Master of reading and jack of all trades

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Adonia Milsap, the reading specialist at Price Elementary School in Kenwood, got off to a running start. While some specialists were trying simply to get a desk, Milsap was coaching teachers and working to get her school better organized, thus offering fellow specialists a glimpse of work yet to come.

Personal and school experience paved the way. Milsap has spent half of her 15-year teaching career at Price and already has put in two years as a literacy coordinator for primary teachers. As part of that job, she has had two years of coach training from the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago.

As important, the school was primed for the Chicago reading initiative because it has a strong professional culture. According to faculty surveys conducted by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, for the last five years Price has had higher-than-average levels of mutual trust and support for change; it has much higher levels than demographically similar schools. On support for instructional change, Price scored in the top sixth of schools citywide.

Further, while Price’s reading scores place the school in the bottom fifth of CPS elementary schools, the school has never been on probation.

Yet even a strong, seasoned coach in an unusually receptive school faces challenges. Here’s how Milsap has dealt with some of them.

Coaching a veteran

David Israel, a veteran of more than 20 years, needs quiet. Commands like “No talking!” “Hurry up!” “Stop playing!” cut through his closed classroom door. “Some teachers can handle more noise, but I can’t,” he acknowledges. “I want them to listen to me.” It’s a common style, but it is ill suited for many of the teaching strategies being promoted by the Chicago reading initiative, such as pairing students and having them read aloud to each other.

Israel teaches special education. For most of the day, he works alongside a regular 4th-grade teacher, but for two hours most mornings, he takes on 10 of the poorest readers in the class. In a morning in late November, that’s what Milsap comes to see. Later in the day, the two meet to discuss what she saw. There is tension on both sides.

Early in the conversation, Israel refers to his “non-readers.”

“They are not non-readers,” Milsap responds. “They are reading significantly below grade level, but they are not non-readers.”

Despite the tension, Israel allows that she has made good decisions about how to improve these students’ reading. “It was a good idea for you to separate them,” he tells her. “It was a good idea for me, with all my special education experience, to work with them. You know because you come from special education.”

Milsap has words of praise for Israel, too. “You’ve done a really good job of keeping the kids from calling out the words” when a classmate gets stumped. In such cases, the student should get time to figure out the word on his own.

The session ends with a commitment on each side: Israel is going to assign a lower-level reading book to one or two struggling students—he had thought that the group should all be in the same reader. Milsap is going to see if a boy who misses school frequently because he lives far away can be transferred to a school closer to home.

Though the two have found some common ground, there’s still a fundamental divide. Israel says that two straight hours of literacy instruction is too much. “I have to go from different ways,” he tells Milsap. “I can’t just go through the literacy block.” Later he tells a reporter, “The literacy program has a tendency to stifle my creativity if I’ve got to stick to it all the time.”

But that’s exactly what Milsap is pushing him to do—find a routine that works and stick to it.

Though Milsap tries to assure teachers that she’s not there to evaluate them, there are signs that teachers aren’t so sure. For example, when she suggests that Israel not put books on desks until he’s ready to start reading them with the students, he replies, “I didn’t want you to cite me for not reading to them.”

“I’m coming to observe what you’re doing, not to cite you for what you’re not doing,” she says. Her focus: “How do we take this and make it better?”

Milsap visits Israel’s classroom at least once every other week. When she arrives during a literacy block in late January, his students are doing math. He quickly switches to an impromptu reading lesson. “You may stop what you’re doing,” he tells his eight students. “You are going to be reading.”

“Please do not get me nervous,” he adds tensely. He starts one Scholastic magazine article but then rejects it, settling on “The Case of the Sleeping Prisoner.” Once he starts the piece, students take turns reading it aloud, round-robin style.

After a few minutes of observation, Milsap offers the students some feedback. “I’ve noticed a lot of people touching the words as they’re reading. That’ll slow you down. I want you to take your finger away and read the word.”

Though she speaks to the students, Israel announces stiffly: “I need this constructive criticism from Ms. Milsap. You need to pay attention to whatever she says, too. We work as a team. Thank you very much, Ms. Milsap.”

Though an observer does not see much change in Israel’s teaching from November to January, Israel sees progress with his students. “I’m happy that a lot of them are reading now, and they weren’t when I got them,” he says. He credits part of his success to the opportunity to work with them in a small group.

When Israel talks about his students’ progress, his face opens with joy, and his eyes glow with pride. “Yes,” he says. “That’s why I feel good about this.”

Coaxing the higher grades

During training sessions last fall, reading initiative director Tim Shanahan warned his new reading specialists not to ignore middle- and upper-grade teachers. “It’s OK to start with primary, but know that this is a K through 8 initiative.”

That’s easier said than done. Beginning in the 4th grade, teachers typically see their students as reading to learn rather than learning to read; few are trained to help students digest nonfiction, such as science and social studies materials. “Upper-grade teachers are just beginning to be aware that they have to do something besides say, ‘Read the chapter and answer the questions,'” says Price Principal Carl Lawson.

For Milsap and many other new reading specialists, there’s also the issue of their own experience—about half were primary-grade teachers. On a videotape shown to the reading specialists in January, Milsap tells a story about being challenged by a 6th-grade teacher on this point. Her reply: “I taught kindergarten, I wasn’t in kindergarten.” That comment draws hoots of appreciative laughter. “You go, girl!” a colleague cries out.

“That ended it,” Milsap tells the group after the tape ends. “And she has come around.”

But not everyone has. Back home at Price, Milsap tells her fellow primary-level teachers that she’s still having trouble convincing their upper-grade colleagues to attend unpaid workshops on literacy sponsored by the Center for School Improvement.

“Are you giving them the two lanes of credit?” one primary teacher asks. “Are you throwing them that bone? I was crabbing all the way last year, but I thought, ‘at least they’re throwing us that bone.'”

“Yes, we’re giving them the same bone,” Milsap assures her.

“I’ve spoken to several,” says another. “They want to get paid for coming. And they’re saying we’re crazy for coming.”

The topmost grades present special logistical challenges. Because 7th- and 8th -grade students move among teachers for their different subjects, creating a two-hour block just for literacy is daunting. By February, the upper grades have worked out a schedule in which each group of students receives a weekly two-hour literacy block through their language arts teacher.

At Price, these grades are situated in a building down the block. To make space for its fine arts program, Price has shipped most of its 7th- and 8th -graders off to the nearly empty King High School. The physical isolation of those teachers makes it more difficult for Milsap to see them informally and to build trust.

Already this year, two other Price staffers have taken a stab at working with upper-grade teachers on reading; both quit within weeks. The Center for School Improvement prefers to have two literacy coordinators in each school, but for now, Milsap is going it alone, just like her reading specialist colleagues across CPS. “It’s an overwhelming, thankless task. You have to be a little insane to take this on,” Milsap says with a wry chuckle.

Managing the environment

Thanks to her experience as primary literacy coordinator for the last two years, Milsap has learned that to get reading results, she needs to pay attention to issues in the larger school environment as well as in the classroom. At an early-morning management team meeting on Valentine’s Day, for example, she helped avert a number of aggravations that might have sapped staff energy.

One that came to light during the meeting was that some 8th-graders were scheduled to be in two places at once at 9 a.m. that day, taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which will become a benchmark under new federal law, and performing in a play.

“I am so happy I have these administrative meetings,” Principal Lawson tells a reporter in attendance. “I would not have caught this error [otherwise].”

At the end of the meeting, Lawson takes a few minutes to work out a solution: The play will be pushed to 10:30 a.m. Since the public address system can’t be used during NAEP testing, Lawson and others go door to door getting the word out.

The management team also discussed a spelling bee scheduled for the next day for grades 4 to 8. “There’s a lot of primary teachers involved,” acting as judges, Milsap notes. “Should they take their classes [with them], so we don’t have to worry about how to cover them?” The answer is, yes.

She’s on top of an overlooked issue in the after-school program, too. During after-school snack time, participating students will be issued paper IDs with their name and the program they will participate in. Milsap notes, however, that 12 participating students are scheduled to be elsewhere during that time.

Reading teacher Christine Owens tells the group about attending a workshop sponsored by well-known educational publisher Heinemann and shows off a book she picked up on frogs.

“We don’t have enough nonfiction materials,” Milsap observes. “I’m searching for nonfiction, leveled readers. Heinemann materials are good. If we could get some time to make a choice based on a consensus, when could we do that?”

Lawson suggests the overnight staff retreat, scheduled for March 22 and 23.

Once again, Milsap tries to stave off scheduling conflicts. “Does the Illinois textbook money have to be spent by the end of March?” she asks Price’s budget guru, special education teacher Joanne Owens. Owens has had trouble getting information and can’t give her an answer right away.

Besides keeping things on schedule, Milsap can take even the most mundane administrative chore and use it to help others focus on instructional priorities. Later in the day, counselor Deborah Broyles consults with her while ordering certificates for an awards assembly.

Broyles assumes the certificates will go to students who have made gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Milsap thinks otherwise.

“I want all the people who have moved from here to here recognized,” she says, placing her hands a few inches apart on the table. “Sometimes that doesn’t show up on the Iowa.” She prefers to use teacher recommendations and an assessment devised by the Center for School Improvement.

Later, Broyles spots writing certificates in the catalog. “We’re pushing writing, aren’t we?” she asks.

“Yeah, we are,” says Milsap. She suggests they buy in bulk. “Two packages.”

Repeatedly tending to such little things adds up to respect from her principal. Asked about Milsap’s role in keeping Price focused, Lawson’s voice grows quiet and deep. “She does a good job,” he intones.