5th Grade English, KIPP Sol Academy East Los Angeles, CA
For Maria Morfin, teaching literacy is all about helping her fifth graders in East Los Angeles find their voices—and she knows from growing up nearby that she can rely on the support of parents to help.
“Parents want their children to learn,” she says, “so I need to find a way to bridge the home experience and the school experience, taking the time to sit with parents, learning how can we work together as a team so we can help their child grow.”
It’s not uncommon for students to begin their school careers at KIPP Sol Academy reading well below grade level. “When I have my first parent conferences, parents tell me that this can’t be true,” she says. “What do you mean they can't read a complete sentence? At our other school, they told me that everything was fine.”
These conferences are about partnering with families to make sure students build knowledge and catch up on the reading and writing skills that are so vital to their success in school and beyond. “With some parents, I work really closely,” she says. “We meet one-on-one to discuss the different strategies a parent can use at home to help foster a love of reading in their child.”
Once the right book is in a child’s hands, Morfin prepares parents to make sure their students understand what they’re reading. At the school’s Literacy Night, an event for parents featuring different workshops tailored to students’ reading levels. Parents learn reading comprehension techniques tailored to their child’s needs, practice those techniques in the classroom, then go home and put their new skills to use in support of their child’s growth.
“Maria creates lessons that teach students about their voice within,” says Mairin Finn, an assistant school leader at KIPP Sol Academy. “Students are able to experience and apply the importance of literacy to subject matter that is relevant to their own experience and to that of the world around them.”
Those connections are strengthened during intensive, one-on-one reading and writing conferences with students. “Those conversations never start with, ‘What are you reading right now?’” Morfin says. “It's, ‘How are you doing? What's going on in your life?’ If I don't acknowledge their human needs, it doesn't matter how excellent instruction is—there's going to be something in their mind preventing them from learning.”
Throughout the year, they study social justice issues and advocacy, reading and learning about leaders like Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Malala, and Gandhi. During one unit, they select a real Los Angeles organization to support and present an advocacy plan for their peers to judge. The student groups pledge fake money to the most convincing proposals. The winning team gets $50 in real funds to donate to the organization.
By discovering their voices and tapping into the issues in their community, Morfin’s students are proving that with the right support at school and at home, students from all backgrounds can read, write, and speak at the highest levels. One hundred percent of her students are Latinx, and last year more than 70 percent scored proficient or advanced on the state’s rigorous Smarter Balanced assessment. In 2016, only 37 percent of California’s Latinx fifth graders and 65 percent of their white counterparts achieved the same results.
“I feel like there's no better way for me to help those who may not have a voice right now,” Morfin says. “Five, ten years from now when they're in high school and college, they can come back to their community and they can stand up for what they believe is right for their community, for people who look like them.”