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Sharing the Gift of Reading

Students, Faculty Work to Improve Literacy in the Community

 In East Texas, illiteracy is very high, so anything that we as a community can do to help people be more literate ... the better their quality of life is likely to be."
Dr. William Geiger
Vice Provost of Academic Affairs

Jessica Johnson saw the challenge before her when she met the lively child she was to spend a semester tutoring. 

Like many first-grade boys, he overflowed with energy, loved to talk and could hardly settle down and pay attention. However, a transformation occurred when she opened a book and began reading aloud to him. His movements slowed, his chatter ceased and his eyes widened with curiosity. With the power of knowledge in her hands, Johnson was on her way to helping this boy learn to read better – a skill that will last a lifetime. 

A senior education student at The University of Texas at Tyler, Johnson was experiencing the real-life rewards of teaching, thanks to a new school-university partnership called the Caldwell Project. Literacy faculty in UT Tyler’s School of Education developed the project to raise the literacy skills of struggling first-graders to the level of their peers. 

The project is one avenue through which UT Tyler students are advancing literacy in the community. While participants in the project focus their efforts on children, other UT Tyler students are helping adults and teens read better by working with them at a Tyler nonprofit agency whose mission is to improve adult literacy in the region. 

These efforts for literacy are two of many examples of UT Tyler students from various fields of study serving the community and learning along the way. 

UT Tyler is pleased to see its students share the gift of learning with the community, said Dr. William Geiger, vice provost of academic affairs and dean of The Graduate School at UT Tyler, who holds the Mary John and Ralph Spence Endowed Professorship. 

“In East Texas, illiteracy is very high, so anything that we as a community can do to help people be more literate, and that would include the area of mathematics, the better their quality of life is likely to be,” Geiger said. 

Correcting Problems Early 
About 20 first-graders file into school about an hour early each morning to receive extra help with reading and are greeted by the smiling faces of their tutors – students from UT Tyler’s School of Education. 

The tutors’ energy is contagious, and the children are soon psyched for an hour of learning. They first read aloud together, then do interactive reading, followed by interactive writing. 

So begins the school day for a handful of children at Caldwell Elementary School Arts Academy, who

are selected to participate in the Caldwell Project and receive free tutoring because they enter first grade with low language and literacy skills.

The project started last fall with the aim of studying the effects of individual tutoring on at-risk first-graders. The study found that children who received tutoring read more proficiently by the end of the school year than other at-risk first-graders at the same school who did not receive tutoring; and the children who received tutoring advanced almost to the level of their peers. 

The Caldwell Project is the brainchild of Dr. Kouider Mokhtari, the Anderson-Vukelja-Wright Endowed Chair in the School of Education at UT Tyler. The Anderson-Vukelja-Wright Endowment provides support for the project, which is one of several community-based literacy projects spearheaded by Mokhtari. 

UT Tyler student Jessica Mertz spends an evening tutoring at Tyler nonprofit agency
that serves to improve adult literacy in the region.

“What we’re doing is providing really effective reading intervention one-on-one so the kids can improve their literacy achievement outcomes, which will allow them to do better in school,” Mokhtari said. 

The project isn’t the first to demonstrate the positive effect of tutoring on children having trouble reading, he said, but most programs are shorter term with only half the tutoring hours that the Caldwell Project provides. It’s also unique in that the tutoring is done before school when children feel more refreshed, rather than after school when they tend to be tired, he said. 

New Emphasis on Service Learning
University Launches Community Service Initiative
The University of Texas at Tyler began an initiative this fall to build on its long history of community service while expanding community service as a learning component in courses.

“Service is one of the goals in the university’s Strategic Plan,” said Dr. William Geiger, vice provost of academic affairs and dean of The Graduate School at UT Tyler. “Service learning or experiential learning has been noted as being one of the most effective instructional strategies in terms of promoting growth and knowledge by students. It makes sense that we would want to promote community service learning as an instructional methodology.” 

While giving students the opportunity to apply knowledge they learn in class to actual community needs, service learning instills in students a greater sense of personal and social responsibility, said Chase Ragland, coordinator for leadership and service in the university’s Department of Student Life and Leadership, which is overseeing the initiative. 

Tradition of Service 
Service learning is nothing new to UT Tyler. For example, last year, students in Principles of Marketing created marketing plans for 10 profit and nonprofit clients; and students enrolled in Community Health Nursing assisted in facilitating triage for a local nonprofit that provides a free monthly clinic for uninsured people in East Texas. 

Another example is the UT Tyler Ingenuity Center’s University Academies program, designed to improve student performance in middle schools. UT Tyler students help provide after-school activities at East Texas middle schools in the program, which was recently awarded an $11 million grant from the Texas Education Agency. 

Guiding the New Initiative
Input from faculty members regarding the new initiative was requested last spring, Ragland said, “and the response has been tremendous. If they weren’t already doing service learning, then they’re interested in incorporating it into their courses.” 

A committee that includes several faculty members was formed to guide the initiative and came up with several goals, including: connecting the university with the community’s needs; giving faculty the resources and training to incorporate service learning into their courses; developing community partners through which students could do service-learning projects; getting student input; and giving students real-life experiences and problems to solve to improve their learning experience. 

Also in the works is the development of an extracurricular transcript, which will eventually enable students to demonstrate involvement in activities outside of the classroom, including community service. 

Though it is in the early stages of development and will not be launched for at least another year, it will be similar to the extracurricular transcript currently provided upon request from the Office of Student Affairs. The one being created for future use, however, will be recorded in the university’s central computer system alongside the student’s academic transcript, Geiger said, noting it could thereby benefit students when looking for employment upon graduation. UT Tyler student Trakenderia Dunson provides one-on-one tutoring at Caldwell.

UT Tyler students serve as tutors through the field-based component of a course called Corrective Reading Practicum, taught by Dr. Joanna Neel, assistant professor of reading in the School of Education. The course is one of several that prepares students to become teachers and gives them an opportunity to put theory into practice in a real school setting.

“We learn lessons in the classroom, but actually getting out there and doing things hands-on was great. It made me learn so much more,” said Johnson, who served as a tutor last spring. “… I like that about UT Tyler. They put us out there, and I get a lot of experience from it.”

Neel is on-site each morning at the elementary school to supervise tutoring. 

“I greet my tutors the same way I want them to greet the first-graders,” Neel said. “We’re hyped. I say, ‘Hello! Good morning! Today we’re working on comprehension! Everybody, that’s your focus!’ I get them pumped up.”

Each child has two tutors, with whom they meet on alternating days during the week. Between tutoring sessions, the child’s two tutors collaborate by phone or online about what is working or not with that child, so that there is consistency and collaboration in their approaches. Graduate education students of Neel and Mokhtari also help collect and analyze the data. 

“For my tutors, this is the class where they shift from being an education student to being a professional educator,” Neel said.

Given the project’s success, it provides an ideal model for other schools to implement and adapt for their own needs, project leaders said. If more funds existed, such expansion would be possible, Mokhtari said.

Of course, such a partnership requires commitment from the elementary school, which the project has had from the beginning from Caldwell Elementary principal Forrest Kaiser, Mokhtari said. 

“Part of our success is having a good partner, and this principal is just ideal. He’s genuinely interested in helping these kids,” Mokhtari said. 

Likewise, Kaiser credited Mokhtari’s team for their commitment and service to children in his school.

“Dr. Neel and Dr. Mokhtari are amazing. They have done an exceptional job of preparing the tutors. That’s a massive part. They are well prepared in terms of data and instruction. They are coming with a plan and methods of gathering data,” Kaiser said. “…. That really shapes the program’s success.”

Between 65 and 70 percent of students at his school are considered economically disadvantaged, and many of the children need the tutoring to keep from falling behind their peers and undergoing significant remediation later, Kaiser said. He has found that most students who struggle in math, science and reading in third through fifth grades struggle because they have difficulties in reading.

“So helping struggling first-graders to read better will pay huge dividends for years to come,” Kaiser said.

The Caldwell Project has shown success in boosting participants’ reading levels, as well as in ways that cannot be quantified, such as their self-confidence.

“These are kids who sometimes at the end of first grade would have been frustrated and would have felt like they were incapable, but they do not feel that way now. They feel like they are actually capable of succeeding,” he said.

The individual attention from their tutors makes the difference, he said.

“When that child walks in the building, there is someone smiling and waiting for them who is glad to see them here, and that is huge,” Kaiser said. “It’s just a great way to start the day.”

Tutoring Adults and Teens 
Few would have guessed that the quiet teenage boy with a social disability would be the one with the vibrant mind capable of writing the most stunning story of all, until he stood and began reading his aloud, drawing in his classmates with imaginative details. He had been attending classes at the Literacy Council of Tyler to improve his language skills, and after some success was now revealing the intelligence he had always had. 

That moment was memorable for Leigh Faulkner, his substitute teacher leading the class that day and one of several students at UT Tyler who have worked part-time at the nonprofit agency while going to school. 

“His writing just blew everybody out of the water,” said Faulkner, who is working on her master’s degree in clinical psychology with the aim of becoming a school psychologist. “He had a moment to shine … and you could just see the pride.” 

Such success stories underscore the importance of the partnership that has developed between UT Tyler and the nonprofit agency, which offers basic education classes to adults and adolescents who cannot read or who have minimal reading or math skills. 

For almost two years, UT Tyler students have been able to earn part-time income for work they do there through the America Reads and America Counts program, which is supported by federal work-study funds for college students who meet certain income requirements. Each semester, about 10 of the university’s work-study students assist at the agency. They tutor clients, provide support to teachers, try their hands at teaching, and help out wherever needed. 

“The partnership is phenomenal and a win-win situation,” said DeAnn Sutton, the agency’s coordinator of volunteers. 

The agency benefits by having college students whom it can train to provide teaching assistance without the expense of having to pay their wages, which are funded by the work-study grant, Sutton said. UT Tyler work-study students benefit by earning income and gaining meaningful work experience during college. Of course, the agency’s clients themselves benefit from the extra help and tutoring they receive from UT Tyler students. 

Veronica Bueno, who moved to Tyler from Mexico two years ago, came to the agency for help with English language and math skills. She worked closely with her tutor, UT Tyler student Huma Maqsood. 

“Huma was extremely patient and very dedicated,” Bueno said. “If I didn’t understand it the first time, she tried to explain it in a different way so I could get it.” 

Traci Willingham had such a positive experience working at the agency that she returned to work there after getting her bachelor of science degree in psychology from UT Tyler in July. 

Like other UT Tyler students engaged in service to the community, Willingham embraces the opportunity to help others: “The most important thing to me is I get to make a difference one student at a time, every single day.”

 

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