Lisa Shotts is Working to Gain More Ground
Lisa Shotts has a heart for helping and a mind for data-driven results. As a longtime classroom teacher and former instructional reading coach, Shotts saw first-hand what happened to children who didn’t have access to books over the summer. The “summer slide” in reading skills was a reality for many of her students, especially those living in poor communities where access to books was limited. To change the landscape of these “reading deserts,” Shotts and her colleague, Kirby Mackenzie, founded Gaining Ground Literacy, a non-profit that gets books into the hands of children living in reading deserts.
TK: Tell us about yourself.
Lisa: On a professional side, I’ve been an educator for 26-plus years. I’ve worked in everything from classroom and instructional teaching to reading specialist. On a personal side, I have three amazing kids and two wonderful grandchildren.
TK: How did the idea come about to start a reading program?
Lisa: The idea came after hearing one of my mentors, Dr. Richard Allington, speak about the importance of summer reading at a conference. At the time, I was an instructional coach for a school and was working with data showing that the students we were working with would slide back in their reading skills during the summer. The reason for this regression centered around not having access to books and reading material outside of school. The summer is a time when students were losing ground in literacy, and we wanted to change that.
TK: Why did you decide to invest your own time and money into starting this program?
Lisa: Based on the data, we could see the answer was right in front of us. When something boils down to lack of opportunity and seeing that kids in lower socioeconomic areas just don’t have the opportunity to access books during the summer months, we knew we could change that. When you see that lack of opportunity and know you can do something, you have to do it. There’s no other choice.
What started as a grass-roots effort turned into partnering with friend and educator Kirby Mackenzie to start a non-profit known as Gaining Ground Literacy.
TK: What does data show about students losing ground in reading skills over the summer?
Lisa: Research shows that by the end of sixth grade, there is a three-year opportunity gap between economically disadvantaged students and those who are economically advantaged.
TK: What is the purpose of Gaining Ground Literacy?
Lisa: The primary purpose of this program is to prevent summer reading loss for students living in economically disadvantaged areas by providing weekly access to a large volume of high-interest and student-selected books, increasing parental involvement and engaging students in reading activities.
Our mission is to develop readers, thinkers and leaders by providing families with engaging literacy experiences and access to high-interest, culturally responsive books.
TK: What does the program do to help children?
Lisa: Giving them access to high-quality, diverse books, gets them interested in reading. So much comes from literacy. That’s what grows them as readers, learners, critical thinkers and world changers.
TK: How has the program grown?
Lisa: It had a rough start in 2014! Initially, Kirby and I drove around in my husband’s truck and distributed books. Over time, it has slowly gained momentum. We eventually started a non-profit and partnered with Scholastic Book Fair. Early on, Kirby caught the attention of Ellen DeGeneres, and she gave her a book van to use to distribute the books on a weekly basis.
Now, every student gets to pick out 10 new books to take home at the beginning of the summer, and we work with those kids throughout the year through various programs.
TK: What results have you seen after starting this program?
Lisa: My partner and I have always followed the research. We partnered with schools in lower socioeconomic areas to focus on those kids. We’re working with schools in East Tulsa and North Tulsa to provide “books of choice” to the students. We can see that those students are thriving and don’t experience the reading loss they did prior to the program.
TK: What does “books of choice” mean?
Lisa: We believe representation matters. We stock our shelves so anyone can see themselves in those books and stories. Students can choose what they are interested in reading, nothing is assigned.
TK: How does the program work with schools?
Lisa: We provide books for 4,200 students and about 500 students in our after-school and summer project-based learning programming. We work directly with teachers on each site who know the students and are integrated into the communities. This summer, we offered an eight-week summer camp and partnered with Ahha Tulsa, Woody Guthrie Museum, Bob Dylan Museum, Outdoor Classroom and many local artists. The kids loved it!
TK: What makes this program necessary in our community?
Lisa: Choice reading has not been a high priority. Kids living in economically disadvantaged areas have less opportunity to high-quality, out-of-school instruction and access to books. These barriers statistically put them at an academic disadvantage. We see the first time they come on the bus to choose books, they just grab books. The next week, we ask them what book they liked. A lot of times they admit that they didn’t read any of the books. Once they start reading the books and understanding what books they like, the light bulb goes off for them!
TK: How do you engage them in reading?
Lisa: We give them books that they are interested in. We also want to grow them as a person. We want them to have empathy and emotional growth and find books that help develop those areas. We do read-alouds and discussions. We encourage them to write about their reading and share their thinking each week!
TK: What is the age range of children that you work with?
Lisa: We are working with kids in targeted areas birth through middle school.
TK: How can people support Gaining Ground Literacy?
Lisa: Our big need is in financial support to purchase new books and provide literacy instruction for the students. We have a donation button on our website if people want to provide a single donation or set up a reoccurring monthly donation. For example, $10 will purchase two new books. Visit GainingGroundLiteracy.org for more information.
We are always looking for volunteers to fill various needs. You’re welcome to reach out, and we can share about those opportunities!
TK: Tell us about your annual fundraising event on September 10.
Lisa: Rock & Read is our annual fundraiser that supports all the work we do with students across the Tulsa area. Rock & Read takes place at Bar 473 and is a karaoke event that will entertain you all night long! We have an auction with incredible auction items, great food by the amazing restaurant group Et Al, drinks and dancing. Tickets can be purchased online through GainingGroundLiteracy.org.
TK: You’re so busy growing this program! How do you unplug?
Lisa: Ever since I’ve had grandkids, I travel quite a bit to see them. I love to hike, bike and we have a large organic garden that we spend a lot of time in!
TK: What are you passionate about right now?
Lisa: My passion is more of a mission to educate the public on this opportunity gap. When you don’t have the opportunity that others have, it sets you back. We need to recognize the disparity in our schools and help even the playing field.