At PS 189 in Crown Heights, 2nd-grade teacher Guerda Plaisir stands in front of her students and directs their attention to the learning target she’s written on the board: “I can read independently to practice close reading.”
As she reviews her expectations with her students — a timed 20 minutes of silent, independent reading, during which students might call on various strategies to help them decipher challenging words — her school’s new literacy coach, Tagrid Sihly, approaches her for a quick conference.
“It’s best to focus on one strategy at a time,” Sihly advises quietly. “The more specific your learning target is, the easier it will be for you to assess whether students are getting it.”
Plaisir decides on the fly to revise her instructions to her students.
“This morning, when we read the story ‘The Fisherman and His Wife,’ who were the main characters in the story?” she asks. “As you read, identify the main character in your story and write a word on your Post-it to describe him or her.”
Sihly’s presence in the school is part of the Department of Education’s Universal Literacy initiative, which launched in four districts — 17 and 32 in Brooklyn and 9 and 10 in the Bronx — in the fall and will expand to another 14 districts next year.
The DOE has said that when the program, which the UFT supports, is fully phased in by the fall of 2018, every elementary school will have a literacy coach, at a cost of $75 million per year. According to the DOE, the goal is to have all 2nd-graders reading with fluency by 2026.
The program is so important, say reading specialists, because 2nd grade is a crucial turning point in literacy development. If reading issues are not addressed early, children hit a wall in 3rd grade, not only in English language arts but in other subjects that depend on the ability to read. Some predict the number of special education referrals in New York City will drop once struggling young readers receive the support they need.
“There are foundational skills in reading you need to master by the end of 2nd grade,” says Sihly, a member of the UFT’s Teachers Assigned Chapter who worked as a reading specialist for more than a decade before becoming one of the DOE’s 103 new universal literacy coaches. “The goal is to help children improve by helping teachers improve,” she said,
It seems like a no-brainer, but for much of the past decade coaching has been a novel idea. Think about the adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards: When decision-makers in education hunt for a magic bullet to boost achievement, they sometimes neglect to train and support the educators who work with students every day in the classroom.
Sihly works with K–2 teachers at PS 189 to develop a targeted action plan for professional learning. In the year’s first coaching cycle, teachers worked on developing specific learning targets and objectives for their students. Over the next few months, they will focus on discussion questions to promote higher-order thinking.
Sihly stresses that her goal is to support teachers in adapting the curriculum — at PS 189, it’s Core Knowledge — to fit their needs and the needs of their students.
“A lesson in the curriculum may be written for the ideal 1st-grader. But you have to teach the kids that you have in front of you, not the ones you wish you had,” Sihly says. “We’re working within the curriculum to make it work for you.”
In Danaika De Los Rios’ 1st-grade class, for instance, a lesson on onset and rime — the two units of a spoken syllable — from the Core Knowledge curriculum “was pretty dry,” says Sihly. The guidelines advise teachers to model the concepts on the classroom whiteboard and then ask students to fill out a worksheet.
Sihly worked with De Los Rios to reconfigure the lesson using the workshop model, incorporating an activity in which students used lettered index cards to create words.
“They need hands-on stuff to play with sounds and create words,” says Sihly.
It’s not just newer teachers who benefit from targeted instructional coaching. Plaisir is a 15-year veteran who says that Sihly has been “tremendously supportive.”
“I had a tendency not to pause while I was reading aloud,” she says as an example. “Ms. Sihly has helped me practice the strategy of paying close attention to the text ahead of time so I can write down questions to ask or vocabulary to introduce. It’s really working.”
Sihly facilitates professional learning among teachers as well. If she observes a teacher who is particularly effective in a certain area, for instance, she sets up inter-visitations for teachers who may be struggling in that area.
“I want to empower them to use their skills to help others,” she says.
Outside classrooms, Sihly organizes workshops for parents — last month, she modeled reading aloud — and publishes a monthly newsletter with tips and resources for teachers.
“She’s giving us all kinds of strategies to get kids to become better readers,” says 2nd-grade teacher Marie Pointdujour, the school’s chapter leader. “It’s been a treasure for the school.”