Literacy is the Doorway to Everything

A principal shares how special book events have ignited her students’ love of reading and connected them with their families.

By Shannon McParland

Before joining the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Public School District, which is a diverse suburban school system, I worked with Saint Paul and Minneapolis public urban school systems. Now at Sioux Trail Elementary, I am principal of a school with a population with 48% students who are ethnically or racially diverse. We are a title one school with about 50% of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch support.

At Sioux Trail we always examine our family events and the impact they have on our students and families. Our data was showing us that we were not always accommodating a wide range of family needs and situations. From my experience in urban education as a general-education and special education teacher, I’ve always believed that literacy is the doorway to everything. If you can’t read, it will limit the opportunities to make your dreams a reality. So, we began looking at our family reading events and decided to make some changes.

In my four years as principal at Sioux Trail Elementary in Burnsville, MN we have promoted family literacy events and looked for ways that teachers, students and families may come together around literacy. Unfortunately, we had low or declining attendance at these evening events. After thinking and analyzing these trends, we were sure of a couple things. We knew our family outreach activities needed an overhaul and that the school to home connection was a critical one for success of the entire educational community.

Our school’s core vision and goals are centered around student learning and growth. We started there and began thinking outside of what had traditionally been done with literacy nights at Sioux Trail. In addition, we were lucky to be our district’s pilot site for myON, a digital literacy tool, and began to think about how this program could support us broadening our families’ access to literacy and books. Access to myON allows kids and families to access books wherever they are! That was a start to reaching out to families in new ways around literacy. As a pilot site, we promoted myON to families, taught students how to access it, and shared access information with parents at conferences.

We talked to our families and understood that evening events were difficult to attend due to competing extracurriculars, childcare, work schedules and other factors. We decided to shift our night literacy events to beginning of day events. We experienced immediate success. In the past we had held events such as “Breakfast and a Book” where parents and families could join their child and read a book while eating a breakfast from school or home in the cafeteria. We expanded on this concept.

On these days, when students are dropped off at school, their parents can come inside and eat a school provided breakfast with their child. When they finish their breakfast, parents and child select a book and read together in our Media Center. There are also other options for families to to enjoy and learn together. Because students use myON during their daily reading instruction, they show their families myON. Students show them how they log onto myON, select books at their level in the digital library, and have books read to them. MyON offers more than 10,000 digital texts that our students can access on computers, laptops, tablets, their smartphones, and other mobile devices. Saying, “I don’t have anything to read,” is no longer an option. They now have full access to any genre and level of text they may be interested in reading.

Now our family events are about our students showing their family members about their own learning. Our students have the opportunity to become the teacher by explaining how we use the devices and share which stories they’re reading. This has increased our students’ confidence and excitement by providing a positive reading experience. Since making these changes, we’ve seen an increase in our attendance at family events from about 25% to almost 90% parent attendance. We’ve really created a community of learners with all our families. We are also experiencing a surge in our parent volunteer numbers at our school due to families reading with their kids, helping out in the classroom, and through attendance at other classroom or school wide events. We not only made reading more enjoyable, we also created a welcoming environment that freely encourages parents to partner with the school and our programs.

This year, we built on our reading event called, “Sioux Trail Reads: One School, One Book.” We selected the novel, Blizzard: A Tale of Snow Blind Survival, that every student at Sioux Trail was invited to read while on winter break. Students were asked to read this book on myON. MyOn also supported us by donating 10 copies of the book to give to families who did not have access to technology over winter break. We partnered with Dairy Queen, who provided Blizzard gift cards as rewards, for reading the selection on myON,

It was a great success! Last year, a 2nd grade boy went to Puerto Rico with his family over winter break, bringing his technology device with him so he could participate in the event. Upon returning to school after winter break he lit up with excitement as he shared about all the stories he read while in Puerto Rico on myON. It’s the equity and the access which myON provides, leveling the playing field for a lot of our students. And that’s made all the difference.

Like many adults, I’m a book reader, not a Kindle reader. So, I got really excited about myON when I realized, that our students have a different frame of reference for the use of technology with everything including reading. MyON doesn’t replace anything; it enriches it. It creates opportunities to develop really great programs that can be extended to include the families. To the other districts and schools out there looking to improve their student’s love of reading, let me say this: If you have a vision for it, just jump in and create it. Find a program that works for you and build your goals around your literacy vision. So, whatever you choose, keep in mind that student involvement increases engagement and improves students’ academic growth. If you empower your students to take the lead of their reading and really become involved, you’ll have an amazing program.

Shannon McParland is the Principal at Sioux Trail Elementary in Burnsville, MN.

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