Monday, July 19, 2010

Dispatch from the Reading Institute - part 1

I've just spent a happy, inspiring day at the US Department of Education's 2010 Reading Institute, where I'm attending sessions and programs focusing on the early learning/development strand.

This feels a bit like an ALA conference in that we're in a large, over-air conditioned convention center (Anaheim, home of the 2008 ALA) and the "we" in question are about 90% female, being mostly teachers and educators. However, there are no vendor bags (because there are no exhibits), no award banquets, no books, and no authors. Phooey. Still, the vibe is positive - perhaps because most of my fellow conference attendees are on their summer vacation and so have brought the whole family with them in order to visit Disneyland. Shorts and sundresses are the attire of choice.

My big question was whether this conference would be relevant to my work as a librarian, and it was abundantly answered in the affirmative today. Here are some highlights:

Differentiated Parenting - Dr. Patricia A. Edwards, President of the International Reading Association
  • We all tell parents "read to your kids!" They say they do (because obviously that's the right answer). But Dr. Edwards' observations of parents demonstrated that in fact, many parents don't read to children, can't read to their children, or just don't know how to do it effectively. Also, they don't necessarily know how important it is to read with and actively engage their children from birth.
  • Convince parents of their crucial role in their child's learning, then show them how to do it right. Model techniques and behaviors; let them know it's as easy as singing to their kids, playing with them, asking them questions, and reading to them. If parents can't read, they can tell them stories and read wordless books.
  • Parents must hold some responsibility for getting their kids ready for school/reading. Parents only have a few kids and they have them from birth and during their most crucial brain development - teachers have at least 25 or more at a time, and they don't get them until they're 5 years old!
  • All families have their own strengths; parents can learn new skills; parents know their own kids better than anyone
  • Parents want their children to succeed, so make sure they have a vision of that success. What do they want for their kids? What is the vision and the mission? How do you get there?
  • Schools (and libraries!) serve many different kinds of parents and families - one size does NOT fit all. Teenaged moms, homeless families, grandparent caregivers, foster families, rural/urban poverty, homeschooled kids, single-parent families, working moms, low-literate parents, unemployed parents, every kind of culture and ethnicity.
  • So realize that what works for one family may not work for another. Parents' situations and capabilities differ, even though their goals (to help their children succeed) are usually the same.
  • It's important to stress that you don't need money or education to have meaningful and crucial interactions with your children. It's just that many parents don't realize how important it is or how to do it. They don't talk with their young children, but only to them "do this, don't do that" or about them.
  • Factors over which parents exercise authority - absenteeism from school, reading materials in the home, and television watching. Families that take an active role in these three factors have 8th graders who do better on math scores - and numerous studies have shown that families who are involved have kids who do better in school in general.
  • You can't separate home life from school life. Parents expect that kids will learn in school; teachers expect that kids have a home environment that encourages learning
  • To work effectively with parents, teachers can find out their values and details about their parenting - Edwards calls this "parent stories." It's gaining info from parents about traditional and nontraditional early literacy activities and experiences happening in the home - and both supporting and building on these. The "stories" parents tell add a cultural context.
  • Parents learn through this that they have much to teach their kids - they remember "teachable moments" and their kids' early literacy milestones. When they realize their own value as their child's first teacher, they are more likely to be receptive to more ways they can help their child succeed in school.
  • Teachers ask questions like "Can you describe something about your home learning environment that you feel might be different from the learning environment of the school?"
So - clearly this was meant for teachers, and yet there is much here for librarians to ponder. It's been shown over and over that socioeconomic status is a big factor in how ready for school a child will be; these kids have a much smaller vocabulary and much lower language skills because their parents don't interact with them as much, don't read to them, and aren't speaking to them with as big a vocabulary or complex a sentence structure.

We can help spread the word about the why and how to get kids ready for school. We know it's as simple and as fun as singing, playing, talking, reading, and writing. We know that what parents do makes a HUGE difference. We have to get the word out to all parents through effective outreach in the library and out in the community. We need to get to parents where they are - at clinics, in churches, at parks, in schools.

And when the word gets out and parents come flocking to the library, we'll be ready with storytimes, parent workshops, and most of all - books!!! Free books!!! Wonderful books with which to nourish their kids.

Ahem. So that was just one program today!

I also got some early news from John Cole, Director of the Center for the Book, about their new program Read it Loud, which will attempt to get 5 million parents to commit to reading with their kids 10 minutes a day by 2014. There's LOTS more to it than that (it will use the Marsys Digital Platform to deliver the message about reading to a "multiplicity of digital endpoints" - meaning cell phones, signs, kiosks, etc). Not quite sure I understand the details, but I gotta love the idea of a huge national campaign - hope it catches fire. Libraries will be involved with this for sure.

By the way, Wally Amos (of Famous Amos fame) is part of this campaign, and he spoke for a few minutes. The man is one fabulous storyteller!

I also heard about the various Early Childhood Advisory Councils that are being set up in most of the states by the governors. This is part of the Head Start Act of 2007 that mandated creation or designation of collaborative state bodies that would coordinate early childhood services, bridge existing programs, address program quality, and advise on unified data infrastructure development.

The problem, of course, is that currently there are so many different early childhood programs at all levels, and they aren't working together effectively. Anyway, the states have until August 1st to apply for ARRA stimulus funds to create and run these governor-designated councils. Here is California's ECAC website (which we call ELAC - Early Learning Advisory Council) and these are the members. Some good folks, but no librarians, I can't help but notice. I'd like to see someone from the California State Library or California Library Association on that council. For more info on these ECACs and various projects go to the National Governors Association early childhood website.

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