New Year, New School: Building a Culture of Literacy

Growing up as a reader, I knew early in my career that I wanted to share my love of literacy with others. As a first grade teacher, I propped up my favorite picks on my chalkboard ledge, with a list of students waiting to read them posted right above.

Some of my fondest memories during that time include my read-aloud time and class meetings where the students shared with one another what they were reading. I might not have been as well-versed in the practice of teaching reading as a very young teacher as I would be now, but my classroom was a place where students loved books.

After a few years teaching, I knew I wanted to help struggling students learn to read, and was given the opportunity to receive Reading Recovery training. Through that training, I was able to pass along my “literacy love,” but in a very different way.

Books scared those struggling readers. I had to provide intense instruction to them so that their eyes were opened to the excitement of books and literacy. The perseverance and dedication of those struggling students motivated them to read, frustrated them when it was challenging, and made them prouder when their name could be added to those chalkboard ledge lists. 

A decade later, I am still challenged to leave a literacy legacy. For the last six years, I have had the privilege of serving as principal of Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg, MD. During my tenure, I created a space where students had more access to books and were more motivated to talk about the books they were reading.

That space also included teachers that had skills to build stamina, select books for students, and be literacy role models through conferring and sharing their favorite picks. 

Did I leave a literacy legacy? Upon reflection, I've developed my own literacy legacy “look-fors.” I plan to take these literacy “look-fors” with me to my new school where I will be the principal this coming school year.  

Not only will I use these literacy “look-fors” to identify a starting point, but also to prioritize the pieces that must be considered when transferring as principal of one school to the next .  

Access & Engagement

The classroom libraries that once had few books and lacked organization now have books exploding out of very well-organized baskets and labeled shelves. Students that rarely talked about books six years ago are engaged with one another about literacy. They write their own book talks and compile book recommendations as classmates complete their summer reading commitments.  I made this happen by making classroom libraries and book talks a priority in our school.  I had teachers compile lists of titles they needed for their classroom libraries and scheduled a book talk professional development opportunity for my staff.  Before I knew it, book talks had trickled down to our students and were happening on multiple occasions throughout the building each day.  

Love of Books, Front & Center

The hallways that used to display only student work now boast book bulletin boards with posted book recommendations, and classroom doors decorated with the teachers’ favorite books. Students race down those very same hallways to select their birthday book in the main office, and often stop by the Media Center on their way back to their classroom. The Media Center—where out-of-date titles used to take up space—is now saturated with award-winning titles, as well as culturally relevant titles and books that reflect the lives and experiences of all students. 

The Bookmobile for Summer Reading

The community still has twice weekly access to the Bookmobile, something I started out of my own personal car during my first summer. Although my tenure ended at Gaithersburg Elementary School on July 1, the staff and community there still work hard to get books into the hands of our students. The incredible staff left behind will continue that afternoon biweekly literacy routine for their students, ensuring access to books over the summer. 

A New Chapter

I, however, will begin a new literacy legacy, which started last week with a book talk on The Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña) with my Leadership Team. Many of those team members had already met with me in my office, overflowing with many of the same favorite book picks I had propped up on my chalkboard ledge almost twenty years ago. And a new literacy legacy begins, with that same dedication and drive I had six years ago when I entered the doors of Gaithersburg Elementary School.