Faculty of Education program blends high school culture with literacy to shift ‘readers into leaders’

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A stack of books

Three secondary schools in the Jane and Finch community – C. W. Jefferys, Westview Centennial and Emery Collegiate – continue their partnership with York University’s Faculty of Education and the York University Faculty Association Trust, to deliver Readers to Leaders (R2L), a literacy enrichment program that serves to improve the literacy skills of high school students.

The program aims to prepare students for the compulsory Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School English literacy test.

Cohort demographics primarily consist of Grade 9 and 10 students, but also sees participation from students in Grade 11 and 12. Beginning in September, R2L will be open to Grade 8 students as well, creating additional opportunities to promote excellence in literacy for youth from the Jane and Finch community.

Marc Robinson-Weekes, a graduate assistant with York University’s Faculty of Education and R2L, says the program is a means to close achievement gaps in terms of literacy for secondary school students.

“It prepares students for the literacy test in late March, so we do a series of activities and workshops designed to improve overall literacy skills on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “That’s one of the big parts of the program – seeing it in action.”

Offered to students through each high school’s guidance and English departments, the annual R2L cohort attracts on average 30 students. It begins at the end of September and runs for 20 Saturdays at York University.

“R2L provides students with an opportunity they would not necessarily have to continue building their literacy skills, even though they are not at school,” said R2L Program Coordinator Nastassia Subban. “So it is kind of like extra lessons, but they get to be around other people and in a smaller ratio, which offers more support and help.”

When sessions begin, students are encourage to starting thinking in terms of literacy.

“We don’t want (students) to think of literacy as just reading and writing. R2L’s ultimate value is to instead create a community in the classroom for students to support each other as learners,” said Robinson-Weekes. “Because there are so many different activities, I think one of the positive things is students are able to learn from each other and really work together.”

Some of the activities and group tasks offered include: analyzing and composing opinion pieces; dissecting local and international news articles; breaking down listening activities as a group; and learning how to find meaning in short stories and non-fiction texts paragraph by paragraph.

The central theme of the program is to engage the community in relevant culture. One popular framework for developing literacy with the previous cohort was to discuss Afrofuturistic themes in culture and relate them to contemporary issues. R2L also studied similar themes in music facilitating some group work around hip hop literacy.

To use the issues and content students already bring into the classroom is to further engage the group in literacy through discussion.

“We teach reading and writing strategies, as well as life skills,” said C. W. Jefferys teacher Tamara Irons, also an R2L instructor. “All of our material is culturally relevant and centres around the experiences of students from our community.”

The program, which is held in a university classroom, aims to familiarize and engage students with the university environment.

Students also learn they are important and that their voices are valuable and necessary in shaping the world, said Irons.

“I would say the focus is looking at literacy and engaging students in a meaningful way – through games, writing and media,” Subban said. “It’s a great way for students to prepare for the literacy test without ‘teaching to the test’. It’s getting them literate for the whole wide world.”

As of 2018, the Faculty of Education has received increased support from its partners in R2L, including the support of the Peter Gilgan Foundation, which enabled the Faculty to provide this unique literary enrichment program.

See original story here.