Create a Culture of Literacy
By Natasha Letze
I am Natasha Letze, the proud media specialist of Fountain Elementary in Forest Park, Georgia, and the Media Specialist of the year for Clayton County. My twin sister and I entered education back in 2011. After earning my media specialist degree, I moved from the classroom to the media center in 2017. My library is my passion, and I love to provide my students with opportunities to grow and try new things.
Media specialists are often charged with the task of finding ways to invigorate aging media and literacy programs. When I first came to my school, we did not have programs such as Accelerated Reader to tote and use as our main literacy program. We also have major budget challenges; so, I have to be creative.
What is something that can create a culture of literacy that does not cost a lot? Here are six of my most successful programs.
The Vocabulary Parade
The vocabulary parade was a school-wide event from pre-k to 5th grade. Each student chose his or her word and made a costume which represented that word. Teachers and parents assisted by making props. My school had some lovely nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Although my personal favorite was the tornado costume. The child was dressed in a cone of quilt batting with small toys such as cows and hot wheels caught in their whirlwind. Teachers were encouraged to participate and sure did. It was very accessible to all, and the parade was a show stopper.
Sight Word Bowl
Imagine a spelling bee…. but for early readers. This low-cost event helped K-2 build confidence and fluency. These students already were learning common sight words, and as a media specialist, I wanted to pump this up. With the help of my fabulous literacy coach, Dr. Howze, Fountain Elementary’s 1st Sight Word Bowl was born!
In the spring, each grade level was given a unique list of age-appropriate words. Most of the students were familiar with some or all of the words. We made flashcards for the grade levels and practiced with them. Then for two weeks, we had practice sessions where students raced against their classmates to hit the buzzer and read the word.
On the day of the bowl, we set up a panel of judges and two classes would compete at the time. The first student who hit the buzzer and said the word would go back in line. The other student returned to their teacher. It was a quick way to find the winners. The event was a success and the younger students glowed with confidence as they read words like “she,” “what” and “would.”
My project of the year was to bring local history to the forefront and preserve our rich history. W. A. Fountain was the only school an African American child could attend 1st through 12th grade in Clayton County, Georgia. It was a consolidated school from 1953 to 1969, a junior high from 1970 to 1983, and is now an elementary school. It was even mentioned in a supreme court case! But none of this information was displayed in the building or on our website. I fostered a relationship with the alumni of W. A. Fountain High School and managed to find old yearbooks, PTA books, majorette uniforms, and trophies. These items have not been seen since 1986 when they went into the boxes. Thankfully, they are now being displayed and preserved.
Additionally, I found a local cemetery that is resting between Fountain Elementary’s playground and baseball field. It had no visible name and was not even on Google Maps. So, I did some research and called several funeral homes in the area. I rediscovered Forest Chapel Cemetery, registered all the graves, and brought in students to help preserve the cemetery. We mapped it out and are planning to give it back to the city.
So get out there! You can preserve your own school's history with a display. For example, make a display for when your school opened and what was happening in the world at that time and compare it to what is happening today. If your school is new, preserve the present. Record students' stories about events happening now and tuck away yearbooks and uniforms for future generations of students to look back on. Working with the alumni has taught me that schools are in the center of the community.
Birthday Day Books
Once a month, the resource officer and I roll around the halls with a cart covered in fairy lights to pass out birthday books! Any student who has a birthday that month gets to choose a book off the cart (don’t worry, I include my summer babies in May). This initiative helps encourage book ownership and makes books a treat to be excited about. Students love the surprise and the power of choice.
The books I use come from Reading Is Fundamental, donations from partners, and gently used books. I keep a stock of paperbacks to refill my little free library, “read boxes,” and give to students.
Monthly Writing Contest
This is another short initiative for those of us on a tight budget. Monthly writing contests are a great way to get kids reading and writing. Each month, I challenged the students with a new theme. I made a point to incorporate awareness months into the challenges such as Hispanic Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, and Native American Heritage Month.
Each month the students would have a new challenge that involved research and a different type of writing (narrative, persuasive, expository, poetry, and digital presentations). I always provided a few digital copies of books to build background knowledge and support their writing.
The contests worked well by supporting classroom writing and research skills. The prizes were small, mainly certificates, goody bags, and posters I made to display in the school.
April is poetry month and as a way to celebrate it, I had students email me original oems they would like to share. I collected poems from 3rd to 5th graders for the month. After reviewing the poems, I invited the students to the “Poet-Tea.”
A Poet-Tea is like a poetry slam meets tea party. I set up the library with a collection of teacups (all borrowed), put down tablecloths and centerpieces, laid out a tray of cookies, and played classical music. The students kept their pinkies up as they snacked on cookies and drank sweet tea (it was too hot outside to drink warm tea). The formal setting was invigorating, and they loved sharing their poems and snapping for everyone who shared. The entire event cost less than $35 with the drinks, cookies, and decorations.
These are just some of the activities I did this year and it was manageable. The trick is to plan and make manageable events. Remember these events work best with collaboration; so, encourage an academic coach, literacy coach, teacher, parent liaison, or school resource officer to join in your vision. Also, when creating prizes make sure you ask for support from the administrators, coaches, parents, and teachers. Many want to support their children and are happy to bring something to the table. Small events lead to big changes, so even if the event only occurs for one grade level do not be discouraged and keep moving forward.
If you would like to see the examples of projects in action check out my school’s Instagram Page @Fountainbears. I am the school’s social media manager and make all the videos for my school as well.