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UB literacy teachers well-prepared for teaching in challenging educational times

by jmaloni

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Wed, Oct 30th 2013 11:00 am

Graduates of the University at Buffalo's Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction gave their alma mater a meaningful gift to celebrate its 50th year of service: One after another, they have circled back to tell their faculty mentors how the Graduate School of Education's literacy specialist master's degree program made it easier for them to get jobs.

"It has been challenging for young teachers to find jobs since the economic downtown, but things seem to be looking up," said Mary McVee, Ph.D., director of the center known as a CLaRI.

CLaRI is an established reading center at UB that has been providing reading services to Western New York since 1963. Besides assessing children's literacy development and offering individualized reading instruction, CLaRI conducts research on literacy teaching and learning, and trains teachers to use literacy assessments and research-based teaching techniques.

In a job environment that has frustrated talented teachers, the experiences of CLaRI graduates have been different.

"Having a literacy-specialist certification made a huge difference in getting a job," said Jena Albee, who began her first full-time teaching position this year as a kindergarten teacher in Brockport Central School District. "I absolutely love it."

Chad White, another CLaRI alumnus, recently began a job as a middle school social studies teacher in South Carolina.

"I had three interviews and was offered a position at each school: one high school and two middle schools," White said.

McVee recalled emailing White after she was contacted as a reference, thinking he would be encouraged to hear that.

"Chad responded that he already had one job offer and was expecting another," McVee said. "It just confirmed what the school principal who called had told me: They were really impressed with Chad and how well-prepared he was."

White agreed.

"The principals and teachers I talked to were always really impressed by the literacy background I have," White said. "They thought it would be very useful and helpful, no matter where I was, whether it be a suburban school district or more of a city school district."

The deep "literacy background" White referred to is a signature quality of the UB literacy specialist program. UB students learn traditional content, such as theories and instructional methods, but also spend time teaching struggling readers and writers in one-to-one tutoring or small-group, school-based settings engaging in "clinically rich practice." And while they are tutoring, they receive feedback from instructors and mentors. 

David Fronczak, a full-time literacy specialist and reading department chair at St. Amelia's School in Tonawanda, agreed a hallmark of the literacy specialist Ed.M. program is this intensive process of feedback and growth. These clinically rich practices are one reason Fronczak chose UB.

"You're allowed to really become that self-reflective practitioner here because you're doing all these activities live, in front of real kids, and you're getting real feedback," Fronczak said.

Teachers digitally record each teaching event on site at CLaRI's North Campus center. They then log in at home later through a secure interface to reflect back on the day's lessons.

"It's also kind of cool to tell our students that the same cameras we use for recording were also used by the Pentagon for security," McVee said.

But there is real educational value behind the "cool" factor. Graduate students use the video to examine and critique their teaching, and researchers use the video to study issues related to literacy instruction and learning, McVee said.

This process of having teachers record their own teaching and then analyze it later is part of a model of reflective video pedagogy developed at CLaRI by a team of literacy faculty and doctoral students.

This reflective pedagogy and these literacy practices also are a hallmark of the work UB graduate students carry out when teaching children during the summer. CLaRI has long-standing partnerships with the Amherst and Maryvale Central school districts, where UB graduate students work in classroom settings with children who are struggling readers and writers.

"What I love about the program and what I encourage the UB clinicians, as we call them, to do here in the classroom teaching is to embrace this experience," said Patti McCabe, UB adjunct literacy faculty member and a full-time teacher at Smallwood Elementary in Amherst.

"I call it 'literacy nirvana.' UB clinicians and the children get time in their day that is dedicated to those important pieces of literacy that every student should have on a daily basis. But it is also a time for UB clinicians to avail themselves of a mentor who is in the rooms with them, who is guiding them and is there to offer ideas and resources, and support them on this journey."

McVee said CLaRI belongs to a very small cadre of literacy centers with physical space to provide services to children, families and teachers, but also has a strong research component that includes teacher education and professional development.

"Teaching is an incredibly complex endeavor, and there is no way we can prepare teachers for every situation they will face," McVee said.

Instead, CLaRI tries to prepare teachers to think critically to allow them to help struggling readers and writers using research and reflection as educational tools.

Noting he has only begun the literacy specialist program, UB student Nick Sperrazza already has seen the benefits of the CLaRI educational model.

"As a result of reflecting on my own practices as a growing teacher, I have begun to further develop my craft," Sperrazza said.

For more information about application to the GSE advanced degrees in reading or advanced certification in reading, visit http://gse.buffalo.edu/programs#lai.

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