Literacy Innovation in Rural Education through Collaboration (LIREC)

Twenty-one rural schools across the U.S. collaborated to implement a multi-layered, rural-specific approach to improving prek-3 literacy, especially for at-risk children in high-poverty communities. The schools are part of LIREC — Literacy Innovation in Rural Education through Collaboration — a project that was awarded a two-year, $4.6-million federal Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant in the fall of 2015. Lead partners include the Rural School and Community Trust, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL). This grant with 21 schools in five states across the country, was designed to build their local capacity to support stronger literacy teaching and learning in ways that build on the unique assets and culture of each community. LIREC’s five school clusters, in Vermont, Illinois, North Carolina, Arizona, and West Virginia, demonstrate the diversity in what constitutes “rural” poverty and schools. For more details see Increasing Early Literacy in Rural Communities and the grant Logic Model.

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Benchmarking and Needs Assessments

Data-driven needs assessment was a core engine of both Instructional Leadership work and teacher Professional Development in LIREC. At the outset of the project, LIREC teachers participated in a customized needs assessment, including measures of professional capacity from the nationally benchmarked LOCI survey and detailed measures of classroom practices, time allocation, and curriculum resources in literacy.  LIREC staff worked with district and school leaders to use the data to design and monitor professional learning for their sites, while teachers engaged in structured debriefs of the data specific to their grade bands to reflect on their practice and develop goals.

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Summer Lab

Summer Lab was a critical component of the intervention model within the LIREC grant. Structurally, the “Lab” model differed from Summer School to emphasize experimentation and growth for both teachers and students. LIREC Summer Lab is designed to be an immersive learning experience for teachers as well as students. Just as students are experiencing new ways of learning in the classroom, teachers are experimenting with new ways of working together.

LIREC Summer Labs were characterized by smaller class sizes and coupled literacy enrichment for struggling readers with intensive, inquiry-driven professional learning for teachers. The classroom component focused on engaging activities with authentic texts (such as Interactive Read-Aloud and Collaborative Writing) to build student motivation to read. Summer Lab sites experimented with a range of Family Engagement strategies to increase access to high quality texts at home and further reinforce students’ positive engagement with text. Teachers had collaborative time daily to learn about effective literacy practices, debrief practices they wereimplementing, and plan for the next day’s instruction based on that shared reflection. Learn more:

Professional Development & Inquiry Cycles

Inquiry Cycles emerged over the course of the project as a central mechanism for providing blended professional learning to the LIREC network of rural schools, and the cycles that were developed and tested in LIREC schools are an important legacy product of the project.  LIREC Inquiry Cycles provide 6-8 weeks of content and activities for a collaborative team of teachers learning about, implementing, and reflecting on a specific literacy strategy.  They were designed using the gradual release framework already well known to many teachers as a model for designing student learning.  In this framework, learners have an opportunity to experience new practices through modeling (e.g. video, classroom observation, case, webinar) and guided practice (e.g. co-designing a lesson, coaching or supportive feedback on teaching; collaborative discussion) before independent expertise is expected.

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Motivation & Access to High Quality Texts

A foundational element of effective instruction, especially for struggling students, is understanding the role that motivation plays on student engagement and subsequent achievement. Helping teachers understand and support student motivation through rethinking instruction and classroom environments was a core lever in this project for supporting increased student achievement. We supported teachers in putting into practice instructional routines in the classroom that served to use motivation as a lever for change including:

  • Motivation links self-efficacy (how students perceive themselves as readers as writers), task persistence, and learning. Formative assessment practices supported targeted instruction with appropriately leveled texts aligned to student interests and characterized by choice. This increased students’ enjoyment of reading and perception of themselves as capable and value of tasks and willingness to engage.
  • Motivation is influenced by creating learning communities in which students have choice about how, when, and for what purposes they engage in reading; have available many types of text, and regularly engage in guided learning activities in which teachers and/or peers model and support strategic reading practices. Instructional practices were designed to foster social interaction, student ownership of goals and outcomes, and provide sufficient modeling to increase expertise and develop students’ competence and belief in their success.

Approximately $500,000 of our project funding was put into creating robust classroom libraries – many of the schools had no school library and limited or non-existent classroom libraries. In few of our rural communities was there a public library. So, we worked with community organizations and businesses to make books available and reading supported throughout the community (e.g. in restaurants, township offices, churches, local bars, and in one case a casino!). High school shop students in on district built little free libraries to put throughout the region which were then filled with books.

Family Engagement

Family Engagement in the high poverty, rural communities in LIREC was based upon three assumptions:

  1. Parents care about their students but often lack the resources, skills, and models for what effective home routines in literacy look like. Much research supports the efficacy of teaching families home literacy routines, sending home book bags, or providing training in how and why to support literacy development. Our project included family literacy events but in structures and locations that were more familiar and accessible to families (e.g. before football games; at local coffee shops; at the beach; at a hayride on a local farm).
  2. Literacy activities at home should be focused on building enjoyment of and love for literacy; be rooted in choice (of texts, purposes, goals, structures) and designed to strengthen the relationship between family members. In other words, we wanted to support activities that would create enjoyable, informal conversations between adults and kids about stories and words and ideas and books rather than expect skills for remediation or coverage.
  3. Parents have expertise in their children, their interests, in the structures that motivate and engage them that is an extremely important resource to help teachers better support students. Especially in culturally diverse communities where teachers are cultural and economic outsiders, it’s critical to create the kinds of conversations and experiences that help position families and community stakeholders as holding expertise and bring that into the classroom to support curriculum, instruction, and pedagogical design. We used community mapping techniques (see the article listed below) to create these bridges between in and out of school literacy.

The Rural School and Community Trust

A national nonprofit organization addressing the crucial relationship between good schools and thriving communities.

National Council of Teachers of English

A national nonprofit organization devoted to improving the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education.

Institute of Educational Leadership

A national nonprofit organization equipping leaders to work together across boundaries to build effective systems that prepare children and youth for post secondary education, careers and citizenship.