Talia Kovacs: “Why it’s important to get boys interested in literacy and the arts”

Engaging girls and women in STEM is extremely important, but it’s also important to get boys interested in literacy and the arts. Very often we divide up our topics by what are girls typically good at and bad at and focus on how can we get girls to improve. While this lifts up our girls, […]

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Engaging girls and women in STEM is extremely important, but it’s also important to get boys interested in literacy and the arts. Very often we divide up our topics by what are girls typically good at and bad at and focus on how can we get girls to improve. While this lifts up our girls, it keeps our boys behind, puts lower expectations on them, and leaves them out of the conversation. We want for our girls and women to feel confident and exposed to analytical ways of thinking. We also want to make sure that our boys are able to be more in touch with their emotions and more able to freely express themselves through the arts and through literacy. We have a crisis of boys literacy rates and girls access to STEM, and framing it as one issue and not both actually detracts from the conversation.

Talia Kovacs is a mission-driven educator working to provide all children with the literacy, social, and emotional skills to live lives of purpose and joy. She is the CEO of LitLife, Inc. where she leads LitLife’s work in shaping lives of purpose and joy through SEL-based literacy instruction. Talia has been a contributing author for many curricular materials, including LitLeague, Scholastic Literacy: Writing, LitCamp en Espanol and Every Child a Super Reader with publisher Scholastic Education, and several online courses on best practices in literacy instruction.In her own work as a literacy specialist and consultant, Talia has led schools to raise literacy scores by over 60% in a year and has regularly increased teacher job satisfaction in her partner districts. Prior to her work with LitLife, Talia was a classroom teacher and curriculum consultant in Washington, DC and Brooklyn, NY. Talia is a life-long educator and learner and believes deeply in the lasting impact on students and their whole community when provided with meaningful, joyful literacy instruction.

Thank you for joining us Talia. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Ialways wanted to be a teacher. Growing up with 3 little sisters and 9 little cousins, I was constantly shepherding young folks around and (trying to) mesmerize them with the wonders of the world. Now, as the CEO of LitLife, I get to work with my amazing team to bring the wonder of books and storytelling to thousands of students each year.

I found my way into education advocacy and equity through a defining experience in high school. I moved around a lot growing up and had attended a multitude of schools. I had gone to two different high schools, one public and one private. In my public school, I was friends with a group of kids who were all smart, capable, curious but who weren’t motivated by school. They were in the regular classes and after a few years, were in a self-contained classroom even though they did not have a special-education designation. They were tracked and kept away from other students.

Notably, most of these teenagers were kids of color in a majority white school. I was just as unmotivated as my friends were, and none of us did particularly well in school. When my parents took notice of this, they sent me to a private school where it was harder to mess up. I began to improve my grades and began to see college as an option. My friends remained in that school-within-a school, a tracked program at a public school where they remained uninspired and disillusioned by their choices after high school.

After we all graduated, I went to college and graduate school and became a teacher. Meanwhile, friends who were just as smart and capable as I was, and just as unmotivated in high school, ended up working in low-paying jobs and are still struggling to make ends meet.

I saw firsthand how a parent’s ability or lack of ability to change their child’s education situation could impact that child for the rest of her life. So, I decided that I wanted to get involved in education and make sure that future generations have equal opportunities, regardless of the options that their parents have.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I have the honor of working with many large urban school districts around the country, and one of the things that I seek to do at LitLife, both as a literacy consultant and the CEO of the company, is to make sure that I’m removing roadblocks and enabling folks to do their work as best as possible. My job is to make a teacher’s and principal’s job easier. This is a story about the confusion that can often occur in a bureaucracy.

One day, I was in a school working with a teacher on a packet of resources for small group guided reading. I gave her a binder of resources and she said, “I’m sorry but I can’t take this resource since it’s not in the right font.” Apparently, the assistant principal had made a rule about uniform fonts. Luckily, in my work, I get to interact with pretty much everybody up and down the chain of command in these school districts.

So, I went to the assistant principal and said, “Hey, I have a great binder of resources that the teachers are saying I can’t use because it’s not the right font. Is that really a rule? I’m sure the font doesn’t matter because it’s for the adults reading it.” The assistant principal said “That’s not my decision. I agree with you. I’d rather they be able to use it, but the principal said the fonts have to all be the same.” So, I went to the principal who said that the deputy superintendent had told her the rule about uniform fonts. So then I went to the deputy superintendent and once again was met with the same response: “That’s not my decision. That came from central office.”

So I went to the head of the department and I said, “Hey, I’m working with this teacher whose working with this assistant principal whose working with this principal whose working with district superintendent, and we all agree this resource is great and would like to include it in the guided reading binder, but they all say that you said that all the fonts in the binder have to be the same. Can you please explain to me why you’re so obsessed with fonts?” It turns out there was never a rule about fonts. The head of the department just complimented font uniformity one time and someone misinterpreted her comment.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

That story really motivates my work lifting roadblocks. This was one small miscommunication among so many people who are all working hard to try to improve teacher practice and do right by all kids. Everyone involved is working to improve students’ lives, and because of these larger systemic issues, communication can break down. As an outside consultant in a school district, it’s my job to see the big picture and communicate across party lines. I learned that I have to get to know and build trust with a wide variety of stakeholders in every school district so that I can successfully navigate all that it takes to ensure joyful literacy lives for students.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now, I’m working on several online courses through LitLife that will go directly to teachers as opposed to selling them through schools. LitLife offers world class professional development, and we are hired by schools and school districts to deliver our message on joyful literacy instruction in schools around the world. What I’m seeking to do through these online courses is democratize teachers’ access to excellent professional development. I want to make sure that just because an individual school doesn’t hire us or doesn’t have the budget to hire us that teachers are still able to access our professional development and earn credit for their learning.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Well, I think that anyone calling themselves an authority in education has to think twice. But, what I can tell you is that I work in over 150 schools every year with LitLife. I meet with superintendents all over the United States and with principals in over 10 countries, so I have an excellent sense of everybody’s ideals, worries, concerns, and dreams for their futures and for the futures of their students. Because of this, I understand what is working and what isn’t working in our large education system in our big country that has such variances in education law and policy.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

The U.S education system has pockets of real beauty and success, and in those pockets one school can change the trajectory of a student who may not have another opportunity to change their circumstances. Overall, there’s a lot that we can improve on in the US education system such as valuing teachers more and generally treating all students like they’re our own kids. It’s hard to talk about the US education system without talking about the broader systemic effects of racism and classism in our country. There has to be different supports in place outside of education for our students. I think that the US education system has a long way to go before we fulfil our promise of an excellent education to get you far in life.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Absolutely! Again, I think that this is happening in pockets. I don’t think that one individual system overall has this figured out, but I can talk about individual schools that are doing really well.

  1. Schools that bring in the whole community to participate in their child’s schooling: That includes the parents, caregivers, local doctors, afterschool centers, and other places where kids are when they’re not in the schools.
  2. Schools that highlight students backgrounds and see them as assets: These schools honor each child’s background and ensures that their family history and legacy is celebrated not just in nominal ways (“family food night” comes to mind) but in meaningful ways through curriculum and cross-cultural dialogue.
  3. Schools that prioritize literacy: Literacy is the groundwork for anything anyone does, so schools that give kids diverse and interesting reading opportunities that let them get curious are able to hone in on literacy as a learning tool and take kids to higher heights.
  4. Schools that have clear communication structures: Getting everybody clear around the goals and outcomes is very important for success. Schools that identify what their goals are are able to use this shared vision to turn it into great success for students.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

  1. Equitable access to funding: The first thing about the “U.S. education system” is it is a hodge podge of various systems with district wide schools, statewide funding, federal funding, and land funding that all want to run the schools differently. Equitable funding would allow the schools with most need to actually get more funding so that they can get more curriculum materials and books and give more support to their students.
  2. Access to all of the support that kids need: Community schools are really good examples of schools that prioritize free student lunch, after school care, early morning care, and meals over the weekend. This way these schools are making sure that the kids have the support they need to succeed. We cannot talk about improving the US education system without talking about systemic inequities in housing, social services and healthcare. This is one part of a larger system that must improve.
  3. Measuring Success Through Community Impact: Test scores are just one of many metrics that we can use to understand how schools are doing. For example, in New York City there’s a survey around how supported parents feel by the school, if teachers like to teach there, and if there’s a high turnover rate. All of these things matter for a student’s experience, and they impact test scores. Measuring on a more holistic understanding is what will help us understand how to make a student’s educational experience meaningful. We can also use this measurement to ensure schools have access to equitable funding and resources. This is all related.
  4. Learn from Bright Spots: It’s not about which schools should be vilified, it’s more about what schools are setting kids up for success and how can we learn from those schools and put them into a neighborhood’s context. We should focus on tracking kids over time who are leaving some of the best schools and what it takes for those kids to do well.
  5. Professionalize the teaching force: That has to do with increasing teacher salaries, full school budgets for materials, and giving the most effective teachers a voice. That’s a big thing that we do at LitLife. We highlight best practices that we’re seeing around the country and share them with everybody else so people can see what works. I would professionalize the teaching force by increasing their pay but also through giving them a voice and a platform as a part of a national agenda to listen to teachers to figure out how to best support schools and students.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

I want to broaden that question a little. Engaging girls and women in STEM is extremely important, but it’s also important to get boys interested in literacy and the arts. Very often we divide up our topics by what are girls typically good at and bad at and focus on how can we get girls to improve. While this lifts up our girls, it keeps our boys behind, puts lower expectations on them, and leaves them out of the conversation. We want for our girls and women to feel confident and exposed to analytical ways of thinking. We also want to make sure that our boys are able to be more in touch with their emotions and more able to freely express themselves through the arts and through literacy. We have a crisis of boys literacy rates and girls access to STEM, and framing it as one issue and not both actually detracts from the conversation.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

The US as a whole is doing an okay job in getting girls and women in STEM subjects. There are some small but very powerful nonprofits like Girls Who Code and Girlstart that are doing really good and important work to include more girls and women in AI and in other STEM subjects. Equally as important, the US is looking at increasing the STEM field not just through the lens of girls and women, but through the lens of race as well. When it comes to STEM (especially AI) it’s important to look at who is making the algorithms. If it’s just a bunch of people with one shared experience, that’s what the computer is going to know. So yes, we need girls and women, but we also need folks of color, disabled folks and LGBT folks to all share in the conversation about what our future is going to look like.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

Storytelling is the most important and ongoing invention that human beings have ever created. We are not a predictable set of numbers and codes; we are complex creatures who, based on our experience, history, and understanding of who we are in the world, act in different ways. To talk about STEM without the arts and humanities can be dangerous because that is what helps understand and relate to each other. All of the sciences came about because someone had a question and a curiosity and a desire to know more. Galeleo was also a poet and studier of people. Michaelangelo was also a mathematician. To talk about these subjects in isolation is not only detrimental to furthering our pursuit of truth, but it also is simply not how it works. Our most curious people are not just curious about one individual question but are curious about the world as a whole and their place in it. The arts and humanities are not only the most important part of STEM, but also what starts any kind of STEM endeavors.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Ensure equitable funding: I would make sure that every school has not only the money owed to them, but enough money necessary to ensure a high level of teaching practice, adequate materials are in all of the classrooms, and the most interesting, world broadening, and culturally relevant books, articles, and studies.
  2. Shrink large district to ensure levels of accountability: The US education system is too large to view from just one vantage, but in my travels around the world and around the country with LitLife, what I constantly see is that the pockets of excellence that exist within the US education system exist because a small number of people get together around a shared vision. Districts should be manageable in size and run by individuals who have a vision and a proven track record to execute that vision. They also would need to commit to the district because when people leave after a year or two, they don’t have time to really implement changes and see how change happens.
  3. A Focus on Student Curiosity: That may not mean loving to read everything, but kids should have something that they are curious about and be given the opportunity in school to pursue that interest in a way that increases their understanding of the world. Schools are supposed to increase curiosity, prepare people for the world, and institute a civic mindset. We can understand this by looking at increasing voting rates in a city, the amount of library books checked out in a district, and internet searches by region. We need to think about metrics other than test scores to see if we’re really preparing students to live in this complex world.

Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If God gave us free will, we are responsible for what we do.”

I think about this every day. I think that it’s very easy in these large systems and big bureaucracies to just say that something is outside of your control. Every single day, you have a choice to continue working within that bureaucracy or to take yourself out. You have a choice to speak up about the wrongs you are seeing or to speak up about the excellence you are seeing. It’s important to understand what work is within your control and what is outside of your control. I try not to think about what I can’t control and instead think about what I am tangibly doing every single day to reach my goal of empowering every child and those who love them to live a life of purpose and joy. If I’m not achieving that, it’s because of something that I’m doing, not because of something out of my control. If God gave me free will, then I am responsible for all my actions, and I have to take each day very seriously.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I could name many long-time heroes like Gloria Steinem or Stacey Abrams .. but a person I really want to meet and have a conversation with is Jason Reynolds. I met him once briefly at a conference, and I was truly moved by his deep focus and understanding of kids. He’s an amazingly talented YA author whose been getting a ton of recognition recently for winning several book awards. He keeps kids at the forefront of his mind and understands the student experience, not just about what goes on during the school day, but about all of the systemic inequities that kids come home to. I think that if we amplify his voice about how are we treating kids, what our school days are for, and how should we move forward in terms of our understanding of what we teach and how we teach it, we’d all be better off.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn at Talia Kovacs, on Twitter @LitLifePD, or my personal twitter @TaliaKovacs.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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