During independent reading time in a McAuliffe Elementary School classroom, first graders Aidan Kroska and Lily Johnson chose nonfiction books they might want to read. For Kroska, he wanted to find something on pandas, his favorite animal, but he couldn't find it. He settled for a book on a different animal, penguins.

Johnson picked a book on butterflies because she "like them a lot."

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A year ago, students interested in butterflies or penguins in that first grade class might have been able to pick those books - but only if they were at that student's specific reading level. This year, students are given more freedom to pick books from a wider range of reading levels.

The shift is part of a wide range of new literacy changes going on at Hastings' three elementary schools this year. Students are now being asked to take more "ownership" of their reading education and teachers are working to better understand how their teaching is working and where they can improve.

"It's amazing to see the growth we've had. The students are so much more aware of their learning," said Amber Barry, a first grade teacher at McAuliffe Elementary School, and one of the literacy coaches who are helping train the district's elementary teachers in the new changes.

Teachers and administrators say the changes have been far from monumental, but instead are closer to tweaks or subtle shifts. The idea, though, is that those small differences will be enough to bolster the district's literacy education that in recent years has lagged behind.

'We are not seeing kids perform the way we know they can'

In mid-2010, Hastings Public Schools shifted its literacy curriculum, said Jennifer Reichel, the district's director for teaching and learning for the last four years. Since then, test scores from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, which tests third and fourth graders in the state, had lagged behind what the district wanted, she said.

Often curriculum shifts have an implementation dip, when the changes take a period of time before the results show, Reichel said. Testing data showed that it was more than that.

In 2015, reading scores across the three schools were reaching mid-60% proficiency, but since then those scores have dropped.

In 2018, McAuliffe proficiency was at 62.7%; at Kennedy Elementary School, it was at 57.5%; and Pinecrest was at 45.6%. The statewide average sits roughly at 60%.

Compared to other school districts of similar size, Hastings' figures are in the bottom half, Reichel said.

"We are not seeing kids perform the way that we know that they can," she said. "One of the things that it's important to do when we're not seeing the scores, is to really look internal ... are we doing the best to support the kids in our care?"

New, wide-ranging changes to literacy

In 2018, the district signed a $25,000 contract with Bonnie Houck, an associate professor of education at Hamline University, to address the downward trend.

Houck is spearheading a wide-ranging shift that emphasizes multiple things - among them is refocusing the classroom environment on literacy; creating a sense of student ownership over their learning; and making students aware of why they're learning what the day or week's topic is.

Another emphasis of these changes is a four-step process that shifts "ownership" of the education from the teacher to the student through teacher-led discussion, to large and small group work and independent learning, Houck said.

"Do we want passive compliance or do we want active learners who are really engaged and really putting emphasis in it?" she said. "If they don't own it, then what's the point?"

In Barry's and other classrooms that means having the students help build posters for the wall or places that specifically state what the students should be learning.

"The idea behind having them participate is it gives them ownership and so they're creating the norms of the classroom," Barry said. "It holds them accountable because this is what they came up with."

The work has been ongoing since the start of the semester where students learned how to interact with the teachers early on, to now being focused on learning goals, she said. Focus is also emphasized on increasing reading stamina, or the amount of time a student can sit and read, and students are aware of that, Barry said.

"In the past, the teachers had kind of known the targets but not so much the students ... so now the students are aware of the targets," Barry said.

Teachers talk, adapt

To help facilitate the changes, the district has six "literacy coaches" who help train the other teachers in some of the changes and lead sessions to help understand what is going well and not.

Houck regularly meets with the literacy coaches and other district staff and teachers to discuss how the new changes are going in the classroom, ways to improve the coaching of other staff members and other aspects of the shift.

The trainers have been checking in with other teachers to gauge how the changes are going and to build lesson plans together that specifically target state standards, said Kathryn McBride, a fourth grade teacher and literacy coach at McAuliffe. That doesn't mean the staff's teaching has become "cookie cutter" though, she said.

"We're not going to be the exact same, which is still nice because then we can put our own personality on it and our kids are different," she said.

McBride coaches the three other fourth grade teachers at McAuliffe and she said the group has relished the chance to talk teaching together.

"So often we get in the cycle of just, 'OK, teach, teach, teach,'" McBride said. "Now to actually slow it down and ... to take the time to reflect has been awesome."

McBride has been teaching fourth grade for two years, before that she taught second grade, so she knows there will be some natural improvement in her teaching from that. But the state assessments are this week and she's excited to see how the kids fare with the new emphasis from the literacy change.

"I feel a lot more confident this year," she said. "I can speak for my fourth grade colleagues that they have said the same thing."