Coaching by the books

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Joanie Skinner starts most of her mornings off with a glance at her calendar. A few months ago, nearly all the white squares that make up the days of the week were blank. Right now, there's not an empty slot.

It's a reflection of how Skinner's presence at Jefferson Elementary has changed since school started in August, when she officially shifted from second-grade teacher to reading coach.

Skinner is one of five such coaches hired this year at each of Cape Girardeau's elementary schools. The new positions were created in hopes of improving literacy through extra training and resources for classroom teachers.

Skinner and the other four coaches have a rather fluid job description that filters down to one thing: supporting teachers.

"Any teachers' job now is difficult because our students come from such diverse backgrounds and have different needs," Skinner said.

Her job is to help teachers meet those needs, no matter what they are.

"If a teacher asks me to run down and get a peanut butter bar for a student who is starving, well, that's what I do," she said.

On Wednesday, Skinner started her day with a collaborative meeting with Jefferson's reading team, a group of three other teachers who work directly with students on improving literacy.

The team discusses individual students' reading levels and ways of improving their scores on tests. Improvement suggestions are different for each child. For Skinner, this type of cooperation is one of the most beneficial aspects of her job.

"This is the first time we've monitored individual students' progress," she explains. "I feel we're at a place we've never been before."

After the team meeting, Skinner makes a stop in first-grade teacher Marsha McGowen's room.

McGowen has asked Skinner to take part in a reading session with several students whose reading level is uncertain.

While Skinner models the session, McGowen observes. The four students are reading a book titled "Snake's Dinner."

Skinner starts by discussing snakes in general with them.

"Have you ever seen a snake?" she asks.

"We used to have a pet snake," says a blond girl named Jordan. "We fed it dragon food."

Next, Skinner has students flip through the pages of the book, discussing the illustrations, but not actually reading yet. Then, students read individually to Skinner. She walks from one to other, coaxing students to sound out words and read without pointing their finger on the page.

Afterward, students summarize the story out loud. At the end, Skinner gives her advice on moving the students to a higher level.

Like many teachers in the district, McGowen was wary at first of the idea to implement reading coaches in every elementary.

After three months working with Skinner, that perception has changed.

"She's the busiest person at this school. We all want a piece of her," McGowen said. "She's a kind of shepherd, leading all of us."

Later, Skinner works with third-grade teacher Susan Ayers and her students on writers' workshop, a part of Jefferson's Balanced Literacy reading program.

"The modeling part of this is my favorite part," Ayers said. "It's nice to watch someone else do it. It gives me ideas."

Back in her own classroom for a small break, Skinner's phone rings. It's a teacher, asking if Skinner will come to her classroom to discuss a problem. There's no end to this type of call.

"We help problem-solve," Skinner said. "Classroom teachers need someone. They need an instructional guide."

cclark@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 128

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