Last month, I wrote about my visit to Redwood Day School, where teachers use structured phonics and an explicit approach to reading instruction that is proving effective for students who have experienced persistent reading challenges. The goal of Redwood Day is to help students catch up to their grade-level peers and return to more traditional schools.
But many more young people need that kind of instruction than Redwood Day can serve. Given this reality, Redwood piloted a new initiative this year, Redwood Grow, which aims to bring multi-sensory, research-based phonics teaching to every Chicago Public School. I asked co-founder Kait Feriante what she is learning from Redwood Grow’s first year about helping experienced teachers continue to improve their teaching practices.
Tell me a little bit about Redwood Grow.
Last year, we got a grant to pilot Redwood Grow which is our non-profit side. Our mission is to figure out how to reach the entire city of Chicago making [Wilson Language Programs] affordable, implementing with fidelity, and getting to as many kids as possible. Going through public school teachers, we can get to kids during the school day for free and we can spread out across the city. This year we have partnerships with seven schools: six Noble Network Charter schools and one CPS elementary school.
At the elementary school, we trained their Pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade teams in Fundations. We sent them to the trainings and paid for the curriculum kits. I have been doing observations to make sure the program is being implemented with fidelity, coaching teachers as needed, and troubleshooting what this might look like in a public school setting with things like IEP minutes, staff shortages, and all the other challenges.
Then, we’re partnering with six of the Noble Charter Network high schools and working with one Learning Behavior Specialist at each campus, mostly on the South and West sides of the city, which is exciting because a lot of them are teaching in neighborhoods that are under-resourced and where these programs just aren’t available anywhere else. Those teachers are using Wilson with older students in their self-contained classrooms, similarly to how we do here at Redwood Day School, where students rotate between the paraprofessional, the teacher, and an audiobook station.
What have you learned from Redwood Grow about adult learners and about changing adult practice?
I’m learning a lot. It’s been a lot more challenging than I anticipated. I think because I am so sold on Wilson and I’ve seen it work for ten years, I’m realizing how difficult it is to go into a school as an outsider who doesn’t have any cred at that school (which is very fair) and say, “Hey, you should teach kids how to read differently.” That’s a very controversial, very sensitive topic, especially in early childhood where you have teachers who have been doing this for years and truly are experts in some ways.
This year we went through admin[istrative] teams that were really excited about it. I think this coming year we’re going to go through teachers instead of admin teams. We’re going to make sure admin teams are on board, but I think we need to find people who already want this instead of telling people who don’t, “Hey, this is really great. You should do it.” I think if people already have a desire and an interest and are a little bit bought in already then equipping them with this knowledge will be far more effective. Our goal is to raise up teacher leaders in schools. If I can invest in one learning specialist and they’re super-passionate about it and they have credibility at the school, then they can inspire greater change within that particular school environment.
What can teachers in more traditional school settings take away about the teaching of reading? What from Redwood can they apply to their own classrooms?
I think whether it’s Fundations or not, just the concept of having a vertically-aligned, consistent scope and sequence of phonics skills so that kids are building on previous knowledge is really important. Think of those kids who need 30 to 100 exposures [to a word] for it to click. If they have kindergarten, first grade, second grade at that same school, they’re going to be much more likely to catch on to those concepts. If we started there, with just making sure that we’re using the same language, the same keywords, the same emphasis on sound drills, and the same emphasis on dictation across grade levels, the number of Tier Two and Tier Three kids is going to be reduced.
Another thing I’m learning is the importance of maintaining an open mind and continually learning from other professionals. Even within Wilson, I don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing. Even if I’ve seen it to be effective, I know there’s more and more research all the time about how the brain learns to read and we know more today than we ever have.
Being actively engaged in scientific research and promoting that among your colleagues is really important. Something about dyslexia specifically which is hard is that if you’re teaching reading in a way that is working for our 60% of kids who don’t have a learning disability or struggle learning how to read or write, it can appear like what we’re doing is successful. But we need to make sure that we’re looking at all students. We need to figure out what is going to give us the best bang for our buck and meet the needs of all learners, not shortchanging the advanced readers while still doing what works for those who struggle.
As Kait would readily admit, this is really, really HARD! The only way we as teachers will be able to address these challenges is by committing ourselves to lifelong learning and collaborative practice. Thank you to the staff at Redwood Literacy for opening their doors and being models of this for all teachers!
Note: If you are a teacher leader in the Chicagoland area who is interested in becoming Wilson Dyslexia Practitioner certified or in bringing Wilson programs to your school community, applications are now available on the Redwood Grow website.