Literacy Education grad students tutor, learn inside Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic

Danelle Davis
Danelle Davis

Danelle Davis spends most of her weekdays from August through May teaching in front of a classroom of nearly 30 first-graders.

Summer 2019, however, has afforded the DeKalb School District 428 teacher the opportunity to work individually with a child who needs her assistance.

As an M.S.Ed. candidate in Literacy Education with Focus on Reading, Davis is one of seven graduate students enrolled in LTRE 530 and LTRE 531 at the NIU College of Education’s Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic.

Built into those back-to-back, three-week courses – a face-to-face block in an otherwise online program offered by the Department of Curriculum and Instruction – are 16 days of hands-on practice with local children enrolled in the clinic’s Summer Reading Program.

“It’s really beneficial having them one-on-one. I’ve had a good experience,” says Davis, who teaches at Lincoln Elementary School.

“You can do a lot and so much more. You can focus on one to two specific needs or goals with a child one-on-one,” she adds. “You’re meeting with just that student four days a week, and you can see that growth one-on-one. It is harder to do in classroom of 28 students.”

The first eight days of tutor-tutee interaction, scheduled from 9 to 10:15 a.m. Monday through Thursday during the second and third weeks of Assistant Professor Melanie Walski’s LTRE 530 course, are diagnostic.

NIU graduate students assess the children for their literacy strengths and motivations as well as the areas in which they need improvement, Assistant Professor Peet Smith says, providing a case study of data from which to create differentiated intervention.

Kim Matine

Candidates in the master’s program learn theory, how to administer assessments, specific instructional strategies and how to plan for instruction, Walski says. LTRE 330, meanwhile, provides students “an opportunity to apply what they have learned in their course work to assess a student for reading strengths and needs.”

“During LTRE 330, our candidates apply all of that learning with a K-12 student. This provides a unique opportunity since they have not worked with this specific child before this course and do not have much background information on their previous learning experiences,” Walski says.

“In many ways as the instructor I saw the most growth with the candidates when they needed to analyze assessment results and make decisions about what to do next and what to prioritize for instruction. After their time assessing students each day, the candidates and I would discuss assessment results and work to contextualize it so they could come to decisions on the specific strengths and needs of the student,” she adds.

“This is our goal in the program: for our candidates to become knowledgeable, confident teachers who will work with the strengths of each student to address their literacy needs.”

When the eight days of actual tutoring begin, during the second and third weeks of Smith’s LTRE 531, the graduate students implement their targeted instructional plans to address the needs of the children while leveraging their strengths.

Realistic goals are set, Smith says, and progress is measured.

Beth McFarland-Wilson
Beth McFarland-Wilson

Conferences with parents take place on the final Thursday of each two-week session to share results and to recommend strategies for moving forward.

For the graduate students, the tutoring enriches their knowledge of the motivation and engagement of young learners by providing real-life experiences in designing and delivering effective instruction.

“My big goal is for them to come away able to give their students at least one skill – one strategy – to apply in their learning; one way to impact their literacy learning,” Smith says. “We talk about this idea of ‘transfer’ – that students can take what they learn from being tutored back to the classroom and become lifelong learners.”

Her students debrief in the classroom after each morning’s tutoring sessions in what Smith calls “grand rounds.”

Questions for the professor and the group range from the technical – “I’m planning to use informal assessments. Am I using the correct assessments? Do you have more formal assessments?” – to the deeper: “How else can I motivate my student? Is there another tutee to partner up with?”

Kristine Wilke, director of the Literacy Clinic, loves hosting the graduate students.

Lucy G’Fellers
Lucy G’Fellers

Meanwhile, she believes the love is mutual.

Graduate students treasure not only the tutoring and its positive effect on their ability to provide effective teaching, she says, but also the bridge between theory and practice as well as the safe space in which to experiment, possibly fail, learn from those mistakes, sample other methods and find out what works.

“They need a foundation, and you can’t build a foundation with 25 students,” Wilke says. “Coming here guides how they plan and gear their instruction. It broadens their horizons so that they’re prepared to continue to be successful teachers with the knowledge to make a difference in their students’ lives.”

Parents of the children are happy clients, she adds.

Sixteen sessions that include assessing, interpreting, planning and implementing instruction tailed to the needs of each student cost only $80 (and only $40 for children who qualify for free/reduced lunch) and come with a free book of the child’s choosing. Students receive a book of their choice at the final session.

That those sessions offer consistency with the same tutor, and that the tutoring is specifically tailored for each child, only sweetens the deal.

“A lot of these children don’t get individual instruction at school,” Wilke says. “If they’re pulled out for tutoring, it might be with five other students – even with an Individualized Education Plan. School districts just don’t have the money.”

Jen Schmidt
Jen Schmidt

For Smith, the diversity of the small cohort and the rich feedback that the students provide during their “grand round” discussions fuel her research interest in learner engagement. The seven graduate students include elementary middle and high school teachers.

“I am talking to teachers who are on the front lines of instruction and know what instruction looks like in classrooms today,” Smith says. “This gives me a chance to know what’s going on in education out in the field.”

Lincoln Elementary School teacher Davis, meanwhile, has enjoyed coming to the clinic and exploring its myriad resources and materials.

“When I have a striving reader, I now know what types of assessments I can do, in addition to the ones I’m already doing, to really pinpoint a student’s reading difficulty, and then to use the strategies I’ve learned here to support that student,” Davis says.

Also, she adds, “having both Dr. Walski and Dr. Smith here – face-to-face – and being able to have that collaborative discussion with my other colleagues, and to present on our students, is huge. I’ve really learned the most from these two courses.”

Mostly, however, Davis is grateful for the child she tutors.

“Every day is a new day. I see a success every single day with her. There’s something that we laugh about every single day,” she says, “and I can see that there’s something that she takes away every single day and then applies it the next day. I can see that with every session.”

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