Schools fine-tune English class, say its impact is great

Sep. 3—Districts across the Valley are taking a close look at their English education. During a Danville Area School Board meeting last month, Assistant Superintendent Jason Moser described the situation not only in Danville, but across the state as a "literary crisis."

Moser went on to explain the ways in which student's education in English Language Arts (ELA) affects their comprehension in other subjects. "Literacy impacts all subjects," he said. "If you break down the sections of the state math exams, you see that one of the areas of struggle is in word problems."

Educators in the Valley are taking different approaches to combat the crisis.

Melissa Brouse, English teacher at Shikellamy High School, said she has tried to accept the change of time and practices in her own classroom in order to successfully teach students who learn in different ways.

"My own daughter was taking AP English and asked me to buy her audiobooks," Brouse said. "So I did and she did exceptionally well in the class."

Brouse said the personal experience changed her perspective of things in her own classroom. "I am a person who needs a physical book," she said. "But not everyone learns that way."

Science of reading

Shikellamy School District also made recent changes to their Title I program, Superintendent Dr. Jason Bendle said.

Title I, a federal financial assistance program, aims to provide a high-quality education to every student and to help them meet state standards in reading and math, according to the Title I reading specialists at Chief Shikellamy.

Shikellamy has three Title I reading specialists and three interventionists. The teachers specialize in helping students reach their individual academic goals. The reading specialists work with students in a small group and provide instruction based on the "science of reading," the instructors said.

"I have seen significant growth in students' decoding and fluency using many of these programs," Michele Cullen, reading specialist at Chief Shikellamy, said.

This approach to reading is based on research in the five main areas of the topic: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, according to the specialists at Shikellamy.

"Students seem to enjoy the multi-sensory component of these programs," Alaina Morrison, reading specialist at Chief Shikellamy, said. "It keeps them engaged."

The district recently switched to an "all hands on deck" model in which all specialists work with the same grade level, based on need. Bendle said the change allows for a grade to be immersed in the support it needs.

The superintendent said this is a true Response to Instruction and Intervention (RtII) model. The RtII approach offers extra support for struggling students early on instead of waiting for them to fail or get too far behind.

The information taught to students in elementary levels is important in establishing a base for everything covered in later grades, Moser said earlier this month.

"You are literally taught things in third grade that will be on the Keystones in eighth grade," he said. "What happens is, these concepts get more complex."

As students reach high school, most are taking their final Keystones, if they haven't already, and are wrapping up their state testing obligations. However, educators continue using Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDTs) which are online assessments divided into content areas, Brouse said.

While these assessments might be a drag to some students, Brouse said others like the feedback they get from CDTs. "The kids get immediate feedback," she said. "It also helps them individualize what they need to work on."

Filling gaps in learning

English teachers within the Danville Area School District are working together to fill gaps that were created during the pandemic, according to Brandon Long, English teacher at Liberty Valley Intermediate School.

"COVID has created these weird gaps. Fifteen years ago, if there was a gap, it was almost like a teacher's gap," Long said. "But now, it's all over the place. We are trying to get consistency in literacy. The consistency is really important."

Teachers in varying subjects at Danville High have expressed the importance of ELA in early education in order for students to get back on track.

"Our superintendent, Molly Nied, spoke to high school teachers and they said 'just get kids to read, read, read and learn these skills,'" Long said. "They have to read and do critical thinking schools early on to do well in high school."

Long said he uses literature to explore other subjects, even in his own class. "We are focusing on reading and cross-curricular learning. We have just different stories that relate to certain inventors," he said. "We still cover things like main idea, but we are using history or science to help build it in. We are working on bringing everything together into reading."

Students realize they will have to read in the future, even if it's just a cookbook or to learn how to fix their cars, according to Long. Though the teacher said he tries to make his students understand that books are their tickets to anywhere in the world.

"Reading is the one subject that can take you anywhere," Long said. "You can be in Spain in one book and on the moon in the next."

Weaving in current events

Sydney Edwards, who teaches English at Lewisburg Area High School, said she uses current events and nonfiction literature to help her students see the bigger picture of the world surrounding them.

"We look at how what we are doing relates to the world today. I've brought up the crisis in Venezuela and I'm like 'if it's a free-for-all all, how does that work?'" Edwards said. "I'm always bringing in current events and real instances to tie into the literature."

In this way, Edwards said English class helps her students realize the complexity of the world surrounding them. "I try to make sure that they understand that there are other things in the world and take a look at that," she said.

Students in Edwards' classes also read nonfiction pieces to better understand literary structures which translate into other classes, she said.

"For my tenth-graders, I focus on hitting some non-fiction here and there. That goes into other courses, especially in decoding articles and headings and how text is organized," Edwards said. "That is helpful when reading a textbook to find the information you want."

Lewisburg students also read out loud, whether they do so in class or meet with Edwards separately. The teacher said she emphasizes the importance of reading to children in her classes.

"Honestly, one of my big things with tenth-graders is making them read out loud, even if they meet with me separately," Edwards said. "I try to explain to them that later, they might have kids in their lives and studies show that if you don't read to a child, they could be thousands of words behind."

'Never more important'

Other English teachers at Lewisburg High shared their thoughts on the ways their subject matter impacts understanding and their students' futures in the world.

"In the humanities, we're studying and analyzing the experience of being human in the world, which has always been a vital need, but feels especially important today for a whole constellation of reasons," Tyler Russel said. "Today, literacy has perhaps never been more important as a skill that opens doors and opportunities, and there are so many new ways for students to become 'literate' citizens of the world."

Similarly, James Garrett reflected on the importance of literacy in understanding and engaging with the world around us.

"Literacy underlies and connects to everything — it is the foundation for personal and intellectual growth, allowing us to read the word and the world," he said. "In that sense, ELA is important because it's about what it is, what it means, to be a human being, actively engaging us in learning how to move through the world consciously and compassionately."

Brouse also reflected on the ways in which ELA and literacy, in a broader sense, impact students for years to come.

"Literacy is more than just reading and writing. It also involves speaking, listening, thinking and responding critically," she said. "These skills are required in every job and career. These skills are required to live happy, fulfilling lives."