Literacy: It's Not Just for Language Arts

Literacy is critical in math, science, social studies, robotics...

by Dr. Rod Berger

As Directors of Curriculum for the Cherry Hill Public School District in New Jersey, Dr. Farrah Mahan and Violeta Katsikis use the New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) to guide their curriculum and instruction. They both feel an active responsibility in making sure that their teachers are teaching literacy in not only the language arts, but in science, math, robotics, and all the other subjects upheld in the state standards.

As Dr. Mahan notes, the new science standards demand that student present evidence to prove their hypothesis. It's a process that promotes literacy, connecting with scientific and engineering terms while teaching students to formulate coherent arguments and presentations to support their conclusions.

The world is changing faster than curriculum can be updated. Professional development for teachers is therefore critical as teachers need to be self-reliant and motivated. The staff has an essential voice in the content of the curriculum chosen. Master instructors fine-tune the state standards and create lessons based on what kind of students are sitting in front of them each year. The teachers consider many factors including time of day, which of the 19 schools they are teaching in, and dozens of other considerations that affect the relationship between student and teacher every minute of every day.

The district must feel confident in their network of teachers to employ this method of curriculum and must supply targeted, specific, personalized and intensive professional development. As a result, everyone in the Cherry Hill district is a teacher of 21st Century skills in the classroom.

The teachers are allowed significant autonomy but Dr. Mahan says for the teacher, understanding the standards is more important than understanding the curriculum. “There is always a confusion concerning ‘This program is your curriculum,” says Dr. Mahan. “This is a misnomer. You have a curriculum, and you purchase a program with supplemental materials to SUPPORT it.”  

The Cherry Hill district doesn’t use a one-size-fits-all program for its K-12 instruction and curriculum; it uses several different programs based on the need, the student level of proficiency and instruction, and the teacher. There are over 11,000 students speaking 50 different languages in the district, so there isn’t a blanket program that covers all contingencies and needs. They use programs that teach strategies and skills in phonics, psychological awareness, spelling, and handwriting. The online platforms are vital because they allow the student to work from home, and they enable the student to receive feedback, so they continue to learn and improve outside of the classroom.

As both Ms. Katsikis and Dr. Mahan talk about in the interview, it’s not just the words or symbols on the page or the computer screen; they visit all 19 schools and walk through the classrooms, the spaces themselves, to look for evidence of literacy. Like Dr. Mahan says, “What gets monitored gets done.”

About Dr. Farrah Mahan and Violeta Katsikis

Dr. Farrah Mahan is the Director of Curriculum for the Cherry Hill Public School District. Prior to taking on this role, she served as an elementary principal for ten years. She has worked in the district for 14 years. She earned her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education and History as well as a Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership from Monmouth University. Dr. Mahan attended the University of Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2006 where she earned her Doctor of Education.

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Violeta Katsikis has served the students and staff of the Cherry Hill Public School District for the past fifteen years. She has taught multiple grades, supported teachers as a Literacy Teacher Coach, and currently serves as one of the K-12 District Supervisors of Curriculum and Instruction. She holds a Masters Degree in Education and a Reading Specialist certification from Holy Family University, as well as a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and Elementary Education certification from Rutgers University.

Follow Violeta Katsikis on Twitter

This interview was originally posted in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rob Berger.

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