1st and 8th Grade SEL Literacy Project

Absecon 1st and 8th Grade students pair up for literacy-driven puppet show
Posted on 06/21/2023
Students put on a puppet show for their classes.

ABSECON — How can a puppet show teach students to read? Absecon Public Schools educators say this innovative strategy not only fostered an better understanding of reading for students here, but has also created an unparalleled social and emotional learning experience.

“It’s one thing to be able to read the words on a page, it’s a totally different thing to be able to discuss and apply what one has read. It’s amazing how much an elementary level student can teach a middle-schooler and vice versa,” said Dr. Barbara Horner, Absecon’s District Literacy Coach.

"Research shows that peers learn best from peers, but to see it in action? Wow.”

Since March, first grade students from Marsh Elementary and eighth grade students from Attales Middle schools have been meeting together every other week to work on a puppet show project in groups of two or three. The small groups selected a nursery rhyme,  read and analyzed the story together through games, and then created sock and paper bag puppets together.

On June 9, 72 pairs of first and eighth grade students performed their puppet show for their peers. This first-of-its-kind activity for Absecon is an approach that Horner and her collaborators, first grade teachers Jessica Fey and Lisa Maletta, think will help the first-graders grasp key reading concepts and prove just as beneficial for the eighth grade students.

“Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is an approach that provides students with opportunities to build healthy relationships with others (peers and adults) through doing and learning,” explained Horner. “From a literacy perspective, SEL and literacy go hand-in-hand.”

Horner said that placing students of different grade levels and varying reading abilities together provides authentic modeling of literacy concepts.

“The first graders look up to their eighth grade partners as role models and look to emulate their behaviors, which places a lot of pressure on the eighth-graders. They need to live up to the expectations set forth and be self-aware of all of their actions and interactions because the first graders will mimic their behaviors,” Horner said.

“The academic benefits are different, too. First-graders focus more on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary building, and working through challenging words, while the benefits to the eighth-graders were more problem solving, critical thinking, and being able to synthesize and apply the material read and teach/explain/help their first-grader.”

Not only were there literacy benefits, but Horner also noted that there were behavioral benefits.

“Attendance tends to improve when students know they will be working with their partners. Discipline issues lessen,” she said.

Horner said that when the project was first introduced to the eighth graders, it was not well received by everyone, but after their first meeting, enthusiasm grew.

“I would encounter eighth-graders in the hallway asking when they were meeting with their first-graders again. They were now looking forward to it,” Horner said. “The first-graders love their eighth-graders - some regard them as family members, some greet them by hugging. The laughter and joy that emanates from them when they are working together is infectious.”

Horner said she plans to continue conducting cross-grade-level literacy projects.

“The benefits of such projects are too great to not continue,” she said.

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