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World Literacy Day 2018: Now What?

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THIS. I read that 775 million adults lack minimum literacy skills. One in five adults, two thirds of them, women. Not so bad, or staggering, depending on our perspective. Sobering, 60.7 million children are out of school and more drop out. Is this acceptable? As a nation of readers, we believe that the joy of reading is a joy forever. But we know, that reading generally leads to better jobs and ability to cope with an ever changing political and social environment.

There are several kinds of literacy, perhaps we are considering math, science and other disciplines. For my purposes here, let's stay with the notion of literacy as being able to read, write and master basic language needed for daily life.

However, Literacy Day actually casts a wider net, celebrating advances and needs remaining in math, digital competency, technical skills and softer skills needed for success in today's rapidly changing economy and every day world of work.

Today, September 8th is International Literacy Day, or World Literacy Day. In 1966 United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Sept. 8th each year as International Literacy Day, focusing on literacy for all. First celebrated in 1967, the day highlights the need for literacy in many facets of daily life.

Fifty- two years later, not much has changed. This year's theme, "Literacy and Skills Development" is particularly significant, I think with our renewed emphasis on global networking. The world grows smaller as we acknowledge our interdependence.

Most likely there is a connection between countries with high levels of poverty and illiteracy. Women typically severely bear the brunt of a lack of education. It seems so overwhelming, we must tackle this together, as one united worldwide people.

The issue of illiteracy and literacy is also on the forefront of the United Nations' "Sustainable Development Goals". This is a monumental, heroic undertaking. I fully support this endeavor, and sure you do, too. 

Goals developed by world leaders in 2015, clearly define tackling universal access to schooling and lifelong learning opportunities. "The day focuses on skills and competencies required for employment, careers and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills."

No this is not Dr. Seuss day. I am not suggesting we put on party hats. But in order to get to a Seussitastical Celebration, kiddos need to know how to read, and write, of course. I recently wrote about the Michigan legal case where the judge said NO. Literacy was not, by our Constitution, a fundamental student right. Shocking. I so disagree.

As a reading teacher for more than forty years, I taught in every conceivable classroom, at all levels, homeschoolers, adults, credential students, etc. Literacy has been my cause and hopefully, my legacy will be strong. Because of my background, today is especially important in my life as educator.

In order to see where we were then and where we are now headed, let's review recent NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores. Our Nation's Report Card, this snapshot glance at reading tells us since 1992 there has been a slight gain in reading scores, maybe about five or so points at 4th and 8th grade levels, but scores are generally flat. NAEP is one of the few assessments I trust, as I consider it to be valid and reliable. 

Minority children showed depressing scores at mostly basic levels of under 18th percentiles. We have to do better. Despite No Child Left Behind, Common Core and accompanying educational innovations,  learning gaps are in some cases larger than ever and the playing fields have not been leveled as we hoped.

What Can We Do Now? That is the central question. As a nation of servant leaders and optimists, the answer is not to just work harder. It's easy to say build capacity in our organizations while working lean, following tenets of business as our guide.

It's also one thing to write continuously about growth mindset, grit, mindfulness, kindness and love. I do it too. I write about stuff that is pretty fluffy and sweet, but not getting the whole job done, maybe. Soft skills are sooo necessary in our rapidly thrusting future is now, today life.

But harder, must-have fundamental skills are also my roadmap and recipe for success. Just as much. With all the emphasis on achievement and money poured into testing companies, where did all the money go since 1992? Good question. Easy answer. Just did. Flat scores? Show us the money, not tied with tests that are not reliable and valid in many instances. Or useful to teachers and schools. Data use is paramount.

Not taking on fixing illiteracy and literacy for all children everywhere, but looking closer to home, so what do I really think needs to happen to give all U.S. kids a fair chance at literacy? I hope to see this happen in my lifetime, why not now?  

  1. Fully fund public schools. That means everything. Adequate school buildings, supplies, materials, tech and texts. Everything.
  2. Stop the incessant testing madness. Re-think use of Data points and Data Walls.
  3. Pay teachers fairly. Teachers work year 'round, constantly.
  4. Every school needs a functional library and librarian.
  5. Literacy is a school-wide emphasis, with integrated curriculum and celebrations. 
  6. Create a culture of reading that invites children to want to read both fiction and info-text.
  7. Plan for lots of time for fun reading and take the fear out of reading, as timed tests.
  8. Home school partnerships and business partnerships are so rewarding.

It is cruel and unfortunate that because of poor reading skills, many students are unable to access or be successful in rigorous core curriculums. Perhaps we might question the efficacy of these curriculums in terms of balance, energy, interest, cost and effectiveness. 

We need to take another look at how we teach writing, in combination with reading, to promote the needed balance, literate readers and writers. To do this, teachers need more time for collaboration, collegial conversation, a chance to team or co-teach.

Professional development must include time to talk, listen, learn, demonstrate for one another and share best practices. Teachers are action researchers each and every day. So let's listen, really listen and make adjustments, mid-course corrections to get where we need to go, for kids' sakes.

Our young scholars in waiting need us to cut to the chase, to dump what's not working for us, and them. To be risk takers and plan makers. To share best practices and classroom tested and perfected reading lessons cross content, all grade levels. Not just K-3. What is our Vision? And Mission, in regard to literacy?

Start with our budding preschoolers, modeling the joy of reading and the fundamental skills necessary to start the journey to literacy and beyond. We learn to read, then read to learn, it's true. SIRI cannot do everything. Kids still need to know how to read, read better, faster, so that means all levels, through adult. A big job to do, but, oh, such a pleasure getting there.

Schools and families participating in a seamless effort between school and home, what a combo. 'Parents Are Our Partners' and a child's first and best teachers. Better together. Reading to toddlers? Extend way past that, and read together more than the minimum twenty minutes a day.

A final thought, today marks the occasion to consider the larger global effort to get all children to school, with access to literacy instruction and technology. A massive undertaking, but achievable and admirable.

As a nation of literate and fair-minded people, we can help UNESCO and the United Nations achieve their admirable goals. By being connected with other like-minded educators and stakeholders, sharing best governmental programs and teacher practices, we are off to a good start.

Local libraries also need our support to ensure digital and text access for all children. Moreover, we need to figure out better ways to get kiddos to and from local afterschool programs and resources. Kids may be living in cars or shelters but those cars are probably not headed to a library. Gas costs money. And please, no more libraries closing and librarians cut out of budgets. We need both.

We cannot afford to do less. We must to do more. Hungry children cannot learn. So start with Maslow, add in Dewey, the rest up to us. We make the difference in the literacy lives of countless children, here in America and across the world.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

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Modeling the art and craft of teaching reading for 47 years, Mrs. Wirtz taught language arts, speech and reading at all levels preschool-adult, including penal. She served as Pre-school and K-6 Principal. Rita was also a Curriculum Consultant, ESEA, Title I Program Evaluator and literacy trainer. At the university level she taught school administration in the Bilingual Cohort at CSUS and National University, Sacto. Mrs. Wirtz also taught all reading courses for Chapman University for many years in Sacramento and Placerville, Ca., and mentored student teachers. On the national level she was a well known motivational Keynote Speaker and Seminar Leader. Most importantly, Rita walked the talk, teaching with teachers in more than 500 K-12 and special needs classrooms. Rita authored books, publications and Pre- YouTube, videos were filmed by San Diego County Office of Education. Calif. ASCD authored companion book guides, and Calif. school districts correlated her basic skills instruction with State Standards. Mrs. Wirtz' newest book is Reading Champs! Teaching Reading Made Easy, a review of the basic building blocks of English and Reading. Rita is currently teaching in a multi-age, fully incuded preschool, ages 2-8. Find Mrs. Wirtz on Twitter @RitaWirtz, Facebook and website- www.ritawirtz.com.

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Guest Sunday, 09 December 2018