ESS Unified Arts gets literary boost

SHELTON — This year, Elizabeth Shelton School staff under the direction of reading consultant Deanna Toohey is working to integrate literacy across the Unified Arts.

Through the initiative, the hope is to further engage the students as readers, officials said. In the fall, the school reached out to Shelton High teacher Jeff Roy for assistance from his construction classes. As a culminating event to the collaborative project between schools, Roy and his students built and delivered wooden bookcases for the gymnasium, music room and art room to the rousing cheers of the school’s fourth-grade students.

High school students then read books to each fourth-grade class in one of the unified classrooms. There was also a question-and-answer period afterward. High school students talked about the literacy, math and science knowledge that was needed during the construction process along with questions about what life is like as a high school student.

“Unified Arts teachers Keefe Manning, Kate Heidemann and Rebekah Kershaw will be filling the bookcases with books purchased through the Elizabeth Shelton School PTO thanks to the efforts of Shelton High School,” said fourth-grade teacher Amanda Wandishion.

Toohey, who was recently honored as the district’s Innovative Teacher of the Month, said she was excited about the collaboration with Roy. The bookcases include six cubbies with baskets that will be filled with books.

“We want our children to have books be part of their life no matter where they are,” said Toohey.

The bookcases are part of a larger library reorganization spearheaded by Toohey. Previously, the library contained book baskets with letters on them — A, B, C and so on — referring to reading level. Each student was to pick from his or her specific level.

What Toohey and her fellow teachers found was that some students were hesitant to pick from baskets, not wanting fellow classmates to know they were at a lower reading level.

“When a child is struggling with reading, they pick from a low letter basket, while they see other friends picking from a higher one — how does that feel for them?” asked Toohey. “When we start to mix the levels in the genre, a student can go to that sports basket without being embarrassed or ashamed. They are still picking the B book, but it is not obvious.”

Reorganizing the library, removing the letters and making the baskets genre or category based, Toohey said, allows students to pick a book at their reading level without feeling as if they are being identified as a lower-level reader. This in turn builds confidence, which is the first step in improving literacy.

“Imagine hearing a child saying ‘I can’t wait to pick from the poetry basket next week,’ or ‘I read that math book ... it is great,’” said Toohey. “I am proud to be among educators who try different things. I think genre-based libraries, where students can choose what they want to read about, is amazing.

“We are helping our children become passionate and interested and excited readers,” added Toohey.