Craig Topolski, a teacher at Floyd Light Middle School in the David Douglas School District, has received a prestigious national award from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for outstanding literacy improvement in the school’s reading program.
The program is called Read 180, and it is an intervention-based program that offers a potential turnaround in the development of students’ English-language reading and writing skills. The 2016 Read 180 Educator Award that Topolski won is one of only six such awards given out to Read 180 teachers across the United States. Topolski’s sixth-grader’s Lexile scores, which take into account both material difficulty and reading comprehension, improved by a remarkable 212 points.
The prestigious award comes with $300 for Topolski to spend on classroom supplies and a four-day trip to Orlando, Florida for a Model Teachers Conference.
In a classroom interview, the Memo baited Topolski with diverse student opinions from “tough” to “good,” asking which was “true Topolski.”
Topolski’s answer made it clear he does not agree with either descriptor: he characterizes himself as “serious and understanding.”
Topolski describes how he assists in hall monitoring before and between classes, engaging the kids in the hall with personal words of encouragement and appreciation for attendance and comportment. He implies he takes this as an important part of the job in his treatment of students inside and outside the classroom—just as important as enforcing rules of student conduct.
Topolski is from Luxembourg, and speaks Luxembourgish, as well as German and English. His English is unremarkable American English. He has two master’s degrees, one a common master’s in education and one an uncommon master’s in linguistics. How does advanced linguistics training help Topolski’s teaching quest?
Topolski estimates that 70 percent of his Read 180 students have a native tongue that is not English. So it would seem that linguistics training would enable a reading teacher to better understand and coach a student who is having difficulty with English as his or her second language.
Asked to describe how a typical period goes, Topolski said “it is a pre-established curriculum … the kids file in. There are 20 minutes of full class instruction. This targets vocabulary, reading strategies … we’re also reading poetry and short fiction, very academic language. And that’s for 20 minutes as well,” concluded Topolski.
“After 20 minutes, we divide into three groups,” Topolski continued. “One group is independently reading; with books they have chosen that are within their range. Another group is practicing on software, reading strategies, writing projects, guided instruction … Right here,”—Topolski indicates with his finger and a circular motion the three of us in the corner of the classroom by his desk— “there is small group instruction. So there are three simultaneous things happening. The 20-minute timer goes off, and the kids rotate.”
The kids comment that they think the hour passes very quickly.
Kids get to choose any independent reading material that is within their Lexile range (reading difficulty and comprehension level) from the library that extends along a wall of the classroom. The library offers both fiction and non-fiction reading matter.
The Memo asked Topolski how he deals with a student one-on-one who might be lacking motivation. “There are a couple of things. I find [lack of motivation] to be temporary for a lot of kids. There are a lot of challenges that kids have. [So while there might be different problems with different kids on different days,] I need to stay consistent with my motivation … The kid might be overwhelmed cognitively by the task at hand. I have so many data points to ensure that the kid is working with the book. I can say ‘I know this is the appropriate book for you.’ The Lexile rating of the book is based on vocabulary and text complexity.”
Asked how he deals with distractions that kids have to deal with these days, Topolski said, “I would say the classroom is pretty sacred … I find the kids buy in pretty well. They seem fairly motivated. The kids express pride, get excited [about Read 180], because it is so tangible.” Topolski sets reading goals in September for what one year’s improvement looks like and what two years’ improvement looks like. “It feels good when a kid reaches that goal. It’s good to hear from other teachers that a kid’s skills are up to par.”
David Douglas School District uses professional learning teams (PLTs) of teachers that meet one day a week before classes to review individual students’ development and performance data.
The Memo asked Topolski whether his students see Read 180 as an opportunity or burden. Topolski’s answer was quick and sure: “I see kids who know reading is important.” When a student masters reading, said Topolski, reading is neither boring nor exciting, “it just is what it is.”
But there is a language arts component to Read 180, Topolski agreed, including development of various student writing skills like learning to make and defend a claim with evidence and to formulate and state a reasoned position.
Asked what he credits for his award-winning effort, Topolski spoke most highly of his instructional assistant, Grace Jacobson. About the two of them, he said “We duet. [The kids have] high interest [because they] self-select [books at] the correct level and [we provide] a safe/sacred reading [place]. We use scaffolded teaching. And we have empathy for our kids’ environmental challenges.”