Rylene Stein, principal at the University of South Florida Patel Charter School (USF Patel), had a problem—actually a couple of problems. She was looking for more participation from parents (the same faithful few showed up for every PTA meeting), and she was trying to improve her students’ fluency. She hit upon a way that addressed both. Rylene explains:
We might get six parents to show up at meetings, 12 at the most. We needed to get more parents involved and to be more inclusive. Our population is 87% African American, 1% Asian, 1% Indian, and 8% Hispanic. That diversity was not what we saw at the parent meetings. I asked the staff, “What is it we really want when we have parent meetings?” They said, “We’d like to show off our kids’ work.” My fine arts background caused me to think, “Galleries!” Rylene explains her vision:
People would come at their leisure, circle, critique, pose questions. Just like artists in a gallery, students would stand back and see how other’s react to their work. Then they could jump back in to interact with the audience. Everyone would be invited.
The Masterpiece Gallery Lesson Plan
USF Patel now hosts six masterpiece galleries a year. Each gallery has a different focus, but every year, several galleries are devoted to reading fluency. Two grade levels are showcased at each one, however, everyone is invited, not just the families of the featured students. Dozens of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, and neighbors show up to share in the students’ masterpiece work. Guests are given a box lunch. Sometimes the school picks up the cost and sometimes participants are charged an affordable fee, usually $2. The Masterpiece Gallery lasts no more than one hour, an important point for busy families.
There was standing room only at a recent kindergarten and fifth-grade Masterpiece Gallery. The kindergarten Gallery showcased the culmination of a Dr. Seuss unit while the fifth-grade Gallery showcased the products of a unit on peace.
Kindergarten Masterpiece Gallery
Prior to Masterpiece Gallery, the two kindergarten classes had spent three weeks working on reading fluency, compliments of Dr. Seuss. Throughout the unit, teachers Kelly Kleiner and Maria LeFamina read aloud 10 Seuss books. Students were naturally immersed in fluency as they listened with glee to the teachers’ reading rate, phrasing, and intonation. Before long, students were chiming in on repeated readings and selecting the books for sustained silent reading.
To develop word automaticity so that the students could actually read the books, Kelly and Maria used activities from the book I Am Not Going to Read Any Words Today! Learn About Rhyming Words (Hayward & Goldsmith, 1995). In the mornings, the teachers and children talked about fluency, word families, and rhyming.
In the afternoons, they practiced Readers Theater scripts that Kelly adapted from the Dr. Seuss books. As they practiced fluency, they also learned new vocabulary words. Kelly used terms like script, performance, and director. She also worked with the children on social skills that would be necessary for a successful Masterpiece Gallery. They learned to stand still while someone else was reading, to be respectful, and to follow along on their script. “They really wanted to read,” Kelly says, laughing. “Denae was mad at me. She put her hands on her hips and said indignantly, ‘Ms. Kleiner! I only have one line!’“ After several days of practice, each student chose which Dr. Seuss book they wanted to showcase for the Gallery.
Now what the children needed was an audience! They made invitations for their parents, relatives, and friends, as well as for university faculty and board members, and then waited impatiently for the evening to arrive.
The kindergarten Masterpiece Gallery began with the Readers Theater script for The Cat in the Hat (Seuss, 1957). Kelly had put the text onto chart paper, and one student used a pointer so the audience could follow along on the chart as other students read their scripts. In addition to reading along, parents were given a parent participation sheet. Prior to Masterpiece Gallery, they had been helping their children with sight words at home, so during the performance they were asked to listen for those words and list them on their participation sheet. Children would check their parents’ list later. Rylene explains, “Parents are always involved in some way. We are striving to get away from the curriculum fair or art fair format where people just come and passively observe.”
In keeping with Readers Theater tradition, students did not wear elaborate costumes. “Keep the focus on reading,” is Kelly’s advice to others. “We don’t want anything to take away from their performance.” The Cat in the Hat simply wore a black shirt and pants and Maria offered up a red scarf. Halfway through the performance, the cast discovered that one of the main characters, Mother, was not there. The Cat in the Hat took off her red scarf, picked up the mother’s script, and proclaimed, to the delight of the audience, “Oh, I’ll just do it,” and proceeded to read two parts.
Refreshments for the evening? Green eggs and ham, of course!
Fifth-Grade Masterpiece Gallery
That same evening, fifth-grade students shared their Masterpiece Gallery based on a holiday unit on peace. Teachers Julie Moors and Autumn Laidler explained that many of their students do not celebrate traditional holidays, so they designed a unit on peace to correspond with Veterans Day. The teachers used ideas from “Peace Poems and Picasso Doves: Literature, Art, Technology, and Poetry” from readwritethink.org, a website supported by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.
The teachers modeled fluency throughout the unit as they read aloud stories and poems from books such as An Angel for Solomon Singer (Rylant, 1996) and Smoky Night (Bunting, 1999). Literacy activities rich with fluency wove their way through the unit. Students wrote and read acrostic peace poems. Students and teachers collaborated in grading the poems with a rubric. Students wrote essays on “What Peace Means to Me,” and read them orally in class. They brainstormed lists of words beginning with p that represent peace.
The teachers integrated art into the unit (certainly appropriate for a Gallery!) as they connected to Picasso’s famous peace dove painting. Students made peace pinwheels and origami cranes to serve as centerpieces for tables at Masterpiece Gallery.
As Masterpiece Gallery drew near, students had the choice to work independently or collaborate with others to create peace displays that included an original piece of artwork with a dove incorporated, a personal poem about peace, and an origami crane from their reading of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (Coerr, 2005). On the evening of the Gallery, the walls of the cafeteria were covered with colorful posters. Julie comments, “The kids were thrilled when they saw it all set up. It all came together. It was impressive!”
Fluency was front and center as the students shared their peace projects. The presentations ranged from describing an experience in nature, to what peace means to them personally, to how they see or want to see peace in the world. One student’s poem focused on a description of the peaceful sound of a running river and had an art piece to match. Another student described a peaceful day with family sharing food, laughs, and gifts. Another memorable peace poem spoke of peace in the student’s country of origin, a Middle Eastern country, and why peace is necessary there.
When the program began, the teachers requested that applause be held till the end, but members of the audience could not comply with the request. Each student received a strong round of applause after his or her reading. Autumn reflects, “The students read their poems with such strength and passion. It was a very moving experience, especially at a time of holidays and yet uncertainty in the world.”
Evidence of Success
Rylene calls the Fluency Masterpiece Gallery a “principal’s dream.” She shared that the Galleries “have really brought in the crowds.” Parents feel more connected to the school. “They used to say, ‘You never communicate.’ I never hear that anymore,” she says with satisfaction.
Parents have a more intimate involvement with their own child and they see the results of what is happening in the whole school. Parents are so proud. We are showcasing their child. Attendance has increased because the word is out that you get to see the kids, not just papers hanging on the walls.
Most gratifying, however, is the sense of accomplishment and pride Rylene observes in the students. “Students actually have an opportunity to make their learning real,” she states. She can tell story after story of individual children who have surprised everyone with their marvelous presentations. “Each student’s work is a masterpiece,” Rylene brags.
USF Patel Charter School teachers are excited about the learning they know is spurred by Masterpiece Gallery. Autumn calls Masterpiece Gallery the “hook” to get students practicing fluency. “Kids get really excited. Just using the word masterpiece, kids think, ‘Wow!’ Just the term invites quality work.“ Julie adds, “You know how much they are learning, but when they get up and present, it blows you away.” The teachers believe parent turnout is so high because students are excited about sharing their work. “They talk about it for weeks before the parents actually receive an invitation,” Kelly says.
Not only is parent attendance high for Masterpiece Gallery, but student attendance in school increases for Masterpiece Gallery draws near. The teachers comment that students want to be in school so they can prepare. In fact, some students are disappointed when they are ill or have doctor appointments. They tell their teachers, “Wait till I get back!” In fact, Autumn says laughing, “If a child had to go to the bathroom, he would say, ’Don’t start yet!’ as he dashed out the door.”
The excitement of Masterpiece Gallery carries into everyday reading. Kelly says, “On a regular basis they are saying, ‘Please, please, please can we read?’“ Julie chimes in, “That’s happening in fifth grade, too. They want to share what they’re writing even apart from Masterpiece Gallery.”
Julie reflects on bringing the grades together. “It was nice to pair kindergarten with fifth grade. Parents got to see the beginning point and ending point of our school—what the works looks like at kindergarten and what it looks like at fifth grade.”
The parents’ attendance is evidence of success in and of itself. In addition, they frequently comment about the benefits of Masterpiece Gallery. “We never did this kind of thing before,” one mother comments. “I’m so glad my child has a chance to do this!”
The father of a particularly quiet, struggling reader couldn’t believe his son had written such an insightful poem. “I was so proud of the way he read it in front of a crowd on Masterpiece night,” he says. He explains that the peace unit had really engaged his son. “It made me feel so proud to see him express himself both in writing and art!”
The parent of a fifth grader new to the school told Julie, “It was hard deciding whether to send Kyla to a charter school. The night I came to Masterpiece Gallery, I knew I did the right thing.” She continued,
I really know my daughter is being challenged to think critically about things she is learning. Not only is she reading better, she is also making connections to the world around her. In her other school, the kids were taught so much so quickly, and they often barely scratched the surface.
Although the principal’s, teachers’, and parents’ testimonials are important, students’ comments are the real test. Here’s what some kindergartners had to say:
Hannah: I like Readers Theater because my mom came to school to watch me.
Alicia: I like acting in plays because maybe I will be on TV one day.
Danae: It made my brain think about school all the time because I wanted to be the Cat!
Julie reports about a student’s reaction,
One student who enjoys art was totally blown away by the origami cranes and the story of Sadako and her efforts to promote peace in the world. It made her realize that children can and do make a difference in the world. She said that usually when people talk about peace, they only focus on past and current wars, and the efforts of the military. She thought it was powerful to think of peace in our everyday world, and how each of us could make a difference, no matter how small the contribution. She went on to make cranes for all her family members who attended a family reunion, and told them the story of Sadako. How cool!
USF Patel Charter School no longer struggles for parent involvement. Parents are now getting involved in a way that is meaningful to them and to their children. Every student’s work is a Masterpiece, and the celebrations that surround their work have had a great impact. Rylene and her teachers continually ask the students, “What are you here for?” They respond with enthusiasm, “A great day of learning!” Having real work for a real audience has made the difference.
1. What is your goal for parent events or meetings?
2. How could you showcase students’ fluency progress?
3. Does your school have a way for parents to participate in student work?
4. How many parents attend PTA meetings at your school? Could some meetings be used for a Fluency Masterpiece Gallery?
5. Does your school have a curriculum fair or art show where parents are passive observers of student work? If so, could it be restructured so that students and parents participate in celebrating student work?
For more about fluency, including lessons, strategies, and ideas, see Your Complete Guide to Reading Fluency .