project, the students began by reading descriptive passages projected overhead, imagining what they were describing.
Next, they studied books that had both text and pictures, with the text blocked, forcing them to create words.
Finally, the students were paired up and each pair received a picture book. Herbert purchased more picture books. They studied the book from beginning to end, then discussed the characters, settings and stories.
Herbert and Kohne worked with the pairs that had trouble, since students vary in their reading and imagining abilities. But all of them improved, Kohne said.
“We see them noticing details in pictures, which will help with the ELA test because that has an illustration that students must interpret,” Kohne said.
This fall the PALS project was done in 15 days before Thanksgiving, Herbert said. When the students showed the Board of Education the results, they were refreshed.
The three readers — Greta Allen, Michael Newman and Zachery Osbeck — even gave voices to different characters. They read from a script, what Herbert called a skeleton, as they watched to see when their partners — Jadah Vaughan, Corrine Quail and Cobi O’Connell, respectively — turned the pages.
“Their vocabulary was impressive for fourth-graders,” said Dzikowski, who attended the presentation along with BOCES curriculum specialist Kim Loucks.
Kohne and Herbert hope the students are absorbing the essence of literacy, which could help not just their performance on state English language arts tests but their understanding of reading and writing.
“They don’t realize they’re reading — that’s the beauty,” Kohne said.
Herbert said word about PALS has spread in the school, so that the third-graders now ask if they will be doing next year what the fourth graders are doing. Yes, she tells them.
“They’re starting to look forward to library time,” Kohne said.
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