UNI to host Literacy Conference



For 50 years, UNI has hosted the Elementary Literacy Conference on campus to give new teaching strategies to current and future teachers. This year’s conference will be held on April 13 in the Schindler Education Center.

The conference started in 1969 at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School, which closed in 2012. Teachers Joan Duea and Delsie Charais Foreman created the conference to help prepare children become better readers.

“If you had to choose the thing that’s going to make a student the most successful, [it] is that they become literate,” explained conference co-chair Denise Tallakson. “All elementary teachers are usually teaching reading in some form, and most of them are doing it on a daily basis in their classroom. So that, I think, has sustained [the conference], because its embodiment is around that.”

At first, the conference was called the Beginning Reading Conference and focused on early childhood education. It changed its name to the Elementary Literacy Conference in 2008 to include more grade level educators.

“I think it was an avenue for teachers to come and find innovative new ideas and strategies to teach reading and writing in their classroom, and that has become such a big focus for elementary teachers across the years,” Tallakson said. “They’re always searching for new ways to be able to help their students be successful, and this was a fun way for them to come and get motivated themselves, but also learn new strategies they could work with their students on.”

Tallakson believes that in the very early years of the Beginning Reading Conference, attendance averaged around 20 teachers. Now the conference draws, on average, 450-500 people.

The very first conference featured local teachers as the speakers. Soon afterward, the conference began using children’s authors and illustrators as keynote speakers. Over the years the conference has featured authors like Marc Brown, Steven Kellogg, Lois Elhert, Rosemary Wells, Kevin Henkes and Mem Fox. When Dr. Lucy McCormick Calkins spoke in 1988, Tallakson estimates that there were 1,200 in attendance.

Each year the keynote speaker is selected by whichever committee member is chairing the conference. The chair also helps determine the conference theme.

This year the keynote speakers are Eric Litwin and John Schumacher. Litwin’s books include “Pete the Cat,” “Groovy Joe,” and “The Nuts.” He is known for incorporating music into his presentations. John Schumacher, aka “Mr. Schu,” is known for blogging, lecturing part-time at Rutgers University and representing school libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs.

Both Litwin’s and Schumacher’s work coincides with the 2018 conference theme of incorporating fun and humor into reading.

“If [kids] don’t have fun when you’re doing this, the desire to read isn’t going to be there,” Tallakson said. “So, to really give kids the opportunity to enjoy literature, to laugh and to learn at the same time, then they’ll see [reading] as something they want to do for the rest of their life.”

In addition to the keynote speaker, the conference includes breakout sessions. This year’s titles include 21st Century Book Reports, A Buffet of Small Group Reading Instructions, Best Practices for English Learners in Literacy and Bringing Multicultural Literature to Life. Teachers come from as far as Florida and Texas to lead breakout sessions. This year, a couple of students from the College of Education are also leading sessions.

Although the majority of conference goers are teachers, students may also attend. UNI students of all majors can attend the conference free of charge.

Registration is still open as of press time.

“We’re encouraging [students] to sign up, because they’re treated just as the teachers,” explained conference co-chair Lynn Ensworth. “They get the free lunch — it’s really a professional development day in the life of a real teacher.”

On Thursday, April 12 from 6 to 7 p.m., there will be a pre-conference event at the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center that is open to the community. This year, Eric Litwin will be giving a free concert and book signing.

That same night, there is a gala honoring past conference chairs and committee members. The conference chair rotates each year among the committee members.

According to Ensworth, most committee members have served for over twenty years.

“It is a lot of work, and none of us have ever been compensated for that. It’s just because we know [the conference] is so important and that teachers wait until the next year to come,” Ensworth said. “So many of us have put in many years of hard work to keep it alive.”