Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.
“Helping kids learn to read is one of the best parts of being a kindergarten teacher,” says Melinda Van Lare of Moses Brown School. “But there just aren’t enough good materials for beginners to practice their skills.” Many children succeed in a small reading group, or even one-on-one with a teacher, but they don’t have those same books, at home. Kids want to share their new skills with their families, but may not be able to read the “early readers” at libraries or bookstores. If the text is too advanced, a child becomes frustrated; if it’s too easy, she loses the pride of accomplishment. “I’d think, if only they had books they could practice on with their teachers, then take home to read often,” Melinda says. “If the illustrations were line drawings, they could even color them in, and really take ownership. By the end of kindergarten, kids would have a book box at home, full of books they can read. By practicing reading these books over and over – showing family and friends what they can read – they’d build their confidence and see themselves as readers. The premise is simple: a reader has to read, and not just at school.”
These kinds of books didn’t exist. “I looked, hard,” Melinda laughed, “but I couldn’t find what we needed.” She decided to make them herself. Lower school head Jeff d’Entremont encouraged her to consult the Common Core Language Arts Standards that apply specifically to reading and kindergarten. “I was so pleased to find that my idea for having the children learn, practice, read and re-read early-reading books aligns with these standards.”
Last summer, Melinda wrote, illustrated and created ten six-page early-reading books to use in her classroom, using InDesign and Photoshop. The books help teach the basic features of print – to follow the words from left to right, top to bottom, page to page – reinforcing kids’ knowledge that words are separated by spaces, that words have meanings, and that they can read a text with purpose and understanding. During the school year, she test-drove the books with her kindergarteners, and got lots of feedback. “The kids had plenty of suggestions,” she laughs, “about illustrations, word choices, even font.”
She wrote an introduction for teachers, explaining how to use the books in a classroom setting and at home. Teachers will be able to download them from the digital file, print, fold, and staple copies as needed. When an attorney suggested that her idea (an early-reader that can be colored in) should be copyrighted before sharing with a publisher or at a conference, Melinda adjusted her launch plan and registered the ten books under her own copyright. “It was fascinating to learn about the copyright process,” she says, “as well as how to get my work published. Now that I know how to do it, I can show colleagues how to get their work copyrighted, online.” Her collection of mini-books is ready for a publisher. This year, she hopes to expand with the next set of ‘book box books’ – ten-page books.