EastBay Today

Posted May 11, 2020

Strengthening California’s Future Through Literacy

Cal State East Bay graduate is committed to working as a literacy leader in her now-online kindergarten classroom


On a sunny Monday morning in Hayward, instead of sitting at a desk in school, 26 children in their pajamas turn on their computers and log into their kindergarten class from home, eager to learn. When the young students are settled in their chairs, they navigate their mouse to a video where “Ms. Morita” instructs them to take out their journals and practice writing.

Jennifer Morita graduated from Cal State East Bay with her teaching credential in 2019 and this year, is now graduating with her Master's of Science, Reading and Literacy.
Courtesy of Jennifer Morita

Within moments, the 5 and 6-year-olds jot uppercase and lowercase letters into their journals and scribble short words just legible enough to read.

To her students, she’s known as "Ms. Morita." To everyone else, she’s Jennifer Morita, full-time kindergarten teacher and Online Master of Science Reading and Literacy Program 2020 graduate. Morita is one of more than 11,000 California kindergarten teachers making an effort to continue teaching reading and writing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These past few weeks have definitely been a huge adjustment and a learning experience for myself,” Morita said. “It’s been tricky trying to find ways for my students to do all their activities and still hold their attention.”

Since California's shelter-in-place began on March 17, Morita has had to restructure her teaching methods. She created a personalized website for her class where she can communicate with students and post lectures and assignments. One of her teaching strategies during shelter-in-place involves creating 5-minute-long instructional videos from home that she posts on the class website. Students watch her videos and practice along with her, and afterwards are able to reply with their own video or audio file so she can grade how well they’re doing.

“It’s difficult for younger kids to learn online because they need hands-on teaching, so I’m trying to make learning online as convenient for them as I can,” she said.

So far, Morita said, she’s been trying her best to transition her classroom into an online format. She teaches her students about the days of the week, calendars and counting, but said the reading and writing portion is what has always interested her the most.

Since 2010, the California Common Core State Standards of education has strived for all kindergarteners to be able to demonstrate knowledge of the alphabet, identify and pronounce uncomplicated written words, and have the ability to write short sentences, among other reading and writing skills.

“When I was in kindergarten, I wasn’t learning how to write yet,” said Morita. “The expectation for kindergarten has changed, especially when it comes to reading. I first saw kindergarteners reading last year and it’s surprising how well they do.”

Morita credits the MSRL program in helping her identify students who have trouble reading, how to support them and in suggesting activities and several other ways to better assist those students. 

The fully-online graduate program is designed for working professionals who seek advanced training in literacy leadership and instruction. In one year, graduates of the program can become reading teachers, reading specialists, reading coaches, tutors, literacy program administrators or teacher assistants.

“The master’s program is fantastic,” said Morita. “It’s flexible and the professor is very understanding. For some of us in the program it’s our first year teaching, so finding that balance of trying to do homework while also working is important.”

After earning her teaching credential from Cal State East Bay in spring of 2019, Morita joined the MSRL program in the summer of that year due to having firsthand experience with difficulty reading. In fifth grade she began having trouble focusing in school and comprehending things she read in class. And in eighth grade, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was also diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder which is often characterized by a difficulty in learning to read or with word recognition and decoding.

Morita said she still struggles with those disabilities to this day.

“Because of my disabilities I feel like I’m a lot more understanding of how hard it is and frustrating it is to try your best in school and still have nothing make sense,” said Morita. “I feel like I’m a lot more sensitive, and I’ve learned to approach my students in a way that I would have appreciated when I was a kid.”

Morita’s learning challenges haven’t stopped her from pursuing her career or teaching others to read. She’s wanted to be a teacher since she was in preschool. And now, she has made it her mission to be a “literacy leader”, someone who fosters the growth of children and adults, and is devoted to helping people who struggle in reading, writing and learning.

A literacy leader can be someone like a reading coach, and according to Morita, every school can benefit from having one. Reading coaches, also known as literacy coaches, can teach struggling students one-on-one instruction or in small groups. Morita is not a reading coach but uses similar techniques in her kindergarten class.

“I want my students to know when things are hard or don’t make sense, they don’t have to give up or feel they aren’t good enough, because they’re not the only ones who struggle,” she said. “Some kids struggle with reading and other kids pick it up fast, so finding ways to support and nurture each of them individually is what I focus on.”

As a first-year teacher, Morita said she already has advice for others who are pursuing a career in teaching and an MS in Reading and Literacy during these ever-changing times.

“Being a teacher so far is a lot of trial and error and coming up with incentives and rewards,” said Morita. “But just like a student, don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way.”

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