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Award winning Rock Hill principal discusses strategy for getting students to read

South Carolina literacy advocates were so impressed with Sullivan Middle’s push to stoke interest in reading, they named the Rock Hill school’s principal, Michael Waiksnis, administrator of the year.

Leaders of the S.C. Chapter of the International Reading Association felt he stood out over nominees from across the state for a bevy of efforts aimed at fanning students’ fervor for the written word.

Sullivan kicks off reading programs with assemblies where students see “trailers” for books and hear staff endorsements. Book lovers can sign up for an enrichment class where they get to read what they like. Adults are asked to post lists of books they are reading.

Students “caught” reading get tickets for weekly prize drawings. Once a quarter, three readers win a trip to Books-A-Million to buy $10 worth of books.

“It’s not uncommon to see students reading as they wait to be invited into class or after testing,” Sullivan instructional coach Chris McLean wrote in Waiksnis’ nomination.

Waiksnis talked with The Herald about why Sullivan is so invested in books and what parents can do at home to fan the flames.

Looking at your nomination, it seems you have made reading a priority on campus. Why have you incorporated such an intense focus on literacy?

Literacy is truly the gateway skill for students. In early elementary, the focus is often learning how to read. As students get older, especially in middle school, the focus shifts to reading to learn. Students in middle school must be able to read and comprehend very subject-specific text.

Most students in middle school know how to “read” but they must learn how to comprehend the material to aid in their content area learning. When students go to high school and college, they must have specific skills that will allow them to read dense, subject specific text to do well. We need to make sure they have those skills.

What’s been the most effective effort to get middle schoolers to read more?

We need to develop a love of reading. We need to develop a cadre of kids who have the ability to comprehend what they read. Sometimes we have the tendency to do 100 strategies with kids and forget to let them read. If all we ever do is reading drills and worksheets, students never get to actually read. We do everything we can to develop this love of reading. We talk about reading all the time. I always ask kids what they are reading and talk to them about books. The teachers do the same on a daily basis.

Sullivan’s literacy plan says all teachers, no matter their subject area, should be literacy teachers. What does that mean exactly and how can that be incorporated in math or art class?

All teachers are literacy teachers. If we hold onto the outdated belief that only English teachers are literacy teachers, we will continue to struggle with developing readers who can comprehend text. It is crazy to think a student does not have to read well to excel in science or social studies or anything else. They need as much practice as possible. We provided articles to our teachers based on their standards. This way, the students were working on their literacy skills, but in an authentic manner. It relates to what they are learning in that class. Literacy cannot be an add on, it has to be a ubiquitous part of the day.

The adults in our building truly deserve the credit for this award. They are the ones who are working directly with the kids every day. They are the ones providing the professional development. They are the ones learning how to implement these strategies in their class. Unfortunately, middle level teachers receive very little training in literacy while in school. We have made it a priority to bridge this gap. I know it is working when I walk into chorus or math and they are reading an article about their subject area.

What can parents do at home to help students not only read more, but also better understand what they’re reading and develop a love for it?

The message here is simple: Your kids must read every day. They must see you reading and that you value reading. One easy way is to set aside 30 minutes each night and read as a family. I know everyone has hectic schedules, but it is crucial you find time to do this.

Hopefully, most families have been doing this. If they have not, that is OK, just start doing it now. Many of us read to our kids when they are little, but we stop as they get older. We cannot afford to do this. Just when literacy skills need to make it to the next level, we stop building the love of reading.