Beyond the Book: Opening Classrooms to Close the Knowledge Gap

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Addressing the Knowledge Gap

Among the many challenges facing us in education one of our most formidable foes is the comprehension gap, across all content areas, between students of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status.

English: France in 2000 year (XXI century).
Despite the change in technology and time, many educators still rely on textbooks. Are there better ways of improving student literacy in content areas? English: France in 2000 year (XXI century). Future school. France, paper card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[T]his neglect of [content] knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America’s poor and non-poor”

E.D. Hirsch, The Case for Bringing Content Into The Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge Rich Curriculum Core for All Children American Educator, Spring 2006.

The Importance of Literacy Skills

While there are many factors that attribute to poor performance, one of the chief offenders is a lack of literacy skills.  This is often noted at the college level when students are forced to take non-credit developmental education classes just to catch up to the basics.  This both demoralizes the student as well as extending the amount of time they have to spend in, and thus pay for, college.

Curriculum
Educators also need strong content area literacy skills. (Photo credit: Broken Sword)

By expanding literary sources, however, we expand the sphere of knowledge surrounding the content areas.  Students can gain a broader context of how a given subject fits into the larger narrative of the real world.

“If they want their students to learn complex new concepts in different disciplines, they [content teachers] often have to help their students become better readers…”

Chris Tovani in her text Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

 

Peer Assistance and Review (PAR): A Teacher Development Project

Teachers need to move beyond textbooks to increase their literary skills so that they can better communicate their subject to students. So how do we get a teacher to step away from the science textbook and into some Sagan or Hawking?  

One of the ways we can work to address the knowledge gap is through the model of Peer Assistance and Review. In order to address inequity, our featured project at The School of the Future has done just that. With a Teacher Development Grant from McCarthey Dressman, The School of the Future helped improve the overall literacy of their teachers and subsequently their students.

Supports for Improved Content Literacy for Educators and Students

  • Collaboratively Created Curriculum
    Teachers in high school met after school and collaborated to develop, create, and implement a curriculum that would enhance their students’ ability to read and write in the content areas (History, Math, Science and Technology) across the 11th and 12th grade.
  • Shared Texts Across Content Areas
    The group worked together to come up with a list of shared texts across content areas.  While history and science have obvious literary sources outside the textbook, with a subject like math the teachers could study the history of math and biographies of mathematicians to give a wider scope to how the content area applies to the real world.
  • Content Literacy Support
    Included was a training program for inexperienced or ineffective teachers to improve their literacy skills across their content area, specifically focusing on grades 11-12 to start.

The Difference: Educator Driven Approach

Literacy Today
Literacy Today (Photo credit: dennyatkinson)

The difference between this program and previous initiatives aimed at teaching reading in the content areas was that previous efforts were top down administrative mandates that focused on ensuring uniformity in how reading, whereas the current effort was focused on expanding the teacher’s actual knowledge base.  Past “one size fits all” approaches to teaching reading in the content areas failed to account for the fact that students read different types of texts in every content area.
The unique aspect to this program is its need for a personal “buy-in” from the teachers.  Not a monetary buy-in, but those teachers who want to get involved will need to be willing to pull up their sleeves and put a little more time on the table.

The Impact: Students Identify and Analyze Printed and Non-Printed Texts

What have the teachers accomplished with this project?

During year one, five teachers (half the 11th/12th grade team) studied professional literature in their content areas to be able to implement a plan for teaching students to independently identify and analyze multiple non-fiction printed texts and non-print texts, at the student’s own instructional level, appropriate for the content of the class. Classroom visits and observations of each other in the form of Lesson Study, analysis of student growth, refinement of practice, creation of videos, continued throughout the year. In year two, participants in year one become “Anchor” teachers and shared best practices with the half of the team that was not previously involved (“Innovator Teachers”). For year three, the 11th/12th grade teacher team will mentor the 9th/10th grade team.

PAR provides teachers with the opportunity to work collaboratively to improve professional development.  But it is not easy; successful implementation of PAR requires commitment, time, resources, cooperation and flexibility from the teachers involved.  In successful PAR projects teachers play a key role in the support, assistance and review of their colleagues.  Everyone has to pull their weight for the program to be successful

Teachers can look to existing program models, such as the California Peer Assistance and Review program to get some idea on how they can best start their own.   Those who have experienced it emphasize that PAR models should only be used as reference tools, not as fixed templates, which could hinder the development and implementation of plans tailored to meet individual schools and students needs and goals.

Learn more about PAR

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