Part 1: How “The Crazy Reading Ladies” turned Horace Mann Middle School into the school that reads. This blog is part one of a three-part series.
The expectations of middle school are daunting enough without the added challenges for students with learning disabilities. Students who have difficulty with reading find themselves at a disadvantage that has repercussions academically and socially.
Fortunately, Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts, has Erin O’Leary and Mary Cotillo, affectionately known by their students as “The Crazy Reading Ladies.” Erin is a reading specialist who provides intensive reading instruction in both pull-out and inclusion classes. Her students’ abilities range from below grade-level performance in reading fluency and comprehension to significantly impaired decoding or processing deficits.
Mary is the assistant principal and a former 8th grade ELA teacher who teamed up with Erin several years ago. They found themselves in each other’s classrooms daily, brainstorming ideas, crafting lessons, and talking about kids and books. Their friendship has since developed into a highly successful partnership, focused on putting good books in the hands of students and building a community of readers and literacy.
In this blog, and the two that follow, Erin and Mary share their wildly successful tips, techniques, and philosophy on removing barriers to reading and getting reluctant students to succeed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What advice can you offer to teachers who serve students with learning disabilities?
Erin: Many of our students have a negative association with reading because someone, somewhere, made them believe they weren’t good at it. These kids are nothing short of traumatized. We’ve coined the term Post-Traumatic Reading Disorder, and it is a very real thing. Teachers who serve students with learning disabilities see this every day in the kid who says he “hates reading” or that he’s “bad at it.” They see it in the child who hops out of her seat to use the bathroom when silent reading time comes around.
How do you heal the traumatic relationship with books? Bring good books into their lives. Read aloud. Use audiobooks. Reading simply has to be the expectation. We won’t tell students what to read, but we tell them reading isn’t optional. Students have a lot of excuses, and we have to be patient. We have to create positive experiences and believe for them until they believe in themselves.
How do you incorporate assistive technology (AT) into your reading program?
Mary: Over the years, we’ve tried a lot: tablets, laptops, apps, extensions, you name it. AT is thrown around as an effective means of supporting students, but it’s often messy and complicated. Although various options exist, educators will tell you they aren’t always as easy as they appear. It has to work, and it has to be close to effortless. We joke, “If it’s not as easy as Netflix, our kids won’t use it.” This is where the simple features of Bookshare and Capti Voice have won our kids over and been our biggest successes.
Some people say that audiobooks hinder a child’s ability to improve reading skills. What are your thoughts on this?
Mary: How do you become a better swimmer? You swim. How do you get better at free throws? Shoot lots of free throws. Same goes for reading. It’s easy to get caught up in the next-best reading program, but the best way to improve students’ reading (and writing) abilities is to let them read. This is where Bookshare comes in. By providing audio support, Bookshare alleviates the decoding task so students can focus on visualizing, connecting, and keeping track of what’s going on in the story. Then their confidence increases because they’ve understood and been able to talk about it in class. Once they’ve got a few books under their belt, some of those kids are right up at grade level.
Can you share a success story of a student who regained confidence in reading?
Erin: Aidan, an 8th grade boy, was very frustrated with reading. He was afraid he wasn’t good at it, so he chose to hate it. He had not developed an attention span for reading and would spend his time staring at a single page or looking around the classroom. I suggested he try Bookshare. Although initially wary, he agreed to give it a shot. He recently finished April Henry’s Girl, Stolen. Finishing and understanding a book was such an accomplishment for him. That one win is the start to rebuilding his confidence.
Next up in Part 2:
- How students use AT to personalize their reading experience
- The social benefits of cultivating a community of readers
- More student success stories
About The Crazy Reading Ladies
In a stroke of serendipity only fans of fine literature can imagine, Erin O’Leary and Mary Cotillo met while teaching together at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Massachusetts. It was there they earned both a reputation and title: “The Crazy Reading Ladies.” This reading specialist and ELA teacher-turned-administrator stop at nothing to motivate adolescents to read and leave them wanting more. Their school-wide reading initiative, All In!™ is currently in its seventh iteration and has been implemented in schools in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Florida. In 2017 they authored the YA version of Battle of the Books for Random House Publishing, Co. Previously, they’ve “put to work” books by Una LaMarche, Ellen Hopkins, Jack Gantos, and Ruta Sepetys. Their energetic and engaging style makes them sought-after presenters at local and international conferences. They provide professional development at the school and district levels. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org for options and availability. Follow their trials and triumphs at crazyreadingladies.blogspot.com and on Twitter and Instagram.