By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
The faculty of Nativity Academy at St. Boniface, an independent Catholic middle school, is being trained this fall to boost the reading skills of students. It’s part of a new emphasis on literacy at the school that also led to Nativity’s new library.
Dr. Kathleen Cooter, a Bellarmine University professor of early childhood and special education, offers monthly professional development days at Nati-vity — the classes are dubbed The Academic Literacy Academy — in which she teaches the educators new ways to teach reading. And these lessons aren’t just for English teachers.
“The paradigm has really shifted — every teacher is teaching literacy. You don’t read a science book the same way you read a math text book,” Cooter noted during an interview at the school.
Traditionally, from “kindergarten through third grade you learn to read,” she said. “From then on, you read to learn. There was no need to teach reading, because you had this skill.”
But that’s not always the case today.
Nativity Academy’s students, who come from low-income families, often begin middle school reading below grade level.
“It’s unfortunate that kids in our classrooms, a large percentage of them, are not at that level in third grade,” said Nativity principal Meghan Weyland. She said that 96 percent of the school’s 69 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Nativity aims to prepare its students for the rigors of Catholic high school, she explained, so students must improve their reading skills quickly.
Cooter said Nativity’s students “need to step on it here; we’ve got to really push.”
The curriculum she’s presenting to the teachers is designed to do just that. It was developed by Cooter and her husband, Dr. Robert B. Cooter Jr., Dean of the Annsley Frazier Thornton School of Education and Ursuline Endowed Chair of Teacher Education at Bellarmine University. They’ve implemented the curriculum in Dallas, Texas, and Memphis, Tenn., mostly in urban areas where students were struggling, Cooter said.
Her doctoral studies focused on education and social change and she is especially passionate about helping children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“When you see the light go on for kids in poor areas and see how much their parents love them and want their success, it is thrilling,” she said. “These kids are great.”
The curriculum can be tweaked for the students’ needs. At Nativity, she said she is focusing on three areas: reading fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.
“Fluency looks at how we can make children more fluent in different content,” she explained. Comprehension strategies ask: “How do you help a child learn to comprehend and teach them to self-assess their own comprehension?”
When it comes to vocabulary, she said, “Of course, every area (of study) has a vocabulary. Children need to marinate in vocabulary.”
Nativity’s teachers are being guided to create a “classroom action plan” each month. They have learned about “choral” reading, oral reading and vocabulary action plans, Cooter said. She has also suggested they break their classes into smaller learning groups.
When a class practices “choral” reading, students read aloud in unison.
Weyland, the principal, is teaching religion this semester, too, and said she uses choral reading in her classes which always present vocabulary challenges. Before they started studying Pentecost recently, students read about it in unison to introduce the vocabulary, she said.
Gina Wilkie, the school’s math teacher, said she was skeptical about how literacy and math would blend at first. But she’s found the vocabulary lessons in the curriculum particularly helpful.
“Some strategies we’ve learned allow the kids not only to learn the definition of the word, but to connect it to their own experience to make it more memorable for them,” she said.
For instance, Optimus Prime, a character from “Transformers” (a TV and movie series), helped students understand the nature of prime numbers. Wilkie said she’s noticed more students take the time to read the directions for their math problems. And she said, Cooter is helping her to tailor some lessons to her classes.
“We’re picking strategies everyone in the building can use so the kids are getting a consistent strategy,” Cooter said. “Having a small school is so helpful.”
Nativity is designed to have 12 female and 12 male students in each grade — sixth, seventh and eighth. They are taught separately.
Carol Nord, the executive director of Nativity Academy, said Bellarmine, which is one of the school’s sponsors, is making the program possible. Nativity is paying a portion of the cost — $500 for each teacher to participate. The teachers will earn six graduate credit hours for their participation.
“We’re blessed with this program at Bellarmine,” Nord said. “The Cooters have invested a lifetime in literacy. To be able to share that with our teachers is huge. It builds a professional learning community where they’re all on the same page.”
Cooter said Nord’s leadership is empowering for the school community. And she believes Nativity’s principal, Meghan Weyland, is cultivating the right learning environment.
“The principal is the holder of the soul and culture of the school,” Cooter said. “When a principal has a vision of the school, great things happen. That’s what’s happening right now.”
The teachers, who Cooter said are the key to success, are committed to their students.
“You have teachers whose hearts are here. They really understand how important they may be in changing a child’s path,” she said. “So, you have the perfect storm for making life better for these kids.”