A group of fifth-grade students at George Washington Elementary School who had severe reading problems last summer sat with their teacher, Cory Nuss, as they used their writing skills to compose statements about bullying.
Nuss asked his students to write a summary of a story about bullying that they had just read together, describing the word "summary" as, "Rewriting a paragraph in our own words and only using the main idea and some details."
The topic may be bullying, an issue that has swept the nation lately, but Nuss used the topic as a vehicle for a reading and writing exercise in a special program for students struggling to read.
Nuss instructed the class to write, "The place that I will go when I get bullied is ..."
One girl completed the sentence by saying, "The principal's office."
Nuss added, "Because ..."
The girl then wrote, "I feel scared when the bully teases me. That's why I would go to the principal's office."
Some of the students in Nuss' class could barely read at the beginning of the school year in late July, despite being in the fifth grade. However, the students have improved their vocabulary and reading comprehension by leaps and bounds since that time, Nuss said.
Jill Mann teaches fourth-graders who experience severe reading problems at Washington. Nuss will get Mann's students when they reach fifth grade next year. The program at Washington will expand in the fall to include sixth grade.
"The goal is to bring all of them to grade level by the end of sixth grade," Nuss said.
And they're well on their way to doing just that, he says.
Washington Principal Dan Faith is a true believer in the program, which is new at the elementary level. Faith recalls Mann telling her colleagues at a staff meeting, "These are kids who hated to read. Now they are going out of the way to find a book."
In a presentation at last week's Lodi Unified School District board meeting, Nuss said his students have not only improved their reading comprehension, but they're better grasping math, science and other subjects as well.
"I see more confidence in my kids," Nuss told the school board last week. "That's awesome."
Nuss said he sees the increased self-esteem because his students talk more and raise their hands more often when he asks a question.
Participating schools are using two computer programs to improve reading — Systems 44 focuses more on phonics, while Read 180 focuses on reading, spelling and comprehension.
The students requiring remedial reading aren't necessarily English language learners, Nuss said. Some come from cultures in which English is not the primary language, but others are from English-speaking households.
The morning reading program at Washington is about 90 minutes long. After the 10 a.m. recess, Nuss moves on to more traditional fifth-grade material like math, science and American history.
On Wednesday morning, Nuss' students broke up into three groups. About a third of the 20 students read books on their own, while another group read on the computer and took quizzes on vocabulary words and comprehension. The remainder met with Nuss. After about 20 minutes, they rotated, so that by 10 a.m., each group had participated in all three activities.
At Millswood Middle School in Lodi, eighth-grade teacher Deborah Lowe talked about the 70 students she has in three classes. They are in the second year of the Read 180 program at the middle-school level, and Lowe is seeing remarkable improvement, too.
"I have second-language learners, special education students and just struggling students," Lowe said.
The group using the classroom computers in Nuss' class did work tailored to the reading level they've reached. Minsuri Martinez read a story on her computer about people from a balmy nation like Jamaica who compete in the Winter Olympics because they have a bobsled team.
After Minsuri read the story, the same story came back to the screen but some words were missing. It was up to Minsuri to choose the appropriate word to fill in the blank, to show how well she comprehended the material.
Then Minsuri put on some headphones and fielded oral questions about what she had just read.
Other students read books on such topics as the Titanic, dangerous animals and one called "You Wouldn't Want to Live in Pompeii!"
Nuss grew up in Lodi, attending Reese Elementary, Woodbridge Middle and Lodi High schools. He then went to San Joaquin Delta College and California State University, Sacramento.
In his seven years as a Lodi Unified teacher, Nuss has taught at Victor School, Davis Elementary in Morada and Larson Elementary in Lodi in addition to Washington.
"I love watching these kids," Nuss said. "Last year, they didn't read books. I feel lucky to be here."
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at email@example.com.