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Jefferson Elementary using book group to focus on student literacy

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MASSENA — Several staff members at Jefferson Elementary School are participating in an after-school reading group as part of their effort to focus on improving student literacy.

And today, as a culminating experience, they’ll hear first-hand from Peter H. Johnston, the author of “Opening Minds,” the book they’re reading.

Mr. Johnston, a Vincent O’Leary professor, is a member of the Reading Department at SUNY Albany and has published 10 books and more than 80 articles.

In his current research, he investigates the consequences of teaching decisions, particularly language choices, for the kinds of literacy children acquire, how teachers and students build productive learning communities and the implications of focusing on engagement.

“He is a faculty member from the SUNY Albany Literacy Department. He is a very important person in the field of literacy. For him to come to Jefferson is a very big deal,” said Faith F. Bish, Jefferson’s literacy specialist.

“Opening Minds” is designed to help teachers learn prompts they can take back to their classroom to use with students. SUNY Potsdam helped the school purchase the books for the teachers, who could elect to take part in the after-school group, Ms. Bish said.

The group, which consists of Ms. Bish, Principal Duane L. Richards and 14 other staff members, meets from 3:40 to 4:45 p.m., and snacks and child care are provided. The participants include teachers from junior kindergarten up to sixth grade, the school librarian and three special education teachers.

“It’s not something teachers are required to do. All the teachers got a copy of the book at the beginning of the year. Anyone that wanted to participate would receive credit toward their teacher certification. Numerous other teachers in the school have been reading the book,” but haven’t been able to participate in the group, Ms. Bish said.

“I feel like everybody in the group benefits from being a part of this because the sort of collaboration and discussion we have every week are very meaningful. People are coming together from all aspects of the school, and we all get the same message. We get a lot of good conversation,” she said.

The reading group is one of several partnerships between Jefferson Elementary and SUNY Potsdam, Ms. Bish said. “We have a number of literacy initiatives going on right now at Jefferson Elementary School,” she said.

Mr. Richards said some SUNY Potsdam students, who are studying to be teachers, come to Jefferson once a week for an after-school program.

“They work with a group of students identified as maybe needing a little bit of extra support. It’s literacy-based activities. Faith and Mary Russell really spearhead the after-school program,” he said.

Other SUNY Potsdam students are getting ready to student teach, allowing them to experience the classroom environment they’ll eventually be teaching in. At the same time they’re assisting teachers who are dealing with the new Common Core curriculum, Mr. Richards said.

“It’s a win-win,” he said. “We’re so lucky that we have this college near us. One of my goals is to tap into this wonderful resource that we have.”

The reading group is an important part of the professional development experience for teachers, who said they plan to read other books once they’re finished with “Opening Minds,” according to Mr. Richards

“This is just the beginning. For a number of years we’ve been toying with this idea,” he said. “Some of our best staff development comes from our own teachers.”

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