On June 9, Cindy Puryear became HISD’s new director of literacy. We sat down with her recently to talk about how she overcame her own reading difficulties as a young person, when she first knew she would be a teacher, and what her goals are for the first year of Literacy By 3. Following is a condensed transcript of that conversation.
Let’s start with how you came to be an educator. When did you decide this field was for you?
Well, the truth is that I’ve never wanted to be anything other than a teacher. As a little girl, as a college student, as a professional. There was a time when I was in high school and I was on a summer trip. I was riding in the back seat, looking out the window at the mountains, and it came to me—just as clearly as if someone was sitting next to me talking—that I was supposed to be a teacher. When that happens to you, you think that it must happen to everyone, but it doesn’t, so I was very grateful for that.
At one point in your career, you served special student populations for five years. Why was learning how to reach all learners so important to you, and how will that inform your decision-making now?
When I started out as a teacher, my passion was special education, and I taught it for many years. There are kids who will learn in spite of us and kids who will learn if we do even a halfway decent job, but when you work with strugglers, you can’t waste a single minute. You have to be able to identify the areas of need and what is keeping them from being able to learn, so it’s really just a way to perfect the art of teaching.
When I think of strugglers, I typically think of having to start from the beginning, with the basics. Since I absolutely believe Literacy By 3 is going to be successful, I recognize that how we begin, so will it go. The work has to begin in pre-kindergarten. Because our high-stakes assessments start in third grade, that’s where we’ve focused, but that’s really too late. I look at what we’re doing now as laying the foundation for good literacy behavior.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as “a struggling reader.” Who or what helped you get over that hump, and how did that experience play a part in your decision to help other students master literacy?
Well, this is the sad part of my story. Not a single person helped me. Not one. I hate to be blunt about it, but that’s the truth. For many years, I would kind of try to spin it, but then one day I decided I needed to own that and say nobody helped me. Because nobody did. I had to figure it out by myself.
As a child, I could express myself pretty well, so I was totally under the radar. I didn’t want people to notice how slow I was, though, so during reading time at school, I would “fake read” by turning pages at the same rate as the fast readers while everyone else actually did read. And then I would load up all those books to take home and start reading them aloud. It was very slow, and it took forever, but what I found was that if I could hear it, I could comprehend it—whether it was a novel or a science textbook. And if a teacher said it, I remembered it. I still do that to this day.
Wow. It sounds like you’re the definition of an auditory learner. Were you ever diagnosed with dyslexia or some other reading disorder? Do you think something like that got overlooked for you?
Oh, absolutely. But you learn to compensate for most of it, except for the fluency. I can read anything. I just can’t read it very fast. And I have other skills now, like looking for subtitles to clarify or give an overview of something.
You stepped into the role of literacy director about a month ago, but you’re hardly new to the district. As the instructional coordinator at several campuses, you worked extensively on literacy initiatives. What are your goals for the first year of Literacy By 3?
By the end of the first year, I would like to see every student spending about 80 percent of the literacy block actually reading, and not doing activities about reading. I would like to see all children engaged in targeted group instruction with their teachers and I would like to see them participating in read-alouds so that teachers can model not just what readers do, but how they think, how they question themselves, and what they do when they get confused. All of those things that we do every single day, so they can see. And of course, have everything based on each student having a just-right (AKA “Goldilocks”) book.
For obvious reasons, we’ve been hearing a lot about the elementary aspect of Literacy By 3, but what supports are going to be in place for students who are still not reading on grade level in middle and high school? What can they expect?
Well, the first thing that we’re going to do is put a system in place so we can determine at what level students are reading, because frankly, a struggling reader, especially one in high school, can literally go all through high school and never be given anything they can read.
We’re going to start using Lexiles to match up kids with books they can understand. That is what we’re working toward. Also, we are going to be providing training and support to teachers so they can put systems in place for background activities. With a struggler, the absolute worst thing you can do is say, “Read this, and then we’ll talk about it.” If teachers have some tools they can use to build background knowledge, such as vocabulary exercises on the more difficult words, that passage becomes much easier to get through.