UNI program equips students with skills to tackle literacy issues

UNI students are going into the community to help children struggling with literacy, and picking up career-defining experiences along the way.

When Rachel Barkema moved to Des Moines to start her student teaching position, all the material from one University of Northern Iowa class came with her.

Every book. Every binder. Every notebook. Every scrap of paper with any information from her Advanced Literary Practices class traveled with the UNI senior from Cedar Falls to Delaware Elementary in the Southeast Polk Community School District.

Those materials made that journey with Barkema, because she said the Advanced Literary Practices class, commonly called ALP by students, was the most impactful experience she had at UNI.

“It is the class I remember the most from and the class I apply the most from in the teaching field,” Barkema, an elementary education major, said. “It was a class about collaboration, knowing how to meet the needs of students and reflecting on my own teaching. I don’t think there is any other class that combines all three of these and other topics.”

ALP is a unique combination of university lectures, hands-on experience and community service. UNI students enrolled in the class travel to a local school and provide one-on-one instruction to students who are struggling with reading, writing or other aspects of their education.

Taken by students finishing their literacy minor, the course, which is two three-credit courses bundled together, gives students a chance to develop and implement their own lesson plans under the supervision of instructors or graduate students. They perform a series of assessments to learn about the student and then design three individualized learning goals. The program rotates to different schools each semester, and UNI students have taught in classrooms in Cedar Falls, Waterloo and Hudson.

This fall, 30 UNI students will be teaching literacy skills to students at Irving Elementary in Waterloo. For 10 weeks, the UNI students will teach their elementary students for one hour after school every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. They also will spend two hours on Wednesdays during a seminar to hone their lesson plans, in addition to two lectures on Tuesday and Thursday.

It’s a rigorous schedule, but it yields results.

“It was not easy, and a lot of effort went into the course, but it was so worth it,” said UNI senior Grace Mills, an elementary education major who is currently student teaching at Perkins Elementary in Des Moines. “The class was relevant and important to my future as an educator. I learned how to assess student learning using diagnostic assessments and use the given data to design learning goals. The opportunity to collect, analyze and utilize student data allowed me to understand how teachers use data to instruct their decision making.”  

Going into the classroom

For many students, ALP is their first experience working one-on-one with a child for an extended period of time. The literacy program at UNI prioritizes school engagement.

“Our whole division really tries to be in schools doing things with kids,” said Sarah Vander Zanden, an associate professor who teaches ALP. “We want to be with kids talking about words writing, singing songs and doing things with them.”

The in-depth instruction and the relationship it developed was a highlight of the class for many students.

“Working one-on-one with a student was a wonderful experience,” said UNI senior and elementary education major Lizzie Walsh, who is student teaching in Des Moines. “I was able to foster a strong rapport that positively impacted my student’s learning.” 

Barkema said the experience laid the foundation for her work in the classroom.

“As educators we always get told ‘How can we differentiate the learning so all students can benefit?’” Barkema said. “I think it really starts small and knowing how to do it with one kid. Knowing that I am confident to differentiate something for one kid, it seems like a breeze to do it for a classroom full of kids.”

That deeper relationship also produced those moments when everything clicked for their student, moments that demonstrated progress that their instruction was paying off.

“I had the opportunity to see those ‘lightbulb’ moments in learning, which was so motivating and fulfilling for me personally,” Mills said. “The individual time together really allows you to see how a student learns and what motivates and excites them.”

And the class is making a difference. Their elementary students who have shown struggles with literacy make notable improvements by the end of the 10-week instructional period, said Irving Elementary Principal Zach Zimmerman.

“Our students’ attitudes toward reading and writing have improved, and they look forward to participating in the Literacy Club,” Zimmerman said. “The Literacy Club benefits are immeasurable to all who are involved. Irving students benefit from additional intentional reading support while our UNI pre-service teachers are able to set a plan of action, provide instruction in an authentic setting, and receive feedback on their teaching.”

They are the type of improvements that will benefit them for the rest of their lives, highlighting the importance of literary education.

“In the classroom, every subject deals with reading and writing. Students read and write in math. Students read and write during science and social studies. Literacy becomes the foundations of our lives to contribute to society,” Barkema said. “When we as educators are making literacy positive and creative, students will succeed. I honestly don’t think there is enough emphasis on literacy education, but there needs to be. Everything in life is based around communication, and that right there is literacy.”

Mills said she decided to be a literacy minor in part because she viewed literacy as a way to set students up for future success. 

“Reading and writing is how you learn to unpack and figure out the world around you, and it is our job as teachers to help students see the importance of these skills,” Mills said. “An impactful and well-rounded literacy education can inspire students to continue learning and growing outside of the classroom.”

Taking their skills to the next level

ALP is the last of six courses in the literacy education minor, and students who complete it leave UNI with a reading endorsement for K-8 or K-12 on their resume. And it can make a difference during the job hunt.

“These are more knowledgeable professionals in the literacy aspect, and so our students  are more attractive for some districts because of that,” Vander Zanden said. “In fact, some districts won't hire any teachers for primary grades without the reading endorsement, because they feel so strongly about literacy expertise.” 

Beyond the endorsements, all the students interviewed said they apply the skills they learned in ALP every day.

“ALP has helped my work in the classroom immensely,” Walsh said. “It has helped me successfully assess students, distinguish literacy goals for students and create guided reading lessons that meet a variety of students needs. I feel so prepared for literacy education in student teaching because of ALP.”

Barkema is helping her instructor create a writing unit about personal narrative, a process that is now second-nature, thanks to ALP.

“ALP has also made me feel more confident in the classroom,” Barkema said. “I always questioned whether what I created in my lessons was good enough or second-guessed myself. After this class, I never did that anymore, and I go into student teaching every day with full confidence.”