Literacy Center Reaches Families and Teacher Candidates with Best Practices

March 31, 2021

“They have a voice. They have something to contribute,” Dr. Donlon says about Aquinas College’s teacher candidates. Betsy Donlon is assistant professor of education at Aquinas College and coordinates the School of Education Literacy Center at Aquinas.

Now in its second year, the literacy center engages teacher candidates in best practices in literacy instruction. While one initiative is on hold during the pandemic—on-campus literacy nights—webinars for elementary school teachers and parents have been a way to up build the local educational community. In each presentation, teacher candidates are actively involved as presenters alongside Aquinas faculty.

“Our work is to move [a teacher candidate] from being a student to being the teacher, to the other side of the desk. Part of that is contributing to the professional community. As teachers we don’t just keep our good ideas to ourselves,” Donlon says.

Sister Moana Grace, O.P., B.S., ’22 teamed up with her professor Dr. Donlon for the February 24 webinar on read-alouds. Sister drew on her experience from last summer’s Children’s Literature class to demonstrate teaching methods in action. “When presenting the read-aloud with Dr. Donlon I was a bit nervous, but as soon as I started by introducing story time, I totally felt like I was on a journey in discovering the story,” Sister Moana Grace shares. “I wanted my audience to join the journey by interacting with the story and the characters in the story, even if it was a webinar read. Children’s Literature class gave me the confidence to ‘bring a story to life.’”

Getting Started

In starting the literacy center, faculty from the School of Education reached out to other universities with similar programs.

“We knew we wanted to reach a lot of people with this initiative, starting locally. Various themes from our initial conversation with directors of literacy centers started to emerge. What is your mission – or rather, who? Is it the children in schools, or is it your teacher candidates?” Dr. Donlon shares. “We realized immediately that as a college our mission is to engage teacher candidates, which ultimately benefits the students with whom they work.”

According to Dr. Donlon, the “bread and butter” of the literacy center is one-on-one literacy sessions with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade students by Aquinas teacher candidates at the Aquinas campus. The sessions began this January at Aquinas Center.

Addressing the Reading Gap

Literacy challenges among Tennessee’s children are well known. Tennessee public schools have been plagued by poor literacy scores at the elementary level for years. Recent efforts at the state level, such as “Reading 360” launched in January, and local efforts such as the PENCIL Network, a nonprofit that links businesses with Nashville public schools for various means of support, seek to address the reading gap. What can teachers and families do?

Dr. Donlon advises “access to quality books, the presence of adults modeling reading in the child’s life, daily read-alouds, exposure to fiction and non-fiction texts, and good teacher preparation to address the gaps. “Do your children ever see you reading, or are you always on your phone or computer?”

Daily read-alouds with children are essential to child development, she says. “Almost half of America’s children are not read to daily. We all know it is important, but we’re not actually doing it.” Stories are important to develop all the literacy skills. Reading aloud with children is also important to the development of the parent-child relationship. “When the child sees, yes, my parent will stop everything and spend time with me, that quality time, there are so many lessons learned just sitting in the lap of your mom or dad reading a book together.” The shared literary experience of reading together out-loud gives open access to both parent and child. The story gives them something to talk about together and is a starting point for conversation.

“Especially when entering Kindergarten, if a child has not been read to regularly they are having a major gap in the number of vocabulary words they know and their ability to define words in context. If we don’t use that time during age 2-5 then they are already starting Kindergarten behind in reading,” Dr. Donlon shares.

The Aquinas College Approach

How prepared are first, second, and third grade teachers to fill these gaps? This is a key concern behind the proactive initiatives of the literacy center, as it seeks “to engage teacher candidates in literacy instruction best practices,” and literacy education at Aquinas in general.

Sister Mary Grace Watson, O.P, dean of the School of Education commented, “As the importance of literacy comes into focus in Tennessee, literacy instruction within the Aquinas College School of Education already addresses these gaps in its coursework and experiences.”

The activities of the literacy center aim to support and further this effort.

The next webinar on April 7 will address “Using Text Sets to Differentiate Instruction.” Professional development certificates will be awarded at the end of the session. Registration is open for teachers and parents here.

 

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