Two literacy teachers talk about back-to-school.
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Iowa Reading Research Center
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It’s August, which means the new school year is almost upon us. This can be a hectic time for parents, students, and teachers alike, as we all adjust to the new schedules, responsibilities, and people entering our lives. To get a sense of how literacy teachers are preparing for and thinking about the upcoming school year, the IRRC communications team interviewed Jess Sauer, a sixth-grade reading and writing teacher in the Clear Creek Amana Middle School in Tiffin, and Kelsey Rankin, a third-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary in Council Bluffs. Read on to learn how these two teachers are getting ready, including teaching tips, building a classroom library, and more.

Insights From Two Teachers Getting Ready for the School Year

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): How are you preparing to teach literacy for the upcoming school year?

Jess Sauer (JS): I am one of two sixth-grade literacy teachers at our school, so my teaching partner and I spent time this summer planning our areas of skill focus, discussing how we will do Tier 2 interventions, cataloging and planning for small book clubs, and creating some of the worksheets and assignments that we will use throughout the year. We also created a writing prompt template that our entire sixth-grade team will be utilizing in order to promote writing across all content areas. 

Kelsey Rankin (KR): I am preparing by collaborating with my grade-level team and instructional coach to use data to inform instruction. Once we are officially back to school, we will meet as a team a couple of times a week to analyze data and plan with our professional learning community groups. 

IRRC: Describe what it’s like for you during the first week of school, both in general and as it relates to teaching literacy.  

KR: The first week of school is all about building relationships and establishing routines and expectations. As far as literacy during the first week of school, I teach students how to use our Reading/Writing Workshop and Literature Anthology texts, how to set up their literacy notebooks, how to choose good books for independent reading, and how to use our classroom library. We also spend time building reading stamina and establishing a culture of literacy in the classroom by reading books together and independently.

JS: Our sixth-grade team plans the first few days to be focused on routines and supporting the students in feeling comfortable in the new school. We definitely also get literacy in there—having students choose books and giving them time to read right away that first week. I do book talks and introduce them to my classroom library, starting right out with the expectation that everyone will find lots of things they might like to read!

IRRC: What do you look for when building a classroom library? 

JS: I have been building up my classroom library since I started teaching 22 years ago, and it is a true labor of love. I want my sixth graders to feel seen in the books they are reading, so I look for main character diversity in ethnicity, religion, gender identity, family structure, socioeconomic level, ability/disability, and so on. I also want students to see the wider world outside of Iowa, so I look for books set all around the world. Finally, I want my students to be able to use books to explore problems and situations that they or their friends and family might face. I include books where characters are dealing with big world issues like access to education, climate change, and surviving war, as well as books dealing with divorce, sibling rivalry, figuring yourself out, peer pressure, etc. 

Jess Sauer has been building her classroom library for 22 years. Books are arranged by genre and alphabetized within the genre, making it easy to find a particular book quickly. She looks for books that stand out for their diversity and relatability.
KR: I have specifically focused on making sure my classroom library is an accurate representation of the world around us with a diverse selection of books. I pay attention to which books, genres, authors, and series my students enjoy and try to build my library around their interests.

IRRC: What are some of your number-one tips for new reading and writing teachers? 

KR: Don't be afraid to ask questions! Other teachers, instructional coaches, and curriculum specialists have all been a great help to me. My instructional coaches have helped me so much by facilitating coaching cycles and peer observations.
JS: Showing enthusiasm and excitement about reading is incredibly important. If you share something you read that you found fascinating or funny, kids will want to read it, too. I always tell my students that my goal is to help them feel comfortable and confident enough to read anything they want or need to read.
For writing, I would say, take joy from your students’ writing. I love to comment on great word choice or share a sentence that really gets a point across. Also, give students the chance to write non-graded poems. They will amaze you with the words they put together.

IRRC: What things are you most excited for when it comes to your literacy teaching? The school year in general? 

JS: As always, I am incredibly excited to meet my new group of readers and writers. The best part of teaching is the students, in all of their beautiful, goofy middle school ways. 
KR: I'm excited to get to know my students and build a love of reading with them. One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is introducing students to new books that might spark a love of reading. I also really love finding engaging ways to implement our curriculum to make literacy fun for students.
A big thank you to Jess and Kelsey for these insightful responses! We here at the IRRC look forward this school year to supporting educators as they strive to meet the literacy learning needs of their students.

Books Used in IRRC Study Put to Further Good Use Through Donations

(Top, back row) IRRC staff Anna Gibbs and Allison Hippen with staff and children at the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.
(Bottom) Gibbs drops off books by the armful as a child at HACAP Head Start in Iowa City shows off her new book.
Over the two years or so, it had started to look like the children’s section of a library in the IRRC. Colorful books of all sizes with exciting titles and engaging cover art filled the bookshelves around the center. This large inventory of picture books was used for research for which IRRC Dyslexia Consultant Anna Gibbs was the lead researcher. The most recent study, which is also Gibbs’ doctoral dissertation study, looked at the effect of a science vocabulary intervention through shared reading and guided-play activities for preschool-aged children. Gibbs’ and other IRRC staff prepared the study materials in the spring by creating various lessons and scientific investigations involving the informational science books. Gibbs and staff conducted the study this summer in three HACAP Head Start and two Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County locations. Gibbs is now writing the study results, but what are we to do with all these books? Gibbs came up with the idea of donating them to the same locations at which we conducted the study.
Earlier this month, Gibbs loaded up the books in a cart and brought them to the HACAP Head Start and NCJC offices. The children who were there when she stopped by were thrilled to have some new books (and some familiar ones) to read. Seeing the smiles on their faces was a refreshing reminder that a new book in the hands of a young child is a source of excitement. We are appreciative of those children and the staff at the HACAP Head Start and NCJC for partnering with us on this study.
Thanks for reading!

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