Episode 24 - Beyond the NAEP: Mississippi’s Literacy Growth with Kristen Wynn
About Kristen Wynn
Kristen Wynn’s service in the field of education spans 15+ years. She is committed to ensuring equitable access for all students to effective literacy instruction, highly-qualified teachers, and high-quality instructional materials. Her experience in the classroom includes teaching 1st and 2nd grade, as well as serving as a Kindergarten through 5th grade Intervention Specialist. She has also spent several years as a new teacher mentor. Ms. Wynn previously served as a literacy coach for the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), a Regional Literacy Coordinator, an Assistant State Literacy Coordinator, and currently serves as the State Literacy Director, where she has worked diligently to improve literacy outcomes of schools and districts across the state of Mississippi. She is the co-creator of the “Passport to Literacy” and “Passport to Literacy Boost” PreK-2nd grade literacy professional development training for teachers. During the 2016-2017 school year, she co-produced the MDE’s Literacy Focus of the Month in Action instructional videos featuring literacy coaches and students in Mississippi classrooms. During the 2017-2018 school year, she began working with coaches to increase the rigor and consistency of writing instruction in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms through the development and implementation of Writing Galleries. Currently, she serves as a member of the Mississippi Reading Licensure Task Force, the Mississippi Reading Panel, the Higher Ed Literacy Council (HELC) and the Governor’s Task Force for Teacher Preparation in Early Literacy Instruction. Kristen is the wife of Detective David Wynn II and the mother of two wonderful boys, Braxton and Parker.
Danielle Scorrano: Hello, Kristen. And welcome to the READ Podcast.
Kristen Wynn: Hi Danielle. How are you? And I'm so happy to be here with you today.
DS: I have to tell you a funny story actually, before we start. My family listens to this podcast and they always tell me and joke around with me when they listen, they can hear me smiling. I never knew what they meant by that, but as you came up on the screen, I'm smiling. I know when I listen back to this, I'm just going to feel the energy of our conversation. Thank you for being here. I want to thank Jay Russell, who used to be the Executive Director of the Windward Institute and the Head of The Windward School for introducing us and connecting us. I've been following your work and the work of Mississippi since you made national headlines related to your NAEP reading scores in 2019. So thank you for being here, especially as we approach a very humid and hot summer and the school year is rapidly approaching. I like to start by setting the scene of the conversation. Where are you in the world right now? And what is your current role in area of expertise?
KW: So in this role, I direct our state literacy initiative and I would say my area of expertise is around working with struggling readers as a 15 plus year educator. I started off in the classroom teaching students how to read and transitioned to an intervention specialist. And then I moved to the state level and started off as a literacy coach. At the beginning of our initial initiative in 2013, I started off as a literacy coach, and I think we kind of chatted about that in recent conversations, but there were 24 of us that walked in the building that day out of 500 applicants. So that was like, whoa, what are we getting ourselves into? Then I transitioned to a regional literacy coordinator after a few years and then assistant state coordinator, and here I am as the state literacy director. I started this position in 2019, but the unique thing about it is, I got to see us when we first started in this work, you know, I got to be here the entire time. We have built together as a team, this plane, and we flew it at the same time. So it's exciting to see where we started and how far we've come, and to see the great work that our teachers and students, community leaders, parents, our state leaders have done for the students in Mississippi.
DS: Thank you for sharing that. I'm actually so happy that we met on Monday and I'm still buzzing about our conversation. I wish the READ listeners had an opportunity to listen to us. What's interesting is last night, we were recording this at the end of June and this episode will launch in September, but right before we had recorded this, The Windward Institute had hosted a webinar last night on unsiloing between science and school practice. One of the questions that came up, the person was just genuinely looking for a story of a leader who had taken the science of reading from a primarily balanced literacy state or school and wanted to know the story of how that happened. And I think your story is one that shows, this is what happened in Mississippi, this was the state of what the reading scores were like. This is how we took the science of reading this initiative from 2013 to nine years later. So I do want to unpack that, but before we get to that, Literacy and social justice has access to literacy is personal for you, right?
KW: It is. So, in third grade, my son, my youngest son, was diagnosed with dyslexia and I knew when he was younger that he may have had some issues, but you know, at home and at school, I gave him what he needed. I say all the time, sometimes my children are the Guinea pigs for certain things that we learned and as we were growing and our knowledge of the science of reading, so I started to implement some of those practices at home with him, and he learned to compensate for his reading disability. It kind of caught up with him around third grade and we know third grade is that transitional year for a lot of our students, they go from learning to read to now reading to learn. He's such an awesome kid. In third grade, I talked to the school administrators, the principals, and we all sat down and had a conversation about what are the next steps. And for me, I wanted him to not be pulled out of the classroom because and we'll talk about this later on, but we also have in Mississippi, our dyslexia law. Our students in Mississippi, if they're diagnosed with dyslexia, they can go to one of our non-public special purpose school. I didn't want to pull him out and send him to another school, but I know what the research said, and I knew what he needed. He needed grade level instruction, but he also needed those gaps filled. You know, we needed to focus on phoneme proficiency with him because he's had some gaps in the foundational skill areas specifically foundations of phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. To make a long story short, he received his therapy three times a week, but what happened was his therapist was in California and we didn't chat about this, Danielle. His therapist was in California, so he did virtual therapy.
DS: What year was this? Was this pre COVID?
KW: This was pre-COVID. Yes, this was pre COVID and then all during COVID. He did the virtual therapy three times a week on zoom, sometimes she had to do it two times a week. He had all his materials, she shipped and we made it work. And so he did that in the afternoons. When I tell you, when they transitioned back into the building last year and he took his screener, because that's the part of Mississippi state law that our students have to be screened three times a year, he had gone up 55 points.
DS: Really? Wow.
KW: So, you know, when we talk about some of the supports that we give kids post COVID to help with unfinished learning that they may have, or our students that may struggle with reading, we talk about this high leverage tutoring. I watched it happen in my house with my dyslexic son, so this work is really personal for me. I’m invested in Mississippi public schools. My child, both of my children, are there. And so I want to see all of our students across our state and across the nation, really excel and exceed. And I watch my kid, I watch him right now, reading his book on the way to summer camp. And I watched him crack the code. It’s just so amazing to watch. I want that experience for all kids.
DS: I just got the chills.
KW: I know sometimes I get chills thinking about him because he's an amazing kid.
DS: I love that. I appreciate you starting with that story and your story about the learning about the science of reading is also very personal. I want to learn a little bit more about how you learned about the science of reading and how you became invested in ensuring beyond your working with your son and seeing your son's journey, but how you became invested in ensuring that all teachers now have the knowledge and the expertise and the science.
KW: Absolutely. My initial encounter with the science of reading happened in my role as an intervention specialist. At that time, we didn't really refer to it as the science of reading. To us, it was just best practices, and we knew that our students needed to be skilled readers, but they needed to be able to crack the code. I remember in 2010, Deb Glaser, she worked with the Louisa moats to create the first LETRS module, the very first one, it's called an Introduction to Language and Literacy. We had Deb come to our district and she trained all of our reading interventionists. We were like, oh my goodness, this is something that we did not learn in our teacher prep program. So fast forward to 2013. And, I believe past experiences prepare us for future purposes. So in 2013, when I was hired as a state literacy coach, we procured at the department LETRS as our statewide literacy professional development system. And that's when we were able to really take a deep dive into the science of reading.
All of us were having aha moments. Antonio was our facilitator. We were learning about the rope we were learning about just the science around it, the four-part process, there's all of those conceptual models. And we knew that every teacher needed this information in Mississippi because our state and like we had talked about it in our previous conversation, a lot of teachers were trained in whole language, concepts and practice. Now it was like doing a 360 trying to retrain teachers in what we thought was the right way, but we were missing those gaps in it and it really wasn't for all students. I would love to be back that group with Antonio and learning about the Scarborough Reading Rope.
DS: I mean, how fascinating and just eye-opening. I remember when I first came and taught at The Windward School, it was the same thing. I had no expert, no knowledge, really from my teacher prep program on what best practice in reading was. And then to learn also too, that it wasn't just for kids that needed extra help or extra support or those kids that were struggling but it benefits all kids. To have that mindset and to have that aha moment is extremely powerful. So then what happened after you were trained as an interventionist? Did you go straight into schools? When did you become a coach? What were the next steps?
KW: So I applied for the coaching position in 2013 and our governor wanted to hire 75. And I think I told you the story. The department at the time went through about 500 applicants and there were 24 of us that showed up that day because there wasn't enough coaches that knew about the science of reading.
DS: So you have 500 applicants, 75 were supposed to be hired and 24 of you walked in because there wasn't enough knowledge expertise, right?
KW: No. And that's the thing, you know, we, like many other states, you were coming out of your teacher prep programs, you know, being taught this other way. Then, most of our districts at that time were balanced literacy, whole language districts. So unless you really went to a program where you got your endorsement or an add on in remedial reading and you had to take those additional courses, I had a professor that gave us a phonics test, to just even learn about phonemic awareness and phonics was really rare at that time. Unless you were working with those struggling readers that had specific learning disabilities, you know, you were really trained in balanced literacy practices. And so 24 of us showing up that was really alarming and we knew change had to happen.
We knew some things had to happen. We knew teachers needed the training that we got as the initial cohort. We were the first cohort to go through LETRS. We knew it was critical for teachers to have that same type of training. And so we rolled it out and we didn't have a fancy, Danielle, professional development system where we could sign up online. We were literally in a cubicle with chart paper. We had our literacy support schools. We're required to go, but we really just were calling districts and saying, okay, so you're a few miles from this other district. Can we just host your district and this district will facilitate and get everything done? The districts were really receptive and we literally had chart paper charting out where we could host these initial trainings until we started using our regional educational agencies to sign up for our courses.
DS: Wow. I really love that can do attitude and the fact that you were also passionate and dedicated from the ground up to facilitate this professional development. And I will say time number three you have given me the chills thinking about your story. One was about your son. One was about the numbers of the 24 coaches, and now just thinking about how you were able to bring this into local schools. What I also find fascinating about your work is that you've encompassed the not only the translation between research and practice, but you also integrated policy implementation. When I was doing the research prior to speaking with you, I learned about the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. But then earlier this week, when we met, you spoke about four literacy policies that were enacted in Mississippi. You talked about the dyslexia policy as well. Can you walk me through these policies that were happening? These policies were enacted at the state level and disseminated across local schools?
KW: Yes, that's correct. We have four really key policies or key pieces of legislation that help to build our focus on literacy across our state. One is our Early Learning Collaborative Act, and that came around the same time as our Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013. Well, that established an early learning collaborative in pre-K programs in underserved areas throughout our state. A collaborative is when public school and a childcare center work all together to make this super group for pre-K. The pre-K Early Learning Collaborative Act was also one that came into play. We also had the Literacy-Based Promotion Act and I know we'll get into that a little bit more.
We then have our kindergarten readiness assessment, so we have accountability in Kindergarten. All our kindergarten students take the kindergarten readiness assessment to assess readiness and growth at the beginning and end of year. And then we have our dyslexia scholarships. Our dyslexia scholarships provide a school choice for students with dyslexia in grades K-12, and then they require local districts and policies to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten. We also just recently added awareness training to that dyslexia scholarship. So those are the key pieces of legislation that we often talk about.
DS: When we're talking again about our focus in Mississippi on literacy. The Literacy-Based Promotion Act was one that received a lot of national attention, especially after 2019. I read that at the time, your state superintendent, Carey Wright attributed the growth in the NAEP as the laser-focus on literacy. Tell me more about The Literacy-Based Promotion Act and how that facilitated that laser focus on literacy practice and best practice.
KW: There are six- we identified six major components of our Literacy-Based Promotion Act. This early literacy policy that we have in Mississippi is really, really specific. Like many other states, it doesn't necessarily call out the science, but it does. The six major components of that are centered around our act are educator training, coaching for teachers, early identification, prevention over retention. That's our thing. Retention is the last resort, but we want to do things on the front end and have preventative measures in place. And then we have our individual reading plan that was added in 2016. We also have a huge campaign around parent and family communications because this is an all hands-on deck type of thing. We talk about a focus on literacy, but you can't have a focus on literacy or create this vision for literacy for your state if you don't involve your community, your families and your other stakeholders in your efforts. So, we have a really huge campaign with our parents there too. We train them at the state level.
DS: That is, oh my gosh, time number four, I'm getting the chills. Wow. So I hear the components of early screening, early identification, prevention, and remediation. The fact that you have a bill that, or a law, not even a bill, a piece of legislation that even explicitly identifies dyslexia. I mean, I'm thinking about all the legislation and the laws that's even around the state levels that can't even name dyslexia as a learning disability, it’s unfathomable to think about. I appreciate you breaking down each of those pillars of the policy. As I'm thinking and putting on my hat as a Johns Hopkins student, thinking about some of the doctorate work I was doing in power and politics, one of the major pieces I'm thinking about is, how does state legislation make it to local districts and especially thinking about how powerful local school leaders and superintendents? How did the state, and even you working with coaches, how did you ensure that these major pillars of the policy even reached local schools in terms of infrastructure, resources, and funding?
KW: So we were funded the first year around $9 million. For every subsequent year we've been given by legislators, we are so thankful for the $15 million each year. In addition to that, when a new law rolls out, you have to come up with a strategic plan of implementation. A law's only as great as its implementation of it, so we provided districts schools with implementation guides. We did training specifically to the law and the components, so there was that awareness initially of the law and we provided a plethora of resources. We worked really strategically and hard to make sure we had a very clear message about implementation. What was the responsibility at the state level? Looking at the law, what are the components within the confines of the law that are the responsibilities of the district, and then what are the responsibility at the school and even at the family and community level?
We created those implementation guides and then we tried to be strategic about given that message multiple times, initially, so that ever one had a solid understanding of the components of the law.
DS: What I love about this and hearing about this is the shared understanding, the shared responsibility and bringing in the buy-in almost. When you talked about the family and community awareness, how powerful that is in integrating that stakeholder responsibility and ensuring that everyone was on the same page. I love that. Now, I know you talked, we both talked about, and if you talk to teachers around the country, many, most maybe, would acknowledge that they didn't learn about the science of reading in their teacher prep programs. Is there any level that you are engaging public universities in Mississippi in their teacher preparation?
KW: Absolutely. In addition to the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, and I failed to mention this, teacher candidates must earn a passing score on our foundations of reading assessment to receive their initial elementary education license. Massachusetts has a similar assessment, but it's a rigorous test of scientifically based research-based reading instruction, intervention, and our data-based decision-making principles. So that's assessment is what our teacher candidates have to pass to receive their license. So knowing that, when we rolled out LETRS, we also rolled it out to our pre-service teachers, as well to our IHE faculty because if the expectation is that you're expected to pass this rigorous assessment, you must understand the assignments. You need to know the why behind it. We want teachers coming out of teacher prep programs to be prepared the first day to work with struggling students and to work with differentiated groups of students on varying reading levels. We want them to be able to provide structured literacy instruction to students. We want them to really understand how to teach students how to read.
DS: Now I'm beyond even just the chills. I'm just listening to you and almost couldn’t keep talking because I just find it amazing the way that you were able to strategically build this out. Now, for those hopefully many policymakers that are listening and leaders in schools learning more about the strategic implementation, can you share any lessons or challenges that you had in the policy implementation?
I'm even thinking about how do you even transform a school or leaders or teachers from truly believing in whole language or balanced literacy, incorrectly, to shifting to the science of reading and to that structured literacy approach to teaching students to.
KW: Yeah. I am a firm and strong believer as with any type of change comes challenges, but the old way, the whole language approach wasn't working for us in Mississippi. In 2013, when we adopted our early literacy policy, our NAEP score was around 209. And the national average was a 221, which we were 12 points below the national average with, with a significant number of non-proficient readers. Okay. So that's red flags right there. I know you've probably heard this saying, if we keep doing the same thing, we are the same results. It has to be Mississippi. We could not keep doing the same thing in hopes that we would yield different results. We had to make changes and provide teachers with what many of us did not receive in our teacher prep programs - a deep dive into what the research and science say about how students learned to read.
In looking at that, we worked with our partners because it’s one thing to talk about it, but then it’s another you see the real change in practice that took place when. Half of our professional development rolled out with LETRS in 2014. So we did a study of teacher knowledge and how teacher knowledge increase and then in our literacy support schools. The average quality of instruction increased from 31% to 58%. The average rate of student engagement increased from 37% to 53% and the average rate of teacher competencies increased from 30% to 44% on our teacher knowledge survey of early literacy skills that we gave pre and post LETRS training in addition to our coaches going in and doing observations for these teachers and bringing this information back and us looking at the findings from that particular study.
Because of the strategic implementation of LETRs training and other things that we did at the state level, we saw an increase in teacher knowledge, we saw an increase in a change in practice or a change of practice that was happening in schools. We saw cultures change, and it's amazing to sit back and watch all of that unfold in how we shifted and how we moved.
And I told you a story on Monday that gives me chills. I had got a phone call from the district that said, you know, Kristen, I just want to tell you we've been doing it wrong, you know? And they were a whole language district and that was it. They weren't going to make those changes. And she said, we have been doing it wrong and we want to do it right. We want to get it right for all kids and we're going to make the change. It’s moments like that for me that keeps us going. This is a passion of mine knowing that we are impacting and seeing change across our state.
DS: I appreciate you bringing that data because it is so powerful. National headlines say one thing about the NAEP scores and it's incredible, but to dive into what other data supports this rise is so profound. You talked about teacher competencies and teacher knowledge. You talked about cultures changing. I want to dive a little bit more in professional development because I know you share this passion with me. As I was doing research over the past few weeks and listening previous podcasts you were on, I said, oh my gosh, like I knew I had to meet Kristin with this shared passion and this shared knowledge. I'm sorry to our READ listeners if we forget about them listening, because I feel like it's just a conversation between the two of us just sharing knowledge. I appreciate you sharing this with me. When I think back to the research on professional development, um, I've heard you explained your professional development in Mississippi as job-embedded. I drew back to other research on effective PD that includes characteristics like sustainability, active, coherent in content and structures, and encompasses modeling expertise, professional learning communities, coaching, all these things. So how did you incorporate the research and professional development and what are those characteristics of the effective PD that is happening in Mississippi?
KW: Our statewide PD for early literacy for us is the why. Initially, people thought it was a program and we were like, no, it's not a program. It was the why, and we understood as former educators and classroom teachers, that teachers needed something on a smaller scale, like the how to - how do I take this and implement it in my classroom, my kindergarten classroom, and at the classroom level?
What we did was we provided with our training implementation kits, we created additional professional learning activities that could be done. There were materials in the kits, so teachers got their LETRS materials, but they also got these kits of manipulatives and all kinds of things, but we knew they needed training on how to take this and implement it in the classroom. We also hosted, on a smaller scale, our regional professional development training for teachers, and we did those by grade bands to cover particular topics or content for a particular grade level. For us, it was not a one and done - how we go or you go to a professional development, and I'm so guilty of this too, and you get all this great information and you have the intentions of coming back to your classroom and implementing it or as a building later and come back and say, okay, my teachers are going to do this. We're going to get it. But then you're bogged down with all the day to day. So the coaching for us really supported that, and we didn't want to have these one and done.
We tailored the original professional development every year across the state. We include our paraprofessionals in them, and they're tailored and then we include some coaching support. In addition to our coaches, we have professional development coordinators. They may be one of our former coaches so that she knows the importance of professional learning, coupled with coaching. You can have the great professional learning, but you need someone there to help you with the implementation and application phase of it. So with us, one additional thing that we do is we train school-based coaches, or teacher leaders. Sometimes that may be the instructional specialist in the building that serves in support in the role of a coach. So now that teachers come to the professional development, they get all of the training and we include research. We tell them the why, but our regional professional developments are really centered around the, how to through a lot of activities. It's really hands-on. We give them time to practice because for teachers, it means the practices first. So, your neighbor may take on the role of a student and you practice it within the professional development. And then you go back to your building and you have a lead teacher or a coach to help you with the implementation. That's so important for teachers. I wish I had a coach when I was a teacher in the classroom.
DS: Absolutely. So it sounds, first of all, I'm hearing what you're saying is that this is all state facilitated.
KW: This is all state facilitated. Yes. We create a professional development plan every year. Now we do it based on need. When we're in our schools and we see the need from year to year. For example, we started to add in our paraprofessionals because they're working with our kids and we want it to make sure that they were trained in the science and they were trained. And so we wanted to include them in the training, and a lot of those training sessions were full and had waiting list. So we were, we're really intentional about the things that we choose to do in the trainings.
DS: And again, going back to the research on professional development, how iterative it is, how that you're presenting the material, You model it, workshopping it, practicing it and bring it into the classroom. I see a lot of the cultivation of not only knowledge building, but agency building. And we know a lot of different research that if we fail to tap into teacher agency, professional development is likely not to work. I see all of these integrated components. Before we get into coaching, I wanted to, actually, I don't want to ask that question. So let's go into question on coaching. You have talked a lot about coaching. I know you started out as a coach as one of 24, and now you're leading the coaching and the implementation of coaching. What is so unique about Mississippi's coaching model?
KW: Our coaching model is grounded in relationships. We understand the importance of building trust and rapport with teachers because our coaches are not coaches of administrators, they're coaches of teachers. Our coaching model is focused on six key components. We look at comprehensive coach training because as a coach, I need knowledge building myself. I need to know how facilitate adult learning opportunities. I need to understand how to coach, and I need to understand personalities. So we really take time to do comprehensive coach training. It’s also centered around goal setting and effective communication. We talk about that early on with our coaches reporting and accountability. Then we look at educator development, collaboration, and effective partnerships. With this focus on the foundation being on the relationships and building rapport, you also have key components of our coaching model.
DS: How did you build that out? I'm just curious and now I'm jumping ahead in a couple of questions, but I love the way that you kind of map those out and provide that framework. Even just thinking about how effective coaching is for an individualized iterative nature research also shows this variability and implementation, especially at larger scale. Drawing back to the research and breakdown and what coaches even think their roles are, how they spend their day every day. I mean, there is, I can't draw the study now. Usually I can just like cite, but I'm a little off my game this morning. Even that coaches spend a lot of their time helping teachers with classroom management over literacy coaching there's could be breakdown and fidelity of implementation or coaching expertise. How did these six components ensure that you are maintaining that fidelity across larger scales?
KW: So again, like I said we ground our coaching model and our coaching framework in relationships. We take the time on the front end to meet with school and district leaders to discuss the role of the coach and the district, the school and the school leader. And they really appreciate that because we sit down and have this conversation, especially for a new district that we've added on as a new school. You may be new to having a state coach in your building, so it's a common courtesy for us to sit down and just talk about the role of the coach. These are the expectations for the district. This is the expectations of the school. We also have coaches meet with the principal first to review what we call a principal coach partnership, and it lists the coach’s role. There are a series of questions that the coach can talk to the principal about. Like, what is your vision for literacy in your building? What are your goals? Where are you? Where do you want to be? So they have this principal coach partnership because you have to build that relationship first.
Again, we always say this is our district meetings. The coaches, not the principal, the coach is not coming in to be the administrator, but they're coming in to be the support mechanism. Then we meet and they do this principal coach partnership. Another step or layer to that is that finally the principal and the coach comes together and they arrange for the principal to introduce the coach to the staff. Now we're looking as if we're on this united front. This principal still may have a few apprehensions. They may still be not quite sure, but after they had the conversation, they understand the expectations of the coach. Now the principal and coach go together and the principal introduces the coach to the staff and the role of the coach. Then the coach and the principal and the staff members, however they decide, will have grade level meetings. Then there's a teacher-coach partnership agreement on how we work together. So we really like to take time on the front hand to really be transparent about what we're doing when we're coming in the buildings and how we are a support mechanism and how we're there to help the, the administrator carry out their goal and vision for literacy within their building. People kind of have a sigh of relief, like, whoa, this is not a compliance kind of thing. This is not, you know, they're here to audit or monitor, but no, they're really here to support. We try to be strategic again, I know I say that often, on the front end, before we just kind of go into buildings and say this is what would need to be done.
DS: Well, I love that. And what I hear you're saying is, again, starting with the why, and then moving into how. I hear transparency is key and the shared ownership and efficacy too in implementing this program. Now, if I didn't love my job at Windward so much, I'd be like, where do I apply to be a coach? Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Just even study this, I mean, oh my gosh. I know you're doing a lot of studies, and I do want to ask about how you're measuring it. For those that are curious to learn more about coaching, what would a coach's role even look like beyond meeting with this staff? You said that the coaching teacher relationship is integrated in relationship and trust. How would that look in a classroom from a coach's perspective and a teacher's perspective?
KW: One thing that we also do is - I know we only have like an hour to talk about this - but one thing that we also do are what we call literacy learning walk because again, you can't go in, you have bite just little small pieces of the elephant at a time. And so you can't go in trying to change everything. So what we do at the beginning of the year after students have been screened… Well, let me back up. The coaches take at least one to two weeks to go to every teacher's classroom and leave a positive note on their desk, every teacher's classroom. The first two weeks are really about building relationship. Hi, I'm the coach. I'll be in your building. I'll be coming in. I just want to leave this positive note. That is really impactful for teachers. So then after that, one thing that we do our literacy learning walks in the fall with a teacher later and we do ask that someone from the district level that serves as the district contact come on these walks as well. And what we do after the walk, we go into each classroom, and they have form and we're looking at different areas in classrooms. Teachers know about this prior to, so this is not a pop-up. After, the coach maybe have a PLC with teachers to talk to them about what they saw. This is a part of our support process to kind of gauge and collect that anecdotal data for us to know where our supports should be and what should happen because we don't want to go in and give all teachers a model lesson on phonological awareness and that's not what you need as a teacher. So we do these walks. We give recommendations, next steps with the person that is responsible. The coach is not the administrator. The coach cannot be responsible for everything, so we have to delegate responsibilities. We get recommendations and next steps per grade level. Now the coach and the teachers and whomever, the principal designates to be a part of this team, create a school literacy action plan and in education we have acronyms for it. We call it the S.L.A.P. So yeah, this SLAP. They create a school action plan with teachers involved, and it just lays out the goal. What is the goal in kindergarten? What are the gaps that we see? What is our current state and what are future outcomes? What do we want to see? And how can I tailor my support as a coach, whether it's through PLCs, co-teaching modeling or taking teams to go observe a different grade level or at a different school? Then they revise the plan. We do our learning walks in the Fall and we do them in the spring, so we should see growth between the fall learning walk and then our winter and spring learning walks.
DS: So this was supposed to be a three-year initiative and you're on year nine, right?
DS: Oh my gosh. I just I'm blown away. I could continue to ask questions about every little piece of this. I'm fascinated by every aspect of it. I mean, you bring in professional learning communities and I'm hearing you talk about shared respect and then also making sure – it’s one thing to adopt the research and to a context, but when you're honoring the school context on what they actually need and what's going to help them improve the most, I think that's the most powerful. I mean, and I was going to ask you, what's the secret sauce? And you just keep coming out with every little condiment that you could add to this coaching model. I love it. Now I want to ask about COVID and how this affected the schools. Is there anything else you want to share with our listeners about the coaching model and Mississippi before we talk about COVID?
KW: Again, with any coaching model, we always will go back to our comprehensive coach trainings. I'll talk a little bit about that. We have to build our coaches capacity as well. Some of our coaches come in from different or varying roles that they were previously in their school districts. They may have come in or they may have had some administrative experience or not. Then you have to talk about what is building their capacity to look like? We do offer this as statewide training as well, which we try to have a common language, whatever training our coaches get.
We try our best to roll it out to school level coaches, instructional specialists, teacher leaders, whomever take on that role of a coach in a building. So we have over the past nine years really focused on Thomas Crane, The Heart of Coaching. We start off building what we call the ABCs of coaching around that. I know it's really not tailored to education and more to business, but the concepts can still apply. We also do small groups and regional coordinator meetings. We have levels of support. We have our assistant state coordinators, our regional coordinators, our literacy coaches. We do statewide meetings on Mondays monthly to build the capacity of all of our staff. Then we have small, more intimate meetings in each region. Then we, as the leadership team have meetings with our regional coordinators.
We just finished up our pre COVID study around Thomas Crane's book, The Rise of a Cultural Leader, and it just talked about feedback - giving and receiving feedback. That's a part of coaching. You have to be able to give the feedback, but it has to be that objective feedback. You can’t go in and just say, oh, that's so great. Everything is so great. You know, that's really subjective. You know, I have to give some really concrete and objective feedback. We really talk about effective communication with teachers, what that looks like, how do we give teachers praise? And then, how do we give them growth points? And then, you know, scale that to our regional professional developments that we do for our school-based coaches as well.
DS: Mmm. Added more food for thought. I just quickly ordered both books, Thomas Crane books No, I'm just kidding. I didn't, but I'm about to order them on my, from my local bookstore. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate it. So now as we are talking, this episode's going to air in the beginning of September. So I would imagine Mississippi, you would have already started the school year. In New York, we're just about to start the school year and we are truthfully reckoning with a year and a half, two years of rebuilding after an unfathomable worldwide crisis. What maybe had changed or how did you have to reckon with the COVID-19 pandemic as you sustained coaching and professional development as you ensured that you maintain this laser focus on literacy, even during the pandemic?
KW: What we had to do, like many other states, was really be innovative. We shifted everything and adapted to doing things virtually. We still provided coaching support, but we built a virtual coaching model menu for administrators in districts. We asked, what are your needs? We also worked Barksdale Reading Institute, which really helps us with this work we do with literacy in Mississippi. We worked with them to create a virtual literacy block and what that would look like. We again were innovative, but we didn't take our foot off the gas because we knew that our students in Mississippi needed it. We knew we just could not move back to where we started. One innovative thing that we did to try to ensure instructional equity during the pandemic was we partnered with our Mississippi public broadcasting, and they created Mississippi classroom TV for us. Mississippi public broadcasting reaches about 2.2 million households in Mississippi. We were able to record like over 200 lessons. We did 108 explicit phonics lessons that were filmed by our literacy coaches that students could access when they were at home. Tara ran and worked with us at MPB. She was flooded with emails and calls from parents saying we need the materials. She would email out the materials that aligned to the lessons. In partnership with other content areas within the state agency, we tried to record as many high-quality lessons as we could. And I really wanted to start with our students that were learning to read. We started with a phonological awareness and phonics lessons that could be accessed through Mississippi public broadcasting.
We took the time to do like 2000 statewide family nights. We knew parents had taken on the roles of teachers at home for a short period and you know, in some districts, it was longer than others. We took the time to train them virtually. We hosted state meetings at the state level virtually for parents, and we train themed on activities. We have this big campaign in Mississippi called strong readers, strong leaders. We created this website for parents where they can do activities with their kids at home, as simple as using a sweet potato to do synonym vocabulary - you throw it back like hot potato.
We did virtual trainings for parents and our coaches did those. We have some amazing coaches, I mean, the best in the country. They did these trainings for parents and showed them how to do these activities at home where they can increase their students' reading skills. We were really trying to be innovative and strategic about how we could take all of the things that we were doing and move it to a virtual space. Also, what are some new things that we needed to do, because we were no longer in the brick-and-mortar buildings providing instruction? How could we get instruction to our students that were at home?
KW: What I love about that is you are being innovative and again, you’re drawing back from lessons from business on reusing, repurposing resources that you already had. I mean, I think about how innovative it was for the public broadcasting network how you were able to access 2.2 million kids. You already had it. And you were able to use that for a productive purposes to help your instruction. After we talked about that on Monday, I think my colleague, Annie, and I spent the rest of the day looking at the website. We want to make sure that people can access it on READ as well. Then, as well as your strong reader, strong leaders website will be on the website, will be on the READ podcast website, so they can access it. My last question is there we go from here. As we approach the new school year, as you finished, the past school year, what are those lessons that you're going to be integrating that you would like to share with your stakeholders in Mississippi and with people across the country?
KW: Yeah, so we are still going to really have our big push centered around strong readers, strong leaders. We have added a lot of activities there, and we made that site, accessible to parents. Teachers have used it and it's from birth to fifth grade. There are activities that are aligned to the science that teachers can use, but also we've created one pagers for parents to be advocates for their students to know what questions to ask when they go into meetings with teachers and building administrators. We are trying to be intentional and strategic about building this collective community, where we're focusing on literacy, but the parent is not here.
I know people can't see me moving my hand, but we want the parent to be here. Then the school here, and we've created this community where we're all focused on literacy together and it is a shared focus. We want to make sure we continue to educate our families, educate our parents. We know family dynamics and makeups look different across our state, so if it's a grandparent or an aunt or uncle or whoever, we want to empower them to be able to support their students and children at home. That's the one thing we want to really keep going with that campaign. Also, we want the effective implementation of the application of the science. And like I told you, I think we talked about it on Monday, we have really adopted the approach of implementing a structured literacy model in Mississippi for K-3. We want to continue to support that through professional development and through coaching.
We've even gone as far as during the pandemic, we did a series of professional developments call Lit Life. That's on our website on the science of reading button, because we're really trying to build out our science or reading resources and contents for teachers. We did that professional development series for administrators, elementary teachers, as well as a secondary teachers. It talks about what's the difference between balance literacy of structured literacy. How do we use concepts and strategies for literacy across content areas? What does that look like at the secondary level? For administrators, how are you building this vision? What are the misconceptions and myths? I actually did that presentation around foundational skills that this is not just the focus on phonics. There are other foundational skills. How do we also look at the other side of the rope and build the knowledge and the vocabulary students need to be successful? It intertwines Scarborough's rope to make skilled readers. We did these series, and they were live PD series and they had workbooks. Teachers can go back and do the PD on Wednesday in their school building during their PLCs. A lot of our schools during the pandemic year did early release on Wednesdays for professional learning, so they could jump on these literacy lives with us from 3 to 4:30 get this live professional development around literacy and have all of the resources in recordings and slides if they needed to go back at a later time. We did that during the pandemic.
We want to keep that application and implementation of the science, but also the last thing we've been working hard on this year is access to high quality instructional materials that builds both sides of the reading rope. We’ve adopted a statewide list of high quality instructional materials. We took that through a whole process during the pandemic, Danielle, I promise we don't sleep in Mississippi! You know, sometimes I sit back and I'm wondering like, how do we get all of this done? Like we are always going and trying to think of other things, but you know, teachers have to have that vehicle for implementing the why. We want them to have access to high quality materials for our students, especially to improve instructional equity, have access to high quality instructional materials. Those are our three major, and they are huge, they are heavy lifts, priorities that we will continue for the upcoming year.
DS: I've kept you on for an hour. I think we, we could be talking more. Listen, as we're talking, I'm like, why don't we just make this a series? I am learning so much from you. I've been smiling this entire hour, just because of the aha moments. Oh, I love it. You are providing so much hope for education. And I have one last question for you and then, you know, but I will say that the series actually, after we finished recording, I'm going to have to kind of talk more about that because there's so much that I want to dive into.
KW: Well, we can, I mean, we can learn from each other. This is a give and take here. It took a team to do all of this and our team in Mississippi works together so well. Without a great team, all of this could not be accomplished.
DS: I love that. Well, again, you and your team and Mississippi are giving me hope. With all of your successes, your lessons, the challenges that you navigated, what gives you hope about the future of reading education and just education at large?
KW: The phone calls from districts that say we're going to make the change, my son and watching him as he is in school in Mississippi, I'm seeing the quality of education that he's getting. Teachers calling when we're asking for help, even with our high quality instruction materials process. We had to do like a call for reviewers and so we had over 200 teachers respond to that, and it's just the willingness in Mississippi. Our teachers want to help our families want to help our students and are rocking it out. I know we didn't really talk about this, but even our kindergarten day, Well, we're looking at that over the past four years, pre COVID, you know, our kindergartners come in and like a 5 0 2, which puts them at emergent readers and they're leaving kindergarten at like a 7 0 2 or 7 0 5, which they’re in the transitional reader category. To see the efforts of teachers to see the efforts of districts and it's all hands on deck, that keeps me hopeful. That keeps me motivated to see change of practice. We just have identified a few of our schools in Mississippi that we will award them with the Mississippi emerging science of reading schools. With that recognition they have really changed their school culture. I know no one has really 100% mastered it, but when you start seeing the small changes that impact student achievement, then you want to be able to recognize folks for that.
So all of that, and I know that was a lot, keeps me hopeful, gives me hope and keeps us going and wanting to do more for the betterment of our state.
DS: And the lessons that you're sharing for the betterment of our country and the world! So, oh my gosh, Kristen, thank you so much. I am on, I think I need to take the rest of the day off just to, just to noodle on everything that you've talked that we've talked about and to take notes and even inspired me so much.
And I know you're going to inspire our read listeners and everyone, um, truly. Everyone. So, uh, I just don't even know how to end it cause I'm just so I'm just so inspired, but thank you so much for taking the time. Um, I look forward to a continued relationship with you. Um, I look forward to visiting Mississippi New York any time and that's it.
Wow. We're excited at you will, you know, in any way that we can help, we will. Yeah. Thank you.
Join Kristen Wynn, Mississippi’s State Literacy Director and The Windward Institute’s 2021 Fall Community Lecturer, as she details the story of how the state transformed literacy outcomes for its students. Reflecting upon her story with her son who was diagnosed with dyslexia and her early career as a teacher and interventionist, Ms. Wynn discusses her personal journey to learn about the Science of Reading. She outlines the literacy policy reform that began at the state level and explains how it was disseminated strategically to districts and schools. Ms. Wynn discusses how professional development and a state-facilitated literacy coaching program shaped teacher practices, classrooms, and cultures of schools for the betterment of their students. Finally, she shares how the state innovated teaching and professional learning practices to support families and children during the pandemic. This READ conversation with Kristen Wynn offers hope and applicable lessons for every state, district, and school to disrupt the educational status quo to promote literacy for all students.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
"I believe past experiences prepare us for future purposes."
Kristen Wynn tells the story of the implementation of the Science of Reading and supporting practices at scale in Mississippi through policy reform, professional development, and complete community involvement.
"We talk about a focus on literacy, but you can't have a focus on literacy or create this vision for literacy for your state if you don't involve your community, your families, and your other stakeholders in your efforts."
1. State Literacy Initiatives
In an effort to address the alarming rates of struggling readers across the state Mississippi enacted several key policies since 2013 including
- Early Learning Collaborative Act: establishes collaborative pre-K programs between early childhood centers and public schools in underserved communities
- Kindergarten readiness assessment: implements screening and assessments of reading progress across the year
- Dyslexia scholarships: requires districts to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten and provides school choice for students with dyslexia (K-12)
- Literacy-Based Promotion Act: focuses on educator training in scientifically validated reading instruction, coaching for teachers, early identification, and prevention over retention of reading difficulties
"I am a firm and strong believer that with any type of change comes challenges, but the old way, the whole language approach, wasn't working for us in Mississippi."
Other key characteristics of policies and strategic implementation involve increasing awareness about reading disabilities such as dyslexia and broadening participation and commitment to supporting literacy outcomes for students in all communities throughout Mississippi.
"When a new law rolls out, you must come up with a strategic plan of implementation. A law's only as great as its implementation of it."
2. Fast Facts About Mississippi’s Coaching Program
- The literacy coaching program, a hallmark of Mississippi’s state-facilitated professional development, supports teachers in how to understand the Science of Reading and implement supported research-based practices (i.e. structured literacy).
"In Mississippi, we had to make changes and provide teachers with what many of us did not receive in our teacher prep programs - a deep dive into what the research and science say about how students learned to read."
- Kristen Wynn was one of the first literacy coaches trained in scientifically validated reading instruction. The program began in 2013 and sought 75 literacy coaches experienced in the Science of Reading and research-based reading practices. Of over 500 applicants, 24 were initially hired.
- The coaching program is both grounded in the standards facilitated by the state department and occurs across a continuum based on the needs of local schools. Each school has a coaching and professional development support plan through a School Literacy Action Plan (S.L.A.P.).
- The real secret to Mississippi’s successful coaching program… TRUSTING RELATIONSHIPS. When coaches enter each school, foster relationships with school administrators, instructional leaders and curriculum coordinators, and teachers.
"Our coaching model is grounded in relationships. We understand the importance of building trust and rapport with teachers because our coaches are not coaches of administrators, they're coaches of teachers."
3. Supporting Families and Teachers During COVID-19
To support equity and access to literacy instruction during the pandemic, Mississippi developed innovative programs for families and teachers including:
- partnerships with other agencies and organizations such as the Mississippi Public Broadcasting Network and Barksdale Reading Institute
- statewide family virtual trainings as part of a campaign, Strong Readers, Strong Leaders
- series of live professional development webinars for educators that integrated with coaching and professional learning communities across schools
"We can learn from each other… It took a team to do all of this and our team in Mississippi works together so well. Without a great team, all of this could not be accomplished."
Learn more about the Mississippi Department of Education
Literacy Professional Development and Resources
Learn more about the Strong Readers, Strong Leaders campaign
Read Results of Educator Training in Mississippi Educator outcomes associated with implementation of Mississippi’s K–3 early literacy professional development initiative
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READ Podcast is produced by The Windward School and The Windward Institute. READ is hosted by Danielle Scorrano.
About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests.