by Valerie Schuetta, M.Ed.
Very often, people will ask me how I come up with so many different ways to teach reading. I tell them when I am truly inspired I seem to come up with my best ideas. It feels effortless. I like the word “inspire” because it implies creativity and creativity is what I strive to integrate into all my lessons. I guess the bottom line is that I feel so passionate about children becoming the successful readers they are meant to be that I want to make it fun for them. I want to light up their learning path with sparklers and have the confidence to walk down that path by themselves. I want learning to read to feel like the Fourth of July!
I like to think of my literacy centers that accompany my reading lessons as a recipe. They have to contain certain ingredients. The measurements must sometimes be different for each child. Add a heaping scoop of music and art, and sprinkle it with a generous pinch of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm will inspire engagement and engagement will produce learning. To generate enthusiasm, I always model my literacy centers with a lot of enthusiasm. I want my students to literally jump up and down with excitement. I want them to believe that when they are actually participating in the center, it will be the most fun experience they have ever had!
This is especially important for children that come from backgrounds with lower parental education and lower income. Research has told me in the past that children who come from homes with parents who have lower levels of education or are poverty stricken, are doomed to become lower achievers in reading. From my own experience, I know this is not always true. They may simply be lacking in those important experiences that create prior knowledge. While I love research, my mind was made up a long time ago. I vowed to never predispose my thinking to assume a child would always struggle with reading if this were the case.
Years ago, I did volunteer work at the Children’s Reading Room, which was located at my neighborhood food bank. I remember one particular little girl, who was also a voracious reader. One particular Saturday afternoon, after hiking Walnut Canyon with my grandson, I went to the reading room to work with some of the children. This particular little girl, let’s call her Jill (not her real name) was eager to read with me. I always made it a point to converse with the children I worked with in order to get to know them better. This also gave me insight into their likes and dislikes, which helped me to choose books and literacy activities. When I told Jill about my wonderful afternoon, hiking Walnut Canyon, (a well-known tourist spot in my hometown) she informed me that she had never been there before. When I explained that it was only five miles outside of town, she responded by telling me that her family had no gas to get there and that they were living out of their car. The purpose of my story, is to validate my beliefs about children not always being at a disadvantage for reading success if they are challenged economically. In Jill’s case, she had a very involved and encouraging mom and great teachers.
When a child is truly engaged in literature activities, it is a given that they will be successful and the foundation for background knowledge will be established. I guess this is really what motivates and inspires me. I love the challenge of engaging every single child in my classroom to get excited about reading. I want to hear their shoes squeak when they are called to reading group. I want to have to tell them to walk and not run!
Almost all my reading lessons are hands-on. I also try to include all the five senses in my centers. I have never worked with a child that wasn’t tactile, that likes to touch different textures or put things together.
Play Dough Literacy Center, geared toward Kindergarten students who are just learning how to read.
An example of a literacy center I have used for my kindergarten class involves scented play dough, alphabet cookie cutters, and a stack of the sight words that the children have mastered. I only allow two at a time to work on this center. One child will read a word from the stack while the other child creates the word using the cookie cutters and the play dough. After ten minutes, they switch roles.
The driving force behind my inspiration depends on what I want to accomplish. For example, as a kindergarten teacher, I want my literacy centers to reflect what I am teaching at that particular time. I may be teaching a new letter and sound at the beginning of the year, or during the middle or end of year, my focus might be new sight words and vocabulary. There are many skills a child will use in this type of center. This could include tactile, fine motor, and multiple exposure to the words. These are words that have already been introduced to the children in my small reading groups. They are not only introduced, but we talk about what we think the word means, therefore, activating their prior knowledge. We also do a picture walk through the story we are reading and frame the words as we see them while relating them, to the pictures or text.
The road I take to create my literacy centers is the epicenter of my inspiration! I love researching and creating each center that my students will be working with. A common question I have been asked is, how do I have the time to make and create literacy centers? My answer is always the same. When I’m inspired, I make the time. It’s almost magical. I seem to pull the time out of the air. Yes, initially creating good literacy centers takes time and a lot of thought, but the rewards are well worth the time and money spent. A true teacher knows in her heart, that teaching is a calling and there will be times when we do spend our own money and invest a lot of our time.
I guess there are many reasons I become inspired when it comes to teaching reading. It can happen to me anywhere at any time. I could be at home or standing in line at the grocery store. I am always in “teacher mode”. If I had to put together a top ten list of what inspires me to be a great reading teacher, I definitely would have to put my little friend Jill, from the Children’s Reading Room, as my number one true inspiration. Thank you to all the little Jills and Jacks of the world for keeping me inspired! V.S.
Valerie’s Language Arts Center
Project: A Slice of the Pie
Prepare paper pie slices beforehand and put certain letters on each slice. Divide your class into 4 learning centers.
Then, using 4 aluminum pie plates, put “at” in the center of one tin, “in” at the center of a second tin and place the pie tins at the 4 different learning centers.
Give a student a letter pie slice, say with “c” on it. Then have the student place the “c” slice with the appropriate tin – the one with “at” in the center, making the word “cat”. You can give the “t” slice to place on the “in” pie tin, to make “tin” and so forth. You can time the students and have them switch centers every 20 minutes, so that they ultimately use all 4 center sounds with the beginning letters.
Valerie Schuetta is a Reading Specialist in Arizona. She has been a state-licensed teacher since 2007 and is Certified K-8 in any subject. Prior to that, she was an Instructional Assistant for nine years (1989 to 98) where she taught a reading group and she taught pre-school for 3 years.
Valerie possesses a Bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University and a Masters in Reading Instruction & Curriculum from Grand Canyon University.