Monica Nachemja-Bunton, faculty member, and Kristen Liu, coordinator of the Literacy Program, “sat down” over Zoom with Emily Lloyd and Kristina Hunt, two candidates in their second year of the Literacy Educators Program at UVEI. Emily Lloyd is currently a first grade teacher at Westshire Elementary School. Kristina Hunt is a kindergarten literacy interventionist at Lyndon Town School. Parts of the conversation have been condensed and edited for clarity.
On their literacy learning journey:
Emily: There are lots of pictures of me as a kid with books stacked around me and I knew that I wanted to be a teacher from the very beginning. Then I found out that first grade was the age I loved because it is such a big year for learning how to read. I learned a lot in my year of student teaching about some best practices, not from my college that I went to, but from the teachers I worked with. I got a job in first grade and this is now my seventh year teaching. And well, probably, by my second year, I realized I really needed more knowledge on how to teach reading. While it’s something that I love, I didn’t necessarily know how to help the kids who are struggling in the best way. I wasn’t always convinced that what I did was best practice, and it seemed like those around me didn’t really know either.
“And while I don’t have the black and white answers I wanted, I do have knowledge that supports why I do what I do, and questions about where I want to go and what I want to learn more about.” (Emily Lloyd, first grade teacher, Westshire Elementary School)
In my first year at UVEI, I would say I learned an immense amount about how to help those students struggling, the ones who I had always felt like I helped a little bit, but not nearly enough. Now, in Year 2 of the program, I feel like I’m still working on implementing all that I learned last year, and also becoming a leader in my school and district. Thinking about my first year in the Literacy Program, entering into it, I had all these questions, and there were all these debates, and I think I expected to walk away with all these answers, that it would be black and white. And it’s so not! But that’s actually okay, and it’s a good thing because it sparks a lot more conversation about literacy. Every kid is different, every class is different and every teacher has their own way of teaching and thinking about things. And while I don’t have the black and white answers I wanted, I do have knowledge that supports why I do what I do, and questions about where I want to go and what I want to learn more about.
Kris: I’ve been a special educator for a long time, and got my master’s in special education. I started out in middle school in New York and then we moved up to Vermont. I had been away from the classroom for a few years, and my young children were getting to be school aged. I found a position here at Lyndon Town School, as a special educator, and did that for 10 years, and was starting to tire from feeling really stretched out thin, and being everything services-wise, from social-emotional, to math and literacy, and I just wanted to have a focus. The opportunity came up for me to jump on a literacy position, but I needed a literacy endorsement. So my enrollment with UVEI was required. I actually felt like I had a pretty good foundation in teaching literacy, especially in the early ages, so I was doing it to fulfill that endorsement requirement, and learned that my training in intervention of literacy was a good start, but I had a ton to learn like Emily was saying. I have learned so much about all the different components of literacy, and implementing more effective interventions with students, and assessments, and tying it in with my instruction, and feedback, and I feel like the quality of my intervention has improved.
When thinking about my journey in literacy, I now always have the image of Scarborough’s Rope and all the different things that go into what helps our students develop their literacy skills. I am much more aware of what you need to have in order to support that. For example, I realized that we weren’t addressing phonological awareness, so that’s become a big focus for our early literacy teachers in the past couple of years. In addition, we’ve talked in my school about the need to shift the way we teach reading and writing, and to use more recent research-based methods of teaching. In K-2, we have talked about how to use our curriculum more effectively and how to shift the way that we are teaching, which are things that I learned at UVEI.
On the changes in their role in their classroom, school and district:
Emily: In terms of my own classroom, I think a lot more about how students develop and the stages of reading development, even teaching kids to know what your mouth looks like and feels like when you’re making a sound. For students who are struggling with reading, I am now using OG methods that make things click for them, and their confidence and engagement goes up. I also am thinking more about comprehension from conversation and oral language development, which has changed a lot for my students when it comes to writing. I have increased the amount of modeling and conversations that I do now with my students before we start writing, and make sure that they know about the topic before we write it. It seems so simple, but when we learned about it, and read the research about best writing practices, I realized I don’t do it nearly enough.
In my school, I feel really good knowing that I have the background knowledge before diving into conversations with other teachers and educators because people have very strong opinions about literacy. That was another reason that I enrolled at UVEI. In my district, there are two schools with their own literacy wars happening. And I was like, “Ooh, I don’t know which side I should be on or if I should be on a side?” And now, I know that I shouldn’t, and there’s a middle ground that we all need to find together. I’m on the Literacy Leadership Committee, and finding my voice, and leading meetings, and helping other teachers. While that doesn’t feel natural or necessarily comfortable for me all the time, I keep being reassured by those around me that I am doing it and that they appreciate it. And, I think that I have a long way to go, but I also know that I have learned a lot and continue to work on how that looks in my classroom.
“I see myself as a leader now, and my colleagues see me as a leader in a really positive way.” (Emily Lloyd, first grade teacher)
It was perfect timing with my school and all the work that my school and district was doing around literacy. So when they asked who wants to be in the literacy committee, I thought, well I’m going to be in this literacy program, I could probably contribute and be helpful. Now, I see myself as really an important part of the team discussing where literacy is going in my school and district. I have all these tools from UVEI that I can pull out and bring to the work that we are doing. I look through my articles, and things from last year and bring them to my colleagues in the district. We’re reading them, highlighting them and talking about the newest research in reading and writing. At the same time, I am leading a datawise cycle and my colleagues are begging to go deeper into data and have it help them inform instruction. And my principal keeps saying, “Emily can help us with that.” I see myself as a leader now, and my colleagues see me as a leader in a really positive way, and I couldn’t have done that without UVEI.
Kris: In the past two years, I feel like I have been pushed in so many ways in my knowledge and challenged in my thinking, in ways that I did not expect because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’m really fortunate to be in a district where I have met a lot of great literacy teachers and leaders and coaches and interventionists over my time here. Being in UVEI has given me great appreciation for the quality of the staff at my school because they make it look easy and it’s really not. Going through the program has helped me be a part of the conversation, just like Emily was saying, about where literacy is going in our school. This year, I’ve been able to influence other teachers in their teaching of literacy and my sphere of influence has widened a little bit. I’m on our literacy steering committee, and a couple of other committees on the school level, and have been able to share a lot of my UVEI learning with my colleagues.. Through my PLC with my grade level team, I’ve been able to directly use what I’m learning at UVEI in facilitation of teacher learning every week . It reminds me of when we were talking about team vs group, and I feel like we have gone from a pseudo group to a solid team and it’s thanks to what we have been learning about. I have also joined the LEAD Learner literacy committee in my district, where we are discussing literacy practices in grades 3 to 8, because we have already started to shift our practices to look explicitly at the components of reading in kindergarten to second grade. I have something to share at the district level – – I’m there not only to take learning back to our school, but also to see the progression. I see K-2, and I can make those connections to 3-8. I can help our school and district be more coherent because I can hear what’s happening here, influence it and bring it back to school and share, and hear what my school needs. It’s an exciting ongoing conversation and discussion that is going to make our district stronger.
On the importance of an equity lens:
Emily: I had someone come to me a month ago, they were writing a grant for getting more books and there was a question about equity and they were like you’re the equity person, you’re always talking about equity. And I had this moment where I wondered, am I always talking about equity? And then I realized yes, I am because of UVEI. It wasn’t on my radar enough before, and I wasn’t thinking about it much in my choices for planning and choosing books and even in my conversations with colleagues. It’s something that I’m bringing up and I notice that others are also bringing it up a lot more.
Kris: Equity is definitely one of the important things about literacy, and is on the forefront of my mind, and how can we incorporate our students’ identities into our teaching and our supports for students. It’s also going to increase engagement, and it’s important for the transferable skills that we’re hoping to have our students develop over the course of their education. And, I think UVEI has done a great job of stretching my learning and widening my comfort zone in using and thinking about and having those difficult, brave conversations about topics that can be difficult. It’s given me experience being uncomfortable so I can go into conversations with my colleagues one step more comfortable than I had been previously.
“I like thinking about the equity dimensions of a situation, having a conversation and thinking about, what’s our actionable space, what can I do about this?” (Kris Hunt, literacy interventionist, Lyndon Town School)
Emily: Yes, I’ll just add, I always used to think about our school through a socio-economic lens, because that’s an easier way to think about equity in my school. But that’s not the only conversation that we need to be having. In Year 1, with our cohort, we had conversations where we could be vulnerable and talk about race and how to bring equity into our classrooms. And like Kris said, having those conversations together in our cohort helped me feel more comfortable and confident to have those conversations in my school, with people who aren’t talking about it or thinking about it or who aren’t as comfortable about talking about gender and race. It’s easy for people in Vermont rural schools to think that we don’t have to talk about race and equity. And without UVEI, I think I would still be uncomfortable talking about it, but now I know how to bring it up and having that conversation is important.
Kris: I like thinking about the equity dimensions of a situation, having a conversation and thinking about, what’s our actionable space, what can I do about this? What is the one step that I can take and that feels manageable? I can’t do everything, and “not doing anything” is not okay anymore. So what can I do? And what little step or steps can I take to move in the right direction? I appreciate that perspective that we’ve practiced in our coursework, as UVEI built our literacy and language of equity and comfort to talk about race. In the past, I considered talking about race as taboo, but I know now we need to talk about it openly and I have grown more comfortable through practice to talk about race. Equity is in everything, and it’s not something separate and within everything that you’re doing.
On the UVEI Cohort Model (or the UVEI way)
Emily: The UVEI cohort model was so important to my learning. I don’t think that there was one thing in particular, but part of it was related to it still being Covid times and we all came together after a long day of teaching on Zoom, and I would dread class – having to do a 3 hour class at night. And I would leave thinking, “Wow, thank god I have these wonderful people that I get to talk about these really hard things with.” We all care about literacy and we were all there to improve. Just knowing that, and having a group of people that have so many different skills that they could bring just made it so great. I don’t know if it was the group, or if it always happens. It just became this really trusted space where we could all be vulnerable, share and talk about literacy and our practice.
Kris: Yeah, I completely agree with Emily. Our cohort built trust through getting to know each other, going through this very rigorous program together, and being able to all know what we were going through. It felt like we were vulnerable but yet we could trust each other. Also, we bring different things to the group and different levels of expertise and yet, it doesn’t feel threatening or judgmental, it always feels supportive and safe to be honest about where you are. It feels like a special group of people that I am really lucky to go through UVEI together.
“…there’s no way you come out of UVEI without being a part of the literacy conversation that is happening at your school.” (Kris Hunt, literacy interventionist)
Emily: As Kris said, as rigorous and hard as it is, I know that this is worthwhile work. And there’s no doubt that you will go through this program and come out a better teacher. There is no way that you can go through this program and not improve your instruction, your knowledge.
Kris: I agree, there’s so much reflection required that there’s no way you come out of UVEI without being a part of the literacy conversation that is happening at your school.