Tenth graders at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, TX read rigorously in their English II course in The Academy of Global Studies. They explore other countries and their histories, socioeconomic systems and cultures through the books they read. Their teacher, Stacey Allen Webster, likes to include a little philosophy, sociology and art theory along with interdisciplinary connections to chemistry, mathematics, social studies, and world language in the topics they explore though writing assignments. Students also engage in project-based units around the themes of “waste management” in the fall and “voice and power” in the spring.
Expanding Students’ Horizons
Every January, Ms. Webster also helps to organize a learning expedition to Costa Rica for 140 sophomores. Students tour a local university, where they meet other students and teachers and discuss global problems. Students with socioeconomic needs receive scholarships in accordance with The Academy’s travel philosophy: “We all travel, or we don’t travel at all.”
Students in Ms. Webster’s general education classes include some who struggle to read due to dyslexia or other learning differences, students who speak English as a second language, and students who come from low-income families and impoverished neighborhoods.
The good news is that no student with a reading deficit is ever denied the opportunity to enroll in this challenging course, because Ms. Webster uses The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution, a proven reading tool that levels the playing field for students who have difficulty keeping up with complex grade-level texts in print form.
Learning Ally: A Proven Reading Accommodation
When she learned that her Texas district had a site license for Learning Ally, Ms. Webster was all in. She understands the frustration of students who have the intellectual ability to learn and excel, but lack the basic reading ability to keep pace with their peers. “You never want students to feel like they’re “hitting the wall with reading,” says Webster. “By presenting grade-level content in an accessible, engaging audiobook format, students with reading deficits turn into confident academic achievers. As students listen to human narrators, they hear content that is authentic and relevant. They absorb knowledge rather than trying to decode every word.
The Power of Choice
In her classes, students are able to choose what they read for most units. Ms. Webster believes having a choice can make a huge difference, since students are more likely to connect with texts that align with their individual interests or pique their curiosity. In one unit, students were asked to read a book by a Latin American author. Those with access to Learning Ally had no difficulty finding titles. Mrs. Webster says these students are more likely to complete their assignments using Chromebooks and smartphones in class, at home and on the go. She encourages them to read for at least twenty minutes a day and to write for at least twenty minutes a day – a best practice that Learning Ally recommends.
Another unit focuses on heroes and their journeys. Ms. Webster uses the work of Joseph Campbell, a literature professor and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of comparative mythology to help students understand the journey of the archetypal hero and how that story can be found in the literature of cultures from around the world—from ancient mythology and sacred texts to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Many hero cycle novels, both classic and contemporary, are available on Learning Ally.
Sharing the Wealth of Knowledge
Ms. Webster is one of six teachers nationwide who received Learning Ally’s prestigious 2018 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award for her balanced literacy approach, student-centric learning philosophy, and advocacy of dyslexia awareness and intervention. After receiving the Award, which comes with a cash prize for both the winning teachers and their schools, she was able to purchase copies of several critically acclaimed young adult novels, including The Hate U Give, All American Boys, The Help, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter and How It Went Down. All of these books deal with topics of social justice, allowing Ms. Webster and her class to focus on an important pillar of learning in The Academy for Global Studies: “Recognize and Weigh Multiple Perspectives.”
When she’s not busy expanding her student’s knowledge of the world, Ms. Webster strives to help teachers and parents better understand the different ways students learn. It troubles her to know that many students with dyslexia aren’t getting the help and support they need. She talks to colleagues and parents about recognizing learning differences. She encourages students to talk freely about the social and emotional toll they may experience. She introduces students to tools like Learning Ally that can be a beneficial reading accommodation for them.
The Simple Truth: Audiobooks Work
“There are myths we need to put to rest about audiobooks and learning,” says Webster. “In schools today, an estimated twenty percent of students struggle to read due to dyslexia and other learning differences. Yet many schools don’t use audiobooks, and that’s unfortunate. Many educators think these tools are cheating. They think they are distracting to the class. They don’t think audiobooks help students learn to read. They think if students are listening to an audiobook, they can’t take notes. The truth is much simpler. For students with dyslexia and other learning differences, reading is difficult. Audiobooks take away their frustration and embarrassment. They level the playing field to comprehend grade-level content. When students can do that, they develop more self-confidence to learn and to reach their highest academic goals.”
If you know an educator, administrator or U.S. school that is making a difference for students with reading deficits, Learning Ally’s nomination process is now open for the 2020 Winslow Coyne Reitnouer Excellence in Education Award. For more information on Learning Ally, or to request a demo, visit www.learningally.org/educators or call 800-221-1098.