Fighting Literacy Odds in the Classroom

Written by Stephanie Gordon

It’s no secret that literacy rates across the country are far from stellar. In May, Florida Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, visited campus to speak about the state of American education, focusing on literacy in America. In his state of Florida, more than 60% of fourth graders are not at reading level. Here in Michigan, the stats are similar.

Intrigued, and honestly concerned by the facts that Corcoran shared, and as a parent of three young children, I wanted to learn more about literacy stats in Hillsdale County. According to the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, 36.5% of students in Hillsdale County are proficient in ELA by the end of third grade. Let that sink in.

After hours of research, I’ve concluded that my family beat the statistical odds. Our children love to read, and I can’t imagine not having books in our home. Some of the facts I stumbled across were absolutely heartbreaking.

My eldest daughter’s teacher, Ashley York, ’06, is making moves and helping create excited, young readers in the classroom. I know this firsthand as she’s taught my daughter key skills to become a successful reader. Ashley is a looping first-second grade teacher at Gier Elementary School in Hillsdale. She has experience teaching pre-k through second grade students – some of the most moldable years in a person’s life.

Ashley graduated with a degree in elementary education with an endorsement in early childhood education. She also received her Master of Arts in Literacy Instruction from Michigan State University in 2012.

“A child’s greatest hope is their teacher,” said Ashley. “I foster hope by building genuine relationships with and among students. I have students yearly that require my empathetic awareness of their experienced hardships, as well as the ability to focus on the positives of that child’s nature. I show students how to be courageous in order to see challenges as opportunities, providing high-quality instruction with ample resources at their fingertips.” 

Ashley said adults forget that the world is still new to 5-year-olds. Beginning readers need to be surrounded by literacy. She approaches young readers by having read-aloud time, shared reading experiences, small group guided reading, independent reading, and playtime with words. But, reading also begins at home with oral language, meaningful conversation, and ritualistic lap readings.

“Oral language is often taken for granted because it seems to happen naturally for many,” she said. “But, what about those who come from families of few words or little to no written literacy in the house? What about every child? Home dynamics are not in my control. So, I do what I can control and give every child every moment of every day to succeed and excel by meeting them where they are within authentic literacy experiences, cheering them on the entire way.”

In 2016, the Michigan Legislature established the Read by Grade Three Law. This law essentially identifies struggling k-3 readers with one-on-one literacy assessments.

“These short assessments are used in conjunction with observations to determine unique strengths and needs as a literacy learner,” said Ashley. However, she said teachers are assessing students daily.

According to Ashley, it can be difficult to identify a child as “behind” without giving the child adequate exposure and opportunity to learn over time in a high-quality setting. 

“We give learners their best shot by identifying them as “at-risk” early on and take charge to get to the why before small deficits become craters in a student’s literacy learning,” she said.

With students who are behind, she said it is necessary to dig deeper with assessment and observation to give the child the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do independently.  The goal is to find their range of independence, putting emphasis on what they control as a literacy learner in order to move forward.  With a collection of data points and colleague collaboration, an Individual Reading Improvement Plan (IRIP) is written. 

She said oftentimes, in these moments, it feels like she’s sledding downhill. 

“You feel the chill of the wind and the joy of the rush as you speed to a place that will require you to get up and do it again, increasing in difficulty as you go because your muscles are being pushed and worked, ultimately stronger,” Ashley said. “That is the feeling of success with the intrinsic desire to grow. But, sometimes it feels like you’re climbing an active volcano together, ready to erupt at any moment. You appreciate the hot rocks from the recent lava flow, knowing the beautiful growth that comes from something so destructive. You know it could erupt again, but you have given the child tools for this exact moment and the child perseveres! In both scenarios, the learner begins to form a growth mindset, the desire to continue and persevere regardless of hardship. This is all about teaching even the youngest learner to recognize the hard parts and create and conquer goals, side by side, student and educator.”

For Ashley, setting children up for success really comes down to knowing individual children, and it’s all about relationships, tools, and goals.

“A great teacher figures out what creates a child’s emotions, especially laughter and peace,” she said. “Pay attention to a child’s stories and you will learn so much about what gives them life and draws them in. You learn about their greatest joys, who their biggest cheerleaders are, and what drives their decisions.” 

Ashley said her experience at Hillsdale taught her to see the world through a bigger lens.

“I came from a back-country road; riddled with personal obstacles,” she said. “I learned to see from new perspectives, encouraged and questioned to explore and define my understanding of the world around me. It’s through rich literacy and intentional training for respectful discourse and negotiation that I can begin to help even the youngest learner develop a foundation for becoming a critical thinker and face the world with optimism.”

And with that optimism, she wants the youngest learners to develop a passion for literacy.

“It’s important to give children the tools to explore in a way that allows them to draw their own conclusions about the world around them,” she said. “Learning to read and, later, reading to learn drives that exploration. I want learners to interact with reading, relate to characters, sample genres, question concepts, make connections, and widen knowledge. Overall, I want my students to think critically about their world and persevere when challenged.”

Frederick Douglass said education is freedom – and to deny anyone a world class education is a crime. It’s no doubt that teachers like Ashley are working tirelessly to make a positive impact in children’s lives. 

“From the very moment students see me, I want each to know that today is a new day to discover,” said Ashley. “Mornings are my favorite because I get to see so many faces across grade levels as we swim through the lively hallways. You’ll find me singing good morning to groups of students passing by, giving hugs and high fives, or simply calling out positive affirmations and making conversation. My actions speak, ‘You are here, you are safe, you are loved, you are amazing.’ Every day is a day full of hope when there is so much life in one place. Whatever length of time passes, I want students to remember how it feels to be strengthened, supported, and deeply cared for. I want them to give that same hope back to the world.”

Stephanie Gordon, a lifelong Hillsdale native, is the Managing Editor of the Student Stories Blog. She is married to chiropractor, Dr. Matt Gordon, and has three children – Eloise, Flora, and Jack. When she has a spare moment, she enjoys paleo baking, floating on Baw Beese Lake, and breaking a sweat at the gym.

Published in August 2021