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Science-Based Stories & Hands-On Experiments to Engage Families & Advance Literacy Skills

“The project-based learning (PBL) approach was really helpful in setting some concrete goals and stopping to evaluate along the way. Projects never go according to plan so having the time to think through and pivot when needed was essential.”

Team SHINE: Super Scientist Family Literacy

by Vici Garber and Vicky Routson

Team Members Project Summary:
  • Vici Garber
  • Debi Fitzgerald
  • Peer Coach: Vicky Routson, Loudoun County Public School Adult education
The SHINE Super Scientist Literacy team from Region 6 tackled two major issues. The first, creating a family literacy curriculum that would engage both kids and parents with fun but meaningful content. The second, finding and establishing a working relationship with an elementary school partner for the program. With the added complications caused by COVID-19, the team navigated to find solutions to these challenges.

In this article, we present “A Tale of Two Vics”. Vici Garber describes her perspective of the AE&L Conference ReMix Team Challenge as the team leader while Vicky Routson gives her view from the eyes of a peer coach.

Vici’s Point of View: The seeds of the SHINE Super Scientist Family Literacy program were first planted in 2019 when Katy Parrish, our Program Manager, wanted a family literacy program started for Region 6. Katy assigned the project to me, the Regional Specialist and Debi Fitzgerald, the English language arts (ELA) instructor at Building Blocks. The project was to be in partnership with a local elementary school in Waynesboro that was located next to Building Blocks. They would provide the cafeteria, snacks, an instructor to help create the curriculum and co-teach with Debi, and recruitment assistance. 

After a request for training in November 2019, Katy, Debi and I went to Kentucky to gather knowledge at the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) Conference. Armed with new information and more resources than we imagined, Debi and I embarked on narrowing down our scope. Katy’s main requirement was that the family literacy program include interactive activities like those included in our Logistics PluggedInVA cohort. With that in mind, we chose the umbrella topic of science. We chose topics for 24 lessons for a 12-week, twice-a-week program that included Geology, Chemistry, Astronomy, and Botany. Our template for each lesson would include an ice-breaker, vocabulary, video clips, a movement exercise, reading a book, topic instruction, and the hands-on experiment. With the overwhelming amount of resources and after going down many “rabbit holes” (Debi’s favorite term), we found our go-to sites and preferred materials. 

Debi and I joined the AE&L ReMix and Vicky Routson joined our team!  She brought with her knowledge of the K-5 classroom and a fresh perspective. Our program was set  to run from March–April, 2021. 

Vicky’s Point of View: I joined the group as a peer coach mid-way through the project. Vici and Debi already had a clear vision for the program and the parameters under  which it needed to run. They had researched, come up with materials and had the framework all set. The challenge in front of them when I joined the group was how to engage with a new partner and stakeholder in order to garner interest and obtain enough enrollment to run the program. 

Although they had partnered with an elementary school, there seemed to be a lack of communication. While there was initial excitement about the program, with COVID-19 and all of the changes the school faced, the family literacy program didn’t seem to be a priority. The teacher that first signed on to be part of the program and be the liaison for the school also unfortunately backed out of the role. 

During our first team meeting, we talked about ways to engage the school community and different contact points at the school that might be able to help get information into the right hands. There were some stumbling blocks along the way, again with COVID-19 restrictions making it more difficult, but eventually this led to a renewed commitment from the principal and another teacher from the school who took interest in joining the group. 

Vici’s Point of View:  For me, the biggest lesson was that working with the K-12 is nothing like working with a business partner. Though I have a lot of experience creating programs and solid partnerships, K-12 required a different approach. Debi and I had to learn to revert our focus from what was supposed to happen to just that which we had control over. We also realized that it would have been better to pick a more specific subject and look for the materials. We spent too much time sorting through resources and picking things that caught our attention and then trying to create around that one activity or lesson. Reflection also made me consider new recruitment ideas, such as a kick-off orientation to spur interest with RSVP invitations sent to current and previous adult education learners. We can also create more videos that can be put on the Facebook page, website, and shared with partners. Lastly, we learned the value of having a peer with an outside perspective. What a great resource and much appreciated. 

Vicky’s Point of View: Our team had to get creative with recruitment in the digital world, something that none of us had done before. We also had to really learn about the elementary school and how they communicated with parents. We looked at their website, brainstormed about possible contacts at the school, and started reaching out to school staff who might be informed and interested in helping recruit for a family literacy program aimed at helping both students and parents. Vici and Debi created materials, including a promotional video, that were eventually added to the school website as part of the recruitment process. 

Forming relationships takes time, so the process wasn’t always smooth or easy. There were hiccups along the way, but through it all the team was able to pivot, adjust the plan, and keep pushing forward. 

Vici’s Point of View: Other adult education programs may want to consider investing in training opportunities when requesting staff to create something outside of their wheelhouse. We would not have created such a quality program if not for Katy allowing us to go to the NCFL conference. She also allowed us the time to do research and dig into the materials. Also, have a Plan B for  if  and when something doesn’t work out with partners. Being prepared to cover all responsibilities can certainly help with morale and keeping the ball rolling. 

Vicky’s Point of View: The project-based learning (PBL) approach was really helpful in setting some concrete goals and stopping to evaluate along the way. Projects never go according to plan so having the time to think through and pivot when needed was essential. 

Creating a new program and engaging a new community partner was a huge undertaking. Using the PBL model allowed our team to stay on track as we worked through milestones. The communication between the team was great, as everyone took on roles they felt comfortable doing and came together to debrief and collaborate on next steps. I especially enjoyed how organized the process was and think that is a huge benefit of a PBL approach. 

Vici’s Point of View: Our plan is to run the program in 2021/22. We now have an elementary teacher who has confirmed her interest and will participate in the program. With her inside the K-5 system and her connections to the families, we are sure to have a better experience. As the state continues to lift COVID-19 restrictions, our hope is to have the ability to meet in person. That will allow Debi and the K-5 teacher to enjoy the experiments in the elementary school cafeteria, and we will also get more books into the hands of the participants. With everything opening again, this will also allow for in-person recruitment opportunities, which work much better for us than virtual recruitment.  We are sure to present our success at one of our conferences in the future.  

Gain some more insight into this project and see the great resources that were curated to create literacy lessons for families by taking a look at the Team SHINE: Super Scientists Family Literacy Program’s showcase presentation. Or, watch the commercial the team created to explain their program.


Padlet logoWe are including some of the comments received for each showcase team. View more of the showcase discussion in the 2020 AE&L Conference ReMix TeamShowcase Padlet.


I was inspired by SHINE Family Literacy and their persistence even in the face of challenges! I really liked hearing how you all tackled one challenge at a time and how you have not given up and plan to keep moving forward!


Vici GarberVici Garber is the Region 6 Regional Specialist and PluggedInVA Coordinator. She started her career in adult education in 2001 with a focus on employment services. She has previously worked as an independent GED® tutor, an employment specialist, and an ESOL instructor. Through the Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE), she has served as an instructor for GED® classes, Job Readiness, and PluggedInVA.  She has created successful programs that run at Middle River Regional Jail and Shenandoah Valley Social Services. Vici was the 2018 recipient of the VAACE Teacher of the Year award.   

Vicky RoutsonVicky Routson is an English language (EL) instructor with more than 15 years of experience in adult education. She has taught all levels from Low-literacy to Advanced including multi-level classes with a focus on implementing the CCR & ELP standards. Since moving to Virginia, she has been working for the Loudoun County Public School Adult Education department as both an EL instructor and office administrator alongside the lead teacher to ensure that adult education teachers get the support that they need to create quality, standards-based lessons. She received her bachelor’s degree as well as her adult education teaching credential at California State University Dominguez Hills.  

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