Simple Steps to Build a Literacy Culture

By LaQuita Outlaw, Guest Blogger

I am embarrassed to admit this, but my focus was not always on literacy. Yes, as a secondary English Language Arts teacher, I know how important learning to read is. I also know how critical it is for students – all students – to understand how to read to learn. And although I knew the value of literacy in the lives of the students I served, it was not what I led with. It was not a part of my mantra. It was with one chance encounter that everything changed – forever.

My librarian shared with me that she was selected as the School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal and Scholastic. Of course, I was thrilled for her because all of her hard work would now be nationally recognized. She wanted me to know that representatives from Scholastic would be visiting. The day arrived and my desk was piled high with observations and paperwork that needed to get done. I planned to say hello to our guests and return to the office to plug away at the piles. My librarian stepped into the office to share that her guests had arrived and they were heading to the library to take a look at the space she’d created. I stepped out of the office to say hello and walked to the library with them to finish the introductions. I never returned to my piles.

So here is the million-dollar question – what happened? I still am unable to answer that question. I often wonder what clicked for me that day that did not exist before. Was it that the vice president of Scholastic Book Fairs was telling me that the love of reading did not happen for him until high school? Could it be true it is never too late to light that spark in our children? Did I at that moment realize the difference I could make in the lives of the many children who roam our halls each day? I can’t say. But what I can pinpoint is the difference that one chance encounter made for my children and the staff. The true passion these visitors had for promoting independent reading was infectious. It became indisputably clear to me that Scholastic was about more than just the book fair. I began to hear about what other schools were doing to promote literacy and the benefits those practices had for the students they served. I wanted that for my students as well.

It started with the What are you reading? signs. I loved the thought of teachers sharing what they were reading with students – and it was easy! It would either go really well, or it would go – well – it was optional – it couldn’t go badly. That small sign which promoted reading sparked a light in and brought out the passion for reading in some staff that it knocked me over! I put my sign up first – and then several teachers followed. I dovetailed on my librarian's email touting the idea and offering to print the signs in color for any teacher who was interested. The ball began rolling and the requests were coming in. We even started talking amongst each other about the books we were reading.

The next step for me was to stand at my morning duty with a book in hand. I welcomed students with a good morning and stopped any child I saw with a book. We talked briefly and then others began to share the book they were reading. That morphed into walking around the cafeteria with my book and talking with children about it. I started with Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It was an instant hit. The students who read it were telling me how much I would love it and there were a host of other children who were telling me that they wanted to read the book. This was another simple activity, but the benefits of promoting literacy in this way were huge. I must admit, the book selection was a significant part of the success of these activities.

We ended the year with a door decorating contest.*The staff was encouraged to pick a favorite book with their advisory (we also know it as homeroom) and work together to recreate their favorite book’s cover on their door. The winning advisory would earn a $10 certificate for each student and the teacher to the book fair. My door, with the help of one of my esteemed art teachers of Linda Mullaly Hunt’s Fish in a Tree, was the first to go up. Again, this was voluntary, but we had over 60 out of 99 advisories participate. The buzz around the building was infectious. Then we took pictures and had the students vote on their favorite door during lunch.

We still have a ways to go to ensure literacy is a lasting, cultural practice in the school, but these few simple steps have us heading along the right road and on the right path. I continue to be in awe of the stories teachers now share about the impact these steps have had on their classroom practice. From the increase in the amount of classroom libraries we have to the moments now provided to students in the beginning of class for independent reading. This is just the beginning, and we have already reaped several benefits. I can’t wait to see the way our children get to celebrate their reading lives and the reading lives of their students next.

*Disclaimer – if you choose to hold a door decorating contest – consider holding the contest toward the end of the year. The teachers and students get a bit connected to their doors and don’t want to take them down. It’s not a welcomed addition by the Fire Marshall.

LaQuita Outlaw is a middle school principal on Long Island in New York. She has served as a school leader for over a decade. You can read more about getting school leaders involved on IdeaShare and you can follow her on Twitter @drloutlaw.