Teaching a child who struggles how to read can be challenging under the best of circumstances.
But the COVID-19 pandemic really put global literacy efforts to the test, and educators find themselves evaluating the useful qualities of various online platforms, apps, hardware and software for the purpose of teaching literacy with technology purposefully.
SUNY Cortland’s Literacy Department recently partnered with the Graduate School of Education at American University in Cairo (AUC) to develop a virtual conference designed to better equip reading teachers everywhere how to reach out to middle grades students remotely to inspire a love of learning.
The conference, “Beyond the App,” which is geared to connect U.S. and Egyptian teachers of children particularly in grades 3 through 9, will take place Thursday, Nov. 5, through Saturday, Nov. 7.
Sessions touch topics including motivating middle grades students and the gradual release of responsibility online, building comprehension through guided activity online, word work and fluency teaching in the virtual classroom, anti-racist online literacy teaching, and teaching the middle-grade student to write online.
Notably, Egypt's minister of education and technology, Tarek Shawki, will welcome attendees with a speech on Friday, Nov. 6.
“We wanted to take some time to give teachers the tools to be successful,” said organizer Nance Wilson, SUNY Cortland professor of literacy and Literacy Department chair on sabbatical. “They’ve tried what they learned this summer. They’ve found out what’s working and what’s not working and are reaching out to try something new.”
The unprecedented event will unfold virtually connecting literacy leaders around the globe with Egyptian and American teachers as well as teachers from many other countries, according to co-organizer Thomas DeVere Wolsey, who teaches graduate courses in research and literacy in the Graduate School of Education at AUC.
“What makes the ‘Beyond the App’ unique is that teachers will share their knowledge building on the best literacy practices for middle grades,” Wolsey said. That’s students in grades 3 to 9.
“There are more than 50 sessions for participants to choose from where they will hear from international experts from Egypt, the United States and Mauritius and engage them in discussion sharing their challenges and effective strategies,” he said.
The organizers recruited a stellar slate of volunteer presenters, which kept the conference cost manageable, according to Wilson.
The savings is passed along to SUNY Cortland faculty and students and teachers in Egypt, who can register without charge. The cost to all other American participants is $10. The conference fee was set low in order to make the sessions affordable to future educators as well as raise money on behalf of under-resourced Egyptian and Guatemalan libraries.
Wolsey compared teachers’ early and unsatisfying efforts to enact effective literacy learning in digital environments during the early pandemic wave to the idea that “If the only tool you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail.”
“So often, we find ourselves gravitating toward a cool app or site when we really should be thinking about what the best tool is for instructional and learning purposes,” he said. “The fully digital conference is intended to expand the digital tools teachers might use to make the most effective use of online literacy instruction and go additional steps ‘Beyond the App’.”
Conference activities will be interactive and immersive, allowing ample time for presenters and participants to freely exchange ideas.
“Participants will learn with hands on keyboards, taps on screens and with a full range of digital environments that promote interaction and immersive learning for their students, as well,” Wolsey said. “As more teachers and their students are going to school online, the benefits accrue to all.”
The organizers will offer several sessions of the conference experience in Arabic as a service to the teachers in the national system in Egypt.
SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum will open the conference on Nov. 5.
In addition to Wilson and Wolsey, the more than dozen featured presenters include Amy Tondreau of Austin Peay State University, Armen Kassabian of Greenwich High School, Danny Brassel of CalStateTEACH and the American University in Cairo, Doug Fisher of San Diego State University, Emily Howell of Clemson University, Jill Castek of University of Arizona, Maha Bali of American University in Cairo and Yousra Abourehab of University of Arizona. Details about the speakers are available online.
Sessions will not be recorded.
“We’ve decided to set it up with experts talking for no more than 30 minutes and the rest of the time will be devoted to talking about practice,” Wilson said.
Attendees afterward can continue to share ideas and continue the conversation on the webpage.
An additional feature of the conference is that participants can donate to help buy books and build libraries for students in Egypt and in Guatemala who otherwise do not have access or have limited access to books.
Wilson said she and Wolsey are longtime literacy project collaborators who have been working on improving Guatemalan schools for years and Wolsey is a former SUNY Cortland adjunct faculty member.
“We both reached out to friends and experts in the field,” Wilson said. “If you look up people who are volunteering their time for this conference, you’ll find that some typically charge thousands to speak on this topic. But they’ve volunteered their expertise for free, because they can see that teachers everywhere are really struggling with teaching literacy online.”
As well as working teachers, the conference will have something to offer the more than 100 students that Cortland enroll in its master’s degree level literacy program as well as all undergraduates in the School of Education, Wilson said.
“Some of our skills shared at the conference will make us all better teachers, even when things return to normal again,” Wilson said.
The conference is supported by SUNY Cortland through its President’s Fund, the Research and Sponsored Programs Office and International Programs; and by AUC through its Provost’s Fund.