Building Communities and Embracing Diversity

Notes from a Keynote address to the Idaho Library Association


In every county in Idaho, and all across America, I see young people tutoring and mentoring, building homes, caring for seniors, and feeding the hungry. I also see them using their entrepreneurial spirit to build companies, start non-profits, and drive our new economy. We live in a Brave New World in this age of social media. We stand at this magnificent moment with the ability to unleash the American imagination. A new generation of Americans shares our spirit.

They want a future that belongs to them — a future that is for everyone.

We know there are some people who do understand the future, but too often as they gaze to the distance, they fail to know how, to make sure that it serves all of our people. And then there are others who fight tirelessly for the people, but who don’t see beyond the horizon. Today , I will share my work, experiences, and thoughts about how we can find  more common ground.

In a community that is truly balanced for literacy, how you teach is as important as what you teach. That’s one of the conclusions my network of teachers, administrators, librarians and curriculum supervisors has reached. Like most educators today, we’ve been changing our practices to reflect new knowledge about learning and teaching. Our students are reading more, writing more, and learning through themes.

Yet we share a mixed bag of excitement and uneasiness — excitement about the learning taking place in our classrooms, homes, and libraries every day, and uneasiness about the public perception that schools and libraries are not as good as they used to be, especially when it comes to literacy instruction. We wonder: How can we maintain the good practices of the past without ignoring current evidence about how children learn? Have we gone too far in one direction? What we’re searching for, then, is balance, and in that search, concerns common to all educators have surfaced.

Interesting Facts: Between 2000 and 2010, Idaho’s Latino population grew by 73 percent. Latinos promise to be very important to the future of Idaho.

How do we better address the needs of underserved populations?

In this visually driven age, let’s start by considering the needs of reluctant readers:

Research I have done for years with my mother points out that although the ultimate goal of reading and writing is to construct meaning, what children know about words affects their ability to make meaning. When word knowledge is limited, as is often the case with struggling readers and writers, so much attention must be given to figuring out individual words that little energy is left for comprehending text and expressing ideas. We see how truly labor-intensive this process can be when we observe the many pauses that punctuate students’ reading and writing as they struggle with words.

Skilled readers process print quickly and efficiently, so they can devote their full attention to meaning. Because they have well-developed sight vocabularies, they are able to rapidly and automatically identify many words. When skilled readers encounter an unknown word, they have little difficulty determining what it is. They are able to apply their knowledge of word analysis strategies and spelling patterns to read the word and follow up by cross-checking the results with the surrounding context.


Middle School teaching is one of my passions, and because struggling readers and writers in the intermediate grades have often experienced grade-level rather than developmentally appropriate instruction, and an emphasis on rote memorization rather than conceptualization for word learning, they frequently demonstrate inconsistencies in their knowledge of how words work. They may recall the spellings of certain more advanced words but have difficulty correctly representing basic vowel patterns, blends, or digraphs. These “holes” are significant and suggest an instructional situation in which the students did not have adequate time to build a solid foundation before instruction moved on to more abstract issues. Without a firm understanding of underlying concepts, the more complex aspects of spelling become difficult, if not impossible, for them to grasp.


POEM:  A Circle of Sun by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

POEM: Rock and Roll Band by Shel Silverstein

POEM: My Daddy by Eloise Greenfield

Search for Floyd Cooper

Search for Brod Bagert Rambo Teacher


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