The Multi-Dimensional Nature of Reading

By Dr. Cecilia Espinosa

Student immersed in book!

Samara Dual Language Community School, a vibrant bilingual learning community located in The Bronx, NY, is easily one of the most professionally sophisticated elementary schools in the United States. Samara offers a Spanish/English Dual Language PreK – 5th grade program. Each grade level has a team of teachers; one teacher teaches in Spanish, the other in English. Additionally, at each grade level, a bilingual special education teacher works alongside the classroom teachers. Samara embraces the belief that bilingualism is possible for all children interested in becoming bilingual. The children alternate their learning in Spanish or English by switching from their English class to their Spanish class. 

At Samara, families and the larger surrounding community are a very important part of the successful school learning environment. The publicly displayed values that guide the school were developed by the staff and children and include a commitment to kindness, compassion, collaboration, curiosity, and persistence. In other words, everyone works together; everyone may ask questions, and this community of learners never gives up in the quest for knowledge and understanding.

Samara schools emphasis is on the arts, language, and project-based learning (PBL). A bilingual art teacher works with all grade levels to provide relevant art experiences that help children make connections to the content-rich curriculum. There is also a strong music program. The PreK-5th grade bilingual children present their Caribbean based orchestra in public settings and are well known for the quality of their performances. PBL is central to Samara’s teacher-created curriculum. At Samara, the principal and teachers believe that children learn best when they are actively engaged in finding solutions to real-world problems and that offer children opportunities to personally connect with the curriculum.

Project Based Learning

Each school year begins with a Project Based Learning Experience that centers on some aspect of Samara School. Below are some examples of inquiry questions that teachers and children develop at the beginning of the year:

Who am I? Who are my friends? How do we take care of each other in our classroom community? (PreK)

Who are  our classroom caregivers at Samara Community School?  How do they care for others? (K)

What does it mean to be a leader? Who are the leaders in our community and how do they influence us? (1st)

How can we make the Samara Community welcoming to all learners? (2nd)

How do our identities positively impact the identity of Samara Community School? (3rd)

How can we, as historians, inform others of the importance of Samara’s past in shaping our school community? (4th)

Why is advocacy an essential practice for all community members at Samara? (5th)

After several weeks of engaging in study, children prepare to share their learning with multimodal texts during “Museum Day.” At that time, visiting families travel from class to class listening to the children share their learning in both English and in Spanish. The children, also, visit each other’s classrooms. As the school year progresses, each classroom develops a learning project that addresses a new question; for example, the third graders asked, “How can we as ethnobotanists  study the connection between cultures by investigating the way in which people feed themselves?” The kindergarteners asked, “How can we help to maintain a healthy environment that promotes biodiversity in our community garden?”  Again, the professional sophistication of Samara zooms into focus! These project based curricular learning experiences engage the bilingual children as critical thinkers, speakers, listeners, viewers, readers, and writers.

Partnership with Bring Me a Book

Samara school was a late addition to Bring Me a Book’s action research study. Before the project started, Bring Me a Book’s Executive Director Lois Bridges explained the study’s aim to the school principal. The principal selected two fourth-grade bilingual teachers to participate. In retrospect, inviting teachers to self-select would have been best based on what we understand about choice and ownership—critically important for students and teachers alike. Still everyone did their best to meet the goals despite a school year fraught with Covid-related challenges. The goals which evolved over time, are as follows: 

Goals for partnership with Bring Me a Book
Help create a reading program that matches Samara’s high quality Project Based Learning environment — a reading program that is purposeful, engaging, authentic, and multi-dimensional.
Help the teachers and children move away from a one-dimensional level-bound understanding of reading.
Help to develop each child’s own engaging reading identity, together with book choice.
Explore the idea that “being a reader IS important in this class” (Karen Smith).

I (Cecilia) met with the teachers. We talked about Bring Me A Book in partnership with Bookelicious. The fourth grade students made their Bookelicious bookmojis, or reading avatars, and, as a result, discovered a universe of possible book choices. When the first collection of books arrived, children and teachers celebrated with photos and wrote book reviews. Cecilia met with a child from each class. She interviewed them about their reading lives. To her surprise, she discovered that the children were more concerned about their reading levels than crafting their own personal reading life. The children she interviewed could not talk about characters they loved, or a genre they preferred, or a favorite author. It appeared that their only motivation for reading was moving from level to level

Cecilia met informally with the principal, the literacy coach, and the two fourth grade teachers. She shared the results of her interviews and the fact that the children had focused almost exclusively on their  reading level. Cecilia then posed the question, What does it mean to be a reader at Samara?

What Does It Mean to Be a Reader at Samara?

As a result, one of the teachers invited Cecilia to create lesson plans they could enact. Drawing from the work of Kylene Beers’s Disrupting Thinking, Ernest Morell and Pam Allyn’s Every Child a Super Reader, Janet Allen’s The Yellow Brick Road, as well as from her own collection of literacy engagements, Cecilia  created lessons in Spanish and English. The goal of the lessons was to invite children (and teachers) to think about their reading lives, become active responsive readers, unpack elements of literature, connect with authors, etc. These lessons focused on the life-long practices of readers. In other words, rather than the one dimensional focus on reading level, Cecilia was helping them to consider the multiple dimensions of reading practice that were more in alignment with the school’s professional dedication to Project Based Learning.

After a couple of weeks, one of the teachers shared that she had tried the lessons and admitted that she was surprised at how inexperienced the children were in having these well-rounded, reflective conversations about reading. She said the conversations challenged the children and it also challenged her. When Cecilia interviewed her more recently, she shared that could see that the children in these classes did not know how to talk about the elements of reading beyond levels. She realized that something important was missing in how the children view themselves as readers.  She could see the drawbacks of what happens when the focus on levels for reading is way too prevalent. The teacher now maintains that she wants to begin the school year with a different vision for the reading experiences that she wants to offer her children. Cecilia commented that, at Samara PBL is child centered, and that reading could also become child centered.  They talked about the idea that she could start from day one with the vision that renowned literacy educator Karen Smith shared with Cecilia, “In this class, being a reader matters.”

The teachers created more intentional spaces for the development of avatars and book selection in the follow-up sessions. Children had more opportunities to identify  the kind of books they prefer. For example, one child discussed with an adult how a graphic novel has different subgenres. It can be historical, adventure, or realistic, etc. The children made more intentional choices of books in Spanish. A child for whom English is a new language selected books in Spanish that she knew in English and were of good quality. The children also spent more time reading what the books are about before making their final selections. Still, there is a lot of work to be done in creating an environment in which the joy for reading is of paramount importance and where children choose to read.

Best Practices that Support Change

The question of what makes it a replicable and sustainable model others can follow is an important question.  Best practices that support that change include:

Ownership and choice in the project launch—right from the start. Patience, persistence, and professional support consistently in the classrooms each week— pursuing every opportunity to engage teachers in discussions about reading pedagogy.

A clear vision of the change that’s needed: in this case, creating a quality reading environment where children own their own reading lives and, therefore, choose to read in their free time. What does it mean to be a reader at Samara?

Leadership participation in all professional conversations, i.e., principal, literacy coach, and teachers. The changes have to be structural.

Essential Questions

In sum, I pose these inquiry questions:

When teachers are surrounded by mandates of reading levels and a reductionist view of reading, how do we help them embrace a vision of reading that builds children’s bilingual reading identities, and which  stem from an understanding of joy-centered reading?

What is needed for a true paradigm shift to happen in reading?

How can we support teachers to capitalize on what is happening in PBL to promote a similar kind of learning environment that supports bilingual readers’ development?  (children’s agency, choice, personal interests, etc.)—a vision that frees children from the restraints of reading level and enables them to craft their own rich reading lives from a complex universe of possibility.

© 2022 Cecilia Espinosa