Getting to Know Our Students: The Heart of Differentiation in the Balanced Literacy Classroom

By Margaret Mary Policastro, Diane Mazeski, Noreen Wach (Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois), and Tom Magers (Broadmeadow Elementary School, Rantoul, Illinois)

From the Illinois Reading Council Journal, Fall 2019
Recently, at our Summer Reading Clinic open house, a parent asked if we “ever had success with a student who doesn’t like to read?” As we were thinking of a response, her son, who is just going into 1st grade in the fall, was telling us how much he likes “bones and skulls.” He took out an object from his pocket and showed us a small dinosaur skeleton that he had put together. Collectively, we responded with positive thoughts about how all of these interests would be an important factor for the first day of the clinic and moving forward with him as a reader. On opening day, we had an abundance of books awaiting him about skeletons, bones, dinosaurs, and skulls. We were eager to see how he would respond. Indeed, within minutes of surrounding him with these books, he was totally engaged, curious, and captivated by the informational texts with which he was encircled. The photo in Figure 1 captures the essence of what happens when you match books to students’ interests. In this instance, the student going into 1st grade had access to books that had pictures, diagrams, and illustrations for him to comprehend. One pop-out book dis- played dinosaur skeletons. Since that first day, we noticed how his interest in these topics is both dense and deep—a knowledge base of information far greater than most of his peers.

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Moving Toward A Justice-Driven Curriculum In The Balanced Literacy Classroom

By Margaret Mary Policastro, Diane Mazeski, and  Noreen Wach

This material is derived from discussions that took place when 5th- through 8th-grade students were getting ready for an interactive read-aloud and being introduced to the book 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March by Lynda Blackmon Lowery (2016). Hearing these questions posed, we were quite curious and interested in how the students would react as the teacher asked them to write their responses on a white board. As we moved around to get a glimpse and catch the responses, the students were engaged, serious, and appropriate. The responses included a range of topics such as “Human Rights,” “Equality,” “Animal Kindness,” “Freedom,” and “World Peace” (see Figure 1).

Read More: Moving Toward a Justice Driven Curriculum

Discourse: The Importance Of Talk In The Balanced Literacy Classroom

By Margaret Mary Policastro, Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois

During a classroom book club discussion in our university summer reading clinic, the students we were observing had just moved their chairs into a circle to discuss The WatsonsGo to Birhmingham — 1963 and, even before they were in place, the students were eagerly discussing the book. In this open forum discussion, they were saying “I can’t believe this happened …,” “I was so sad when I read…” and “I thought it was so funny when …” Even class conversation outside of the book club seemed to be connected to the book. For example, “My dad did this funny thing last night, and it reminded me of the Watsons …” The students were eager to share and respond to each other about funny events, sad events, and much more. Parents also commented on how the children were discussing the book at home.

Read more: IRCJ Discourse Corrected

Comprehensive Literacy Basics: An Anthology By Capstone Professional

This book, compiled by experts in the filed of literacy language arts education, will provide support for educators as well as valuable knowledge in literacy development in areas such as language arts block, including whole group, small group, writing, and differentiation. Capstone publishing ensures “the quick tips and suggestions within will reinforce current practices while providing an invaluable go-to reference” (

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Comprehensive Literacy Basics Information Sheet

The New Balanced Literacy School: Implementing The Common Core

This book, authored by Dr. Margaret Policastro and Dr. Becky McTague, infuses best practices of the new balanced literacy model through the lens of Common Core with support in read-alouds, independent reading and writing, language and literacy, and several other areas.

This must-read book will be the vehicle that will take you through the process of meeting the new instructional demands of the Common Core State Standards in the new balanced literacy model. This book can be used as a solo read or as a professional read for you and your colleagues. It doesn’t matter where in the process you are of looking at your practice with a new lens. Live with a chapter at a time, take notes in the margins, bring questions to your teaching partners, provide successes, and “rethinks” at your meetings. Hard to find common time to meet? You can create a web document and meet virtually. Additionally there is an educational goldmine of goodies in the appendices.

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Formative Assessment In The New Balanced Literacy Classroom

It is true that “assessment drives instruction”. This resource, authored by Dr. Margaret Policastro, Dr. Becky McTague, and Dr. Diane Mazeski, can easily be used as a professional read for teachers, staff and administrators. The seven chapters can be assigned to read for grade level meetings, grade band meetings, jigsaw activities for faculty meetings. These readings should be used to build capacity, deprivatize instruction and develop rich conversations. Nothing happens overnight in changing a culture of a school. This book will guide you through the steps. Be patient, change will come.

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