Reading Opens The World

Our guest author today is Evelyn DeJesus, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a member of the board of directors of the Albert Shanker Institute.

Today I am going to be talking about a topic that is very close to my heart, reading instruction and literacy—the bedrock, the deepest foundation for what we do as educators. And I’ll also talk a bit about the AFT’s new, multimillion dollar, multi-year literacy campaign, Reading Opens the World

Literacy Instruction and the Science of Reading

Because strong reading and comprehension skills underlie everything else that we do in the classroom, the AFT has been “all in” on literacy for more than two decades. As President Randi Weingarten reminded us in her opening speech at TEACH last summer, “Over 20 years ago, the AFT first identified the need for educators—whatever their subject or level—to know more about research-based literacy.

We shared the research, trained thousands of teachers, and a little publication called Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science became a household name (well in homes like mine at least)!

And the science behind that publication hasn’t changed much in the twenty years since—in fact, it has been affirmed and reaffirmed. The science is well established on how children best learn to read. Another thing that hasn’t changed—there still isn’t nearly enough support and professional development for reading instruction for our nation’>s teachers.

We cannot go forward without understanding where we are; we need to acknowledge that that even before the pandemic, under-resourced schools did not have adequate access to high-quality instructional resources. From programs to teach reading skills to classroom libraries rich enough to spark each child’s curiosity to professional development on supporting struggling readers, our schools that need the most have tended to get the least. Then, during the pandemic, we saw—often in heartbreaking detail—how students who had been already marginalized before Covid-19 hit, ended up suffering the most.

As we reimagine teaching and learning, we can’t let that continue. In our Back to School for All Campaign last year, we invested $5 million in connecting with families to bring all of our students back to in-person instruction, where they belong.

>Now, in our new campaign, Reading Opens the World, we are committed to increasing support for teachers and PSRPs on reading instruction. How to begin? Where we always begin—with our members.

We conducted a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 members in order to understand the state of reading instruction in the country, and what teachers want and need to improve the literacy of their students. What we found wasn’t surprising. In fact, it confirmed much of what we already knew: teaching conditions are tough; support and time for meaningful collaboration are lacking; relevant professional development isn’t common enough; and students enter their classrooms behind in reading.

Here is a common sentiment expressed by respondents: “I was never really taught how to teach reading. My own preparation didn’t prepare me to be a reading teacher.” Sound familiar?

Of course it does. When I was a reading specialist/teacher and union leader I would visit many schools in my district. Many teachers would voice to me that their supervisors observing them often knew less about reading instruction than they did! My colleagues teaching math, science, and social studies had received no training, no professional development in how to help struggling readers access their subject matter and continue building the knowledge and vocabulary that are so essential to reading comprehension. This wasn’t their fault, of course—but it did have consequences, that we see all around us today.

That, my union family, needs to change, and is going to change.

We have the data. We have the science. We have phenomenal expertise in our Educational Issues Department. And we have great members. The time has come to support them to do what they need to do.

AFT Campaign: Reading Opens the World

That’s why in December the AFT launched the Reading Opens the World Campaign—a multi-year effort that will:

  • Give children and young people 1 million free books to read, love, keep and open their world;
  • Give teachers and school staff high-quality tools and professional development that translate the science of reading into usable resources to help students read—and read well;
  • Give parents and caregivers fun and research-based tips and tools to support literacy; and,
  • Build on and forge new connections among families, communities, educators and schools to be partners in students’ literacy.

In January we launched a literacy webinar series—with wide-ranging offerings grounded in the science of reading, including teaching English language learners; literacy in the content areas; a primer on the science of reading; strategies to improve students’ reading, writing, speaking and listening skills; and much more! 

The Reading Opens the World Community on AFT’s Share My Lesson has resources for teaching reading and for parents to support their child’s journey to becoming a strong reader.

Reading Opened MY World

On a personal note, reading isn’t just a subject—it’s personal. My family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City, so when I was learning to read, I was also learning a brand-new language. Talk about confusion! Thank goodness I had my parents, who poured their hearts into helping me learn to read and to adjust to my new life.

And I had teachers. To this day I remember them, Miss Maldonado. She was so talented and skillful. She truly opened the world to me. 

And when I became a teacher in New York’s Chinatown, I taught reading to more English Language Learners. That was my professional life for 25 years, and I loved it. At the same time, I was a mom of two daughters that learned how to read with different modalities. So I would teach one way to my students, but when I came home I had to use different methods with my daughters. Now I have granddaughters who also have learning issues, so their mothers and I work as a family to keep those reading doors open.

I’m sure all of you also have powerful stories to tell, whether it was your journey learning to read, how books have been a powerful force in your life, or how you helped the kids in your life become stronger readers and develop a love of books. The more we can stay in touch with what it first felt like to enter the world of stories and books—and what it feels like for our kids and students who we guide on that journey—the better we’ll be able to infuse all of our literacy work with the care—and magic—it deserves.

I am personally thrilled to be helping to lead the Reading Opens the World. And if you need any help, have any questions, or want to share YOUR reading story, feel free to drop us a note here. And here’s the truth, I want you to remember as the campaign launches: every educator is a reading teacher. Every. Single. One. Of Us.

Read the complete Shanker Institute Literacy Blog Series