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Murray Journal

McMillan educators share early literacy practices with peers across the state

Sep 30, 2019 03:13PM ● By Julie Slama

McMillan educators joined ULEAD Director McKell Withers at the state’s second annual conference on sharing effective teaching practices. (Photo courtesy of McMillan Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Five McMillan educators recently shared with other elementary teachers about their school’s successes in early literacy instruction.

“We invited schools across the state based where we have identified their early literary successes with the goal to replicate that in similarly populated schools,” ULEAD Director McKell Withers said. “We want to help kids work toward proficiency throughout the state.”

McMillan, which he said has had improved literacy test scores the past three years, was one of 10 schools invited.

“We look at their overall state pattern and we know, if they are proficient in first grade, then they are likely to maintain that progress and be proficient in third grade,” he said. “McMillan was helpful, and I thank them for their hard work. With their help, we realize we can do better reaching students in similar populations.” 

ULEAD—Utah Leading through Effective, Actionable and Dynamic Education—was created by the Utah Legislature in 2018 to improve practices in public schools throughout the state on innovative, effective and efficient practices that can be shared and duplicated in comparable schools.

While the conference is over, McMillan educators are not. Withers said that he may call upon them to host other school delegations to observe teaching practices or invite them to another school to address faculty. Likewise, McMillan teachers may observe others’ practices to incorporate into their classrooms.

“We want to allow these schoolteachers to observe, talk to them, host and dig deeper into what practices are making a difference,” he said. “Sharing promising practices and removing barriers to learning can be challenging, but it is essential to overall school improvement.”

McMillan Principal Joy Sanford said the collaboration was beneficial.

“When we looked at what we do, in specific grade levels, in classes, for individuals, we learned what makes us successful,” she said. “And then when we shared with other schools with similar populations what was working, and they shared with us, we can collaborate effective student achievement practices. We talked about what was done and paying off dividends for our students.”

Joining Sanford was a grade level teacher in kindergarten, first grade and second grade as well as instructional coach Cynthia Richards.

Sanford and Richards said that when McMillan reviewed its students’ early literacy instruction, they collaborated and realized phonemic awareness was missing. 

“We realized last year, mid-year, the students weren’t progressing as much as they would have liked,” Sanford said. “When we introduced phonemic awareness, within weeks, there was a huge difference.” 

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words. 

“After we added that missing piece, everything really started working for us,” Richards said. 

Sanford said it’s important for teachers within the school to collaborate.

“We need to work with one another; it’s important for each grade-level team,” she said.

Richards, who was a teacher in 2013 when Sanford joined the school, said that it made a difference to their approach.

“We talked about specifics and how to have accountability. It made a huge difference,” Richards said, adding that already this fall they began a “boot camp” for first-graders to identify skills they need. “We’re not waiting until we receive the end-of-the-year data from statewide assessments. We’re reviewing, pre-teaching and aren’t going to lose valuable time before the start-of-the-year assessments. There is no finish line, just ways we can learn and improve every day, every year.”

Richards said that the conference emphasized that teachers need to share their practices as well as get feedback from peers.

“Teachers have to get outside of the classroom, have the opportunity to share with each other and be willing to ask for help. It’s what makes us become better—to be open, honest about what we need to do and then, have the follow through,” she said.

McMillan has shared its findings within the Murray School District as well.

“When we say ‘our’ kids, we mean ‘ours,’ not just our classroom, grade level, school,” Sanford said. “We want to help all students succeed.”

Withers said McMillan’s, and other schools’, practices that were shared will be posted on the ULEAD website so other schools can review them and learn about successful practices.

“Sometimes, we can get so consumed helping and keep going, we rarely have time to look at bright spots,” he said. “We have high expectations at every school for every student.”