Podcast: A Conversation with Rebecca Wagner

In our ongoing “Listen and Learn” podcast series, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at Punahou School, Maile Uohara, spoke with Kindergarten – Grade 5 Assistant Principal Rebecca Wagner.

Each “Listen and Learn” podcast aims to provide valuable information and insights about our school and programs for prospective families. In each episode, we’ll be inviting guests from our school community to share their knowledge and experiences with our listeners. 

You can find Punahou’s Team Up podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast and Google Play.

Podcast Transcript

Maile Uohara: Aloha, my name is Maile Uohara and I’m the Director of Enrollment Management and Admissions at Punahou School. I’d like to welcome you to our Listen and Learn podcast where we aim to provide valuable information and insights about our school and programs. In each episode, we’ll be inviting guests from our school community to share their knowledge and experiences with our listeners. Today, I’m delighted to have you meet Dr. Rebecca Wagner, our junior school assistant at Punahou School.

Dr. Wagner will be talking to us about our elementary school literacy curriculum. She’ll be sharing our approach to reading and writing and what parents can expect for their children. Rebecca, thank you for joining us and welcome. I’d love it if you could share a little bit about yourself to our listeners before we start off with our questions.

Rebecca Wagner: Thanks so much, Maile. I’m really glad to be here. I have been in education for probably 25 years. I started out as a math and science specialist in Massachusetts and then made my way through a lot of stops in different states to Hawai‘i about 10 years ago, and this is my 10th year at Punahou. And when I started here, I was a fifth grade humanities teacher, so responsible. for reading, writing, and social studies. And honestly, coming from a math and science background, I didn’t know that much about reading and writing, so I threw myself into it and have learned as much as I can. And now I really enjoy the literacy curriculum, and it’s where my happy place is, so I’m glad to be here.

Maile: And I love over the course of the time that I’ve been here to just see the advances that we’ve made in our literacy program, especially in the younger years. So it’s really exciting to see the trajectory of where our students are going and what parents can expect throughout their child’s journey. So I know, you know, when I talk to parents, you know, one of the most inspiring aspects about Punahou is that we have an environment that really promotes exploration, inquiry and discovery. And our youngest learners are always encouraged to gain a deep understanding of the world around them through curiosity and connection. And it’s not uncommon when parents come to take a tour of our campus that they comment on the beauty of our Omidyar Neighborhood and our Kosasa Community. But what is not always talked about is our literacy program. In such a rich environment that promotes discovery and exploration, what does our literacy program look like and what does it aim for?

Rebecca: Well, we really believe that every student who comes to Punahou, whether they come in kindergarten or fourth grade or sixth grade, deserves an opportunity to become a proficient and confident reader and writer. We have students coming to us at Omidyar who are really emergent readers. And we believe that a strong foundation will serve them well as they go through the K – 5 journey and then beyond. So we really focus on foundational skills for our youngest learners. And that looks a lot like phonemic awareness and phonics and fluency, and comprehension, of course. And then as they get older and they move to Kosasa and then towards their journey towards the middle school, we have students who can really think deeply about all kinds of texts. And it’s exciting to be able to take them from kids who are just learning the alphabet to kids who can really think about themes and why be able to think deeply about themes and why books are written and what authors are trying to tell us about the world.

Maile: You know you said an aspect of where we have some students that join us that are emergent readers and I know that we also have some students that are reading when they come to join us and the beauty I would say of what I see with the teachers in the classroom and and the way that we have it set up is that our teachers are really understanding of where the students are and able to meet them where their needs are. And some of the aspects that I see where we’re able to do that, especially in Omidyar, is that we have opportunities where half of the class will go into a specialty class and the other half will stay with their teachers and they’re able to dive deeper in. Are you able to speak to that in that connection with how that allows us to meet our students where they’re at?

Rebecca: Yeah, part of our K – 5 instructional vision is that we really believe in a personalized journey for students. We value and prioritize being able to meet learners where they are. So creating those environments and those instances where we can work with small groups and really get to know each child’s abilities and their interests is really important, and particularly with our younger students, but really through their journey here with us. We do perform some formative assessments as students come in so that we can gauge what they know, and then we can form small groups and really work with targeted instructional strategies for certain students to move them along, and then also also provide extensions for kids who might be coming in with more skills than their classmates. So we really work hard to meet the needs of every learner.

Maile: I love that aspect where you talk about how we’re able to provide those environments of small group learning because I think sometimes some parents will say we’re such a big school. How is it that you would be a big school but small in our instances? And I think that really talks directly towards the academic preparedness and opportunities that we can offer to our students in those small group opportunities and really seeing the students for who they are and where they’re at there.

Rebecca: Absolutely. And we have our lead teachers and assistant teachers all who have been trained in literacy instruction so really every adult who’s working with kids in those classrooms is able to pull a small group or work with individuals or provide literacy support for our students. So while we may seem big, we found a lot of creative ways to reach every student.

Maile: And that care system, I know I’ve talked about it in other podcasts before, and often times with parents when they come to visit is that we have such a structured care system wrapped around students that it’s like we’re able to know where they’re at at all moments of time during that educational journey for them. You’ve spoken a little bit about like what the beginning looks like, so kindergarten and first grade, maybe even second grade for our learners, but as they start growing up and going into third grade, fourth grade, or fifth grade, how does that trajectory change and what can we expect that the day are as they get older?

Rebecca: Good question. By the time our students are really ending second grade, moving to third grade, we hope and we know that they have a solid foundation in terms of being able to decode and being able to make sense and they do understand basic comprehension strategies, but our our third, fourth, and fifth grade teachers are really able to take it to the next level. So while we may have students in the younger years identifying characters and problems, they can really start thinking about the theme of a story and maybe the author’s intention for why did they write this story, what are they trying to teach me about life? And then in their writing, they can take those ideas and when they’re writing a small moment story about maybe a challenge they had in their life, they can infuse those sort of elements and look at figurative language and other elements of literary language, it gets to be really exciting to see what our fourth and fifth graders can produce.

Maile: I think one of the things that I picked up that you just said or talked about was decoding and like in the early years they may be able to decode or for some students might be able to decode or what a parent might see is their “reading,” but I think what I just heard you talk about is there’s so much more to that when you start talking about understanding the why like what was the purpose that this the author had behind that? And that’s really what gets into the depth, I would say, of the skills.

Rebecca: Absolutely. Every year we have maybe some second or third graders who come in saying, “They read Harry Potter.” And that’s really exciting and they think it’s a really thick book. And they could probably read it. And when you listen, they can say the words. But when you start asking them about the imagery of the Phoenix, for instance, that requires a deeper understanding of imagery and symbolism and, you know, obviously some background knowledge. And so that is where we would want to take those students. So I do agree with you. There’s a misconception sometimes that, oh, my student can read because they’re pulling out all these huge books off the shelf, but what do they really understand, and what do they know? 

Maile: And then having that translation of that skill set into writing now, right? Being able to write and produce, and I think that’s kind of like the next step also, and you want to kind of see that parallels between them.

Rebecca: Absolutely, and, you know, I think that a lot of our teachers know, and probably a lot of parents also know, that reading is the best way to learn how to write. And so a lot of the books that we use in school, we call them mentor texts, because they’re really teaching us what good writing looks like. So for instance, if you look at a second grade book, there’s probably minimal dialogue, but then if you look at a fourth or fifth grade novel, the dialogue is really driving the action of the story. So we try to teach our writers that that’s what you wanna try out also. So you’re infusing more dialogue, you’re experimenting a little bit with time jumps, maybe you have a flashback or a flash forward. And so reading translates to better writing.

Maile: You know, I know sometimes parents, what they just see as homework, they might be able to say like, “Oh, is that really what they’re learning at school?” And for us, there’s actually a difference between what homework is or what goes home and what actually is happening in the classroom. And I would love if you could talk to, what is that difference and what is the difference that the parent might actually see?

Rebecca: Yeah, good question. At Punahou, we use a workshop model in class. And what that really means is that our teachers are keeping their actual teaching of the whole class to a minimum, so maybe a 10 minute lesson on a specific skill. And then the balance of the time is kids practicing and exploring and getting guidance with their teachers. So the bulk of what they’re doing in school and their time is spent is doing the work while the teacher is there to guide them, to help them, to provide feedback. Our kids work really hard at school during the day. They’re exposed to a lot of different texts, whether it be narrative or nonfiction. And so therefore, when they come home, sometimes their homework is to read. And as I mentioned before, reading is going to provide them with background knowledge. It’s going to give them an idea of what good writing looks like. They can practice the skills that they’ve been taught in class. So there’s a lot that goes into what we might call just reading for homework. It’s really continuing practice of what they’ve been doing in school.

Maile: What would you say to the parent where they said, “Okay, that sounds fantastic, but my child only comes home with like graphic novels. Is that really reading or that’s all they’re bringing home?” or they’re only bringing home fiction. Shouldn’t they be doing some nonfiction too? Like what would you say to that parent that is talking about that visual of what they’re just seeing? 

Rebecca: Yeah, I think first of all, that graphic novels sometimes get a bad rap. There are a lot of really rich and interesting graphic novels out there for kids. And I would caution parents or maybe not caution, maybe that’s what they’re talking about. not the right word, but reassure them that at school we have a scope and sequence that exposes kids to all kinds of texts. So when kids are coming home to read for pleasure, we just really wanna continue to foster a love of reading. Some reading is better than no reading. So if a child who has worked really hard during the day and has been reading nonfiction and studying text structure and then trying to practice it in their writing wants to come home and read a science fiction novel, I’d say that sounds great. And I think that if you would want to, for birthday presents or whatever it is, buy your child some different kinds of books that’s always welcome. But we definitely want to continue to foster a love of reading and not discourage anyone.

Maile: And I think that to what you just said right there at the end is that foster that love of reading, which to me translates into fostering a love of learning. And if you can just have that curiosity and just spark it in some way through a variety of different ways and different texts, then I think eventually, it goes somewhere. But when they’re young and they just really want to dive into that certain type of book, just let them. Because I think that provides them with such a foundation of just being interested in reading and the aspects of that.

Rebecca: Yeah, and I think that giving children choice and agency over what they read and what they write about is really important. And I’ve seen that in my own journey as an educator when I started out, I would assign a prompt that all students had to write about a certain thing. And it wasn’t all that engaging to many students. And so when I opened it up and I said, “Well, we’re gonna write an informative piece, we’re gonna be reading nonfiction, but the choice about what you research and what you write about is yours.” I mean it was a lot of work for me because I learned a lot about skateboard ramps and, you know, like neurology and things that I never thought I would learn about, but the kids just were head over heels because finally they had a choice and they were doing the work and something that they really were interested in. And I think that that’s the beauty of Punahou is that we really provide kids with the skills they need, but they can take it and translate it into what interests them.

Maile: And I think that goes back to what we talked about at the beginning, which is that exploration, discovery and that inquiry, and I think to what you’re saying, we’re allowing them that choice. And when you start to see that I have agency and it just fuels that love of learning, right? They get interested in it.

Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely.

Maile: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything you’d like our listeners to know or make sure that they know about our program here?

Rebecca: I think that our teachers are really fantastic. They engage in a lot of professional learning and are always looking to improve their own practice on behalf of their students. So, you know, there’s a lot of research out there about literacy instruction and reading instruction and we’re always just trying to keep up as best we can and our dedicated faculty will always be able to talk with parents who have questions about our literacy program and we’re all really excited for what’s on the horizon.

Maile: Fantastic. Thank you so much for joining us today. I know our listeners are going to be so excited to hear from you. So thank you so much.

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