Passionate readers, authentic writers: Inside Blue Valley's English Language Arts program
Walking into an English Language Arts (ELA) classroom in Blue Valley today might look different than when students’ parents were in school. Those days were filled with whole group reading discussions where students read the same book, discussed it, wrote a paper and repeated the process.
But today, ELA classes take a different approach allowing students to choose what they are reading, participate in small group discussions and develop a love for reading. These subtle changes have made a world of difference in how Blue Valley middle and high school students think about reading and writing.
The district’s 6-12 ELA program through the years has morphed to meet state curriculum standards. But Blue Valley has also set parameters and two-fold goals for the program — students will leave as passionate writers and authentic readers.
“When we talk about passionate readers, that means we want them to not only love to read for pleasure and joy and to have books that they know they like to read, but they can handle the complexity and have the stamina to read any text they encounter,” said Abigail Crane, a Blue Valley instructional design coach.
After graduation, students should leave the district feeling fully equipped to read various texts, from an electrician’s manual to a scholarly report.
“We want to make sure that they are prepared for any path they choose for their future,” Crane said.
Teachers are learning to diversify the reading experiences they provide to students. A class might start the semester with each student choosing an individual book and then later participate in book clubs or small group reading.
“There’s nothing wrong with whole class instruction, but we’re asking our teachers if we want students to love to read they need to have some choice,” Crane said.
Intervention, data and assessments
Reimagination of the ELA program comes with the implementation of new assessments to identify which students might need more support as they journey through school.
In the fall of 2021, Blue Valley implemented universal screeners for grades 6-12. The goal of screeners is to identify students who might be struggling to understand what they’re reading.
That allows teachers to dive deeper into the root cause of the underlying problem, whether it’s a phonetic issue, struggling to decode letters and sounds when reading, or a fluency issue where sentence structure and the reading pace are below proficiency.
Instruction and intervention can then be tailored to meet each student’s needs.
“That could look like reimagining core instruction for that teacher and how they can use that general ELA class time to meet the needs of that student, or it could be providing additional supports where we might enroll them in a reading strategies intervention course," Crane said.
ELA professional learning
At the beginning of the second semester of the 2022-23 school year, Bill Smithyman, an instructional design coach at Blue Valley West, and Crane started a literacy cadre where 26 middle and high school teachers attend professional learning sessions on the topic of ELA.
Throughout six sessions, teachers enhance their skills on various topics, from why choice reading matters, how to build passionate readers and how to intervene when students are struggling. The goal of the cadre is to add more structured literacy strategies to teachers’ toolbelts.
“It's really a group of teacher leaders who are willing to learn, willing to implement new things in their classroom and then willing to share that learning with others,” Crane said.
Erin Mormando, an ELA teacher at Blue Valley Southwest, said her students have enjoyed having the choice to read and connect through literature circles or reading groups structured around a common text selected by the group.
Creating choice reading emphasizes student ownership — a concept teachers are working to integrate into their classrooms.
“Literacy is such a key component of every subject, and it really is the basis for all that we do in education,” Mormando said.
In Allie Spears’ classroom, students are creating a positive culture and authentic environment for reading. Spears, a 6th-grade teacher at Overland Trail Middle, said she puts emphasis on creating a daily reading habit in her classroom as research has shown how vital it is to academic success.
‘Loving reading matters’
When students graduate from Blue Valley, educators want them to leave as passionate readers and strong, authentic writers.
Can students identify their favorite genre of books? Do they have the stamina to read for a long length of time? Are they gradually increasing in complexity of what they are reading? Are they able to speak and listen when they are communicating with others?
These are just a few of the lessons students will leave Blue Valley with and guide them on whatever career path they choose to follow. At the heart of the ELA program is to ensure students learn to love to read. Just 20 minutes a day has invaluable benefits.
“Loving reading matters,” Crane said. “Simply loving to read is one of the strongest indicators of future success and something we strive for in Blue Valley.”