Literacy & Writing Skills
Developing a Bilingual, Culturally-Relevant Writers’ Workshop in the Elementary Grades: Supporting students in discovering their voice as writers
At many schools with a large bilingual population, student’s cultural and linguistic resources must guide instruction in order for children of color to find success in the current educational system. Caroline Sweet and her colleagues at Perez Elementary School in Austin, TX hoped to develop on site a model of writers’ workshop that embraces bilingualism and incorporates students’ cultural backgrounds. They believed that what is developed at Perez can guide other campuses desiring a high-quality bilingual writers’ workshop as a model for developing students’ written expression while simultaneously giving students agency in their learning.
What were the project goals?
The goals of their project, Developing a Bilingual, Culturally-Relevant Writers’ Workshop in the Elementary Grades, fall into three categories.
- Implement a writers’ workshop model in language arts instruction across the campus in Kindergarten through 5th grade.
- As Caroline’s school has a strong dual language program, they needed to merge their dual language program model with the tenets of writers’ workshop to reflect the biliteracy development of their students as readers and writers.
- Caroline also wanted to ensure their students develop a positive self-identity throughout their school experience. To accomplish this goal, they used culturally-relevant literature as mentor texts throughout writers’ workshop.
What was their process to accomplish their goals?
- They consulted with the Heart of Texas Writing Project (HTWP) at the University of Texas to train K-2 teachers on the foundational concepts of writers workshop.
- They partnered with the Austin Independent School District to provide, two full-day professional development sessions to where their consultant from the HTWP and a language arts curriculum specialist from the district trained K-2nd grade teachers on writers’ workshop as this method of teaching was new to most of the teachers in the sessions.
- The trainers of the professional development sessions modeled lesson ands and teachers watched writers’ workshop mini-lessons conducted by their colleagues.
- Caroline co-taught with a first grade teacher for a week long unit.
- Their consultant from the HTWP co-taught with a first grade teacher once a week for 6 weeks.
- Their first grade team members provided peer observations frequently.
What did they accomplish?
- They have helped teachers change their mindset about what is writing through lengthy conversations among colleagues about how letter formation and handwriting is an element of instruction outside of the writers’ workshop. They are working on valuing the production of our emergent writers.
- They celebrated the writing products of their youngest writers with writing displays and held celebratory publishing parties in K-2 in which parents and community members were invited to read students published work
- The built a community that continually supports teachers
- Caroline has planned a full day planning session with their constant from the HTWP.
- Caroline and their consultant from the HTWP have invited all K-5th grade teachers to attend two trainings in which the goal of the trainings is for teachers to create at least a two week unit based on a genre study framework.
- Some of the teachers at Perez Elementary school submitted proposals to present at professional conferences regarding the writers’ workshop methods they are using their classroom. They hoped they will grow many teacher leaders.
- Several of the teachers have been accepted to the Heart of Texas Writers Project Summer Training Program, which is part of the National Writing Project to further their knowledge and training in the teaching of writers.
What are their ideas for improvement?
- Peer Observation: continue more focused peer observations in K-2nd grades that include debriefs to allow for support especially in content focused coaching and utilize explicit protocols that involve pre-conferences, observation, and post conferences
- Evaluation of Student Products: Allow for planning time to continue to create and improve the rubric for K-2nd grades and then create the differentiated rubric for 3rd-5th graders. Further discussion and planning should occur regarding language of choice and building opportunities to create variety in audience choice.
- Buy-in: some teachers were ready and willing to try new ways of teaching based on the training they received. Some teachers had more difficulty understanding the need for writers workshop in their classroom. They would like to create a shared mission to allow students to guide learning and implement responsive teaching practices.
- Planning: More planning time was needed to create units with culturally relevant texts to give students experience in a variety of genres. They are thinking the planning component with culturally-relevant texts might need to occur as part of their professional development days.
- Collaboration with Biliteracy Committee: They will work with the biliteracy committee to add writers’ workshop into the biliteracy framework as an essential pedagogical element in each classroom whether the classroom is a dual language classroom or not. They would like to define how they use language in the writers’ workshop that promotes biliteracy.
- Empowering Students as Multilingual Writers with Writer’s Workshop
- 5 Ways Culturally Responsive Teaching Benefits Learners
- Fostering Identity Safety in Your Classroom
As students embarked on “the Best of BV” they strengthened writing skills, practiced responsibility and accountability. Their plan was to work with the arts council to empower students to cover local sports, art, academics, business, city government, events, nature, hiking, and personal topics on social media. This program set out to expand academic opportunities for students while improving community relations. As the students become progressive storytellers, they would also examine their community and their assumptions about it.
What were the goals of this project and how were they achieved?
The Goals of the Best of Buena Vista were to expand the current program of weekly video announcements made by and for the student body of Parry McCluer High School (PMHS). This goal was met through the Facebook edition of the Blue Library. It is where the Best of Buena Vista stories are published, read, and commented on by the school and local community. The project team created opportunities and experiences for the students to interact in an intergenerational setting allowing them to learn from community elders. Student led interviews allowed for interaction with community elders.
The team also wanted to disrupt the negative small-town mindset by engaging students in interviewing adults about their positive contributions to the community. This goal was achieved in every single story published.
The project also aimed for students to benefit economically by increasing writing skills; exercising responsibility and accountability; and improving their storytelling and communication skills. They were also very successful with this goal as students wrote articles, met deadlines, mentored one another. While doing this, they managed coordinating interviews and and publishing articles. The program was successful despite interruptions due to COVID-19.
What did the project participants learn?
The team determined students were successful with little assistance from the mentors. Since the students were prepared with questions and knew what to do it was clear that eliminating this role would help the program. They reevaluated and began using student “assistant editors.” Their main responsibility was determining what stories should be written and which students would write them as well as working with the “reporters” to edit stories turned in. They oversaw the entire process for one week’s worth of stories.
With this new plan and practice in place, they began to present to the entire student body. During presentations to individual English classes, there was a need to combat some students’ negative points of view. but many offered the response, “I didn’t know that about Buena Vista.”
What was the impact of this project?
Despite COVID-19 challenges there was overwhelmingly positive feedback about the program, from students and community members alike.
One student interviewed the town historian. He was so impressed by the experience that he chose to donate his payment to the scholarship fund in the historian’s name. Many students acknowledged how nerve wracking it was to talk to the person they were assigned. Whenever they finished, they always had a smile on their face and pointed out several things they had learned. The intergenerational interactions were key to the success of this program. Students, parents, and community members consistently liked and followed the page when each story was published.
A local supporter of the program, Dawn Dickinson, wrote about the community’s response in this way:
“The Blue Library has been a meaningful, informative asset to our school and community. Stories of people and local memories have served as a bridge to the past and allowed our student body to react to our city’s strong heritage. Student interaction with people who can share local history and lore has given our young writers a new perspective on what’s good about our small ciity…..
This grant, coupled with an enthusiastic leader, has awakened a new generation to the positive aspects of our beautiful city. The timeliness of this positivity is perfect!”
Explore Community Based Learning
LAMusArt’s Playmaking project approached their goals with a lot of ambition and spirit. Their program was an exciting one, aimed at engaging students ages 9 – 11 in the fundamentals of playwriting over the course of 10 weeks, culminating in a full scale performance of the student written plays by adult actors. It can be extremely difficult to schedule several adult actors to appear in one place at any one time, but in Los Angeles this difficulty can be compounded. So the fact that they were able to get 11 kids plays up and running cast with professional actors is something that on it’s own should be applauded.
But before we get into what they accomplished, let’s take a dive into what goals they set out to accomplish.
1) to give underserved students in their East Los Angeles communities a public opportunity to experience success and recognition through artistic expression, authorship, and performance regardless of race or gender.
2) to aid the growth and development of each student’s important life skills, including their cognitive and emotional evolution, and their creative, academic, social, and behavioral progress by way of artistic opportunities.
3) to validate each student’s unique voice by giving them an opportunity to tell and see their own stories about their respective experiences.
4) to bridge the gap between our community and the life-affirming power of the arts, which they’ve been traditionally barred from due to barriers like language, finances, and exposure.
5) to provide students with the academic attention they lack in public schools, including inclusive and enriching creative programs and better student/adult ratios.
4) to increase student learning in fundamental theater concepts and practices.
Now, a number of these goals seem a bit hard to quantify. Many of which won’t be fully known until long after the student has left the program. But, you might be surprised by the results that the parents are reporting. But we’ll get to that shortly.
So how did they accomplish their goals?
Over the course of 10 weeks, each student kept a notebook of their weekly writing exercises, vocabulary lessons, and understanding of key concepts. Each student was able to grasp these exercises, as proven by the completion of their original plays. Although some plays were more complex than others, every student completed a play with at least two characters and a central conflict between those characters. The driving idea that was used to emphasize dramatic storytelling was “Want. Conflict. Change.” They started the course by establishing that every character must have a strong want or wish. To move the story forward, they put characters with different wants in a scene together to establish a high-stakes conflict, in which the characters want to get in the way of each other. To resolve the story, they needed a change, from either one or both characters, or an outside force. The idea of “Want. Conflict. Change.” was interpreted in different ways by each student, resulting in wildly different, but entirely vibrant and entertaining works. And having personally attended the event I can say that what resulted was a wildly surreal night of shows. Even though their concepts were simple… or often nonsensical (like the boy and his friend, and a slice of pizza) what they demonstrated was unfiltered creativity. It’s not often that playwrights get to write without self consciousness, and while it’s doubtful that they approached it without self doubt — the final product betrayed a sense of fun, unfettered imagination, and clear encouragement to tell the story they want to tell.
So where are the students now and how are they doing?
According to reports from the parents, the students have seen vast improvement in all areas that the program set out to address.
- 100% said they would recommend the program to others;
- 100% said that the elementary school their student attends does not offer a program similar to Playmaking, which tells us the program is unique and needed in the community;
- 100% said their student’s literacy and writing skills developed over the 10 week course;
- 100% said their student’s listening skills developed over the 10 week course; and
- 100% said their collaboration and creativity skills developed over the 10 week course.
Now, I’m no math teacher, but 100% returns across the board seems to me to be pretty good results. If not pretty great.
But no program is without its challenges. How can this one improve?
The most notable challenge was the coordination of rehearsal time for all eleven groups of adult actors and directors. It was difficult to fit adequate rehearsal time for all eleven plays into a two week period, causing them to schedule additional rehearsals with actors and a prolonged tech period in the theater space.
Another challenge they faced was giving the composer sufficient time to compose an original song for each play. Because the songs and plays were not written until Play Day, the composer was unable to read the plays and lyrics until a day before the first rehearsal, giving barely enough time to compose a new piece. They believe this can be improved by having the composer present on Play Day to aid the students in writing their lyrics. This will also give the composer a better idea of what the student has in mind stylistically for their song.
Completely surmountable challenges aside, this program seems to have legs that are going to carry it into the future and help improve the confidence, writing, and collaboration skills for any students involved.
Connecting lessons learned in classrooms to real world applications is one of the great challenges in teaching. Teachers and administrators at Harrison High School in Evansville, Indiana have come up with an innovative new classroom model to address that challenge.
What is the CFCO?
They have created the Center for Family and Community Outreach (CFCO), which aims to use student skills (built around academic content) to create documents, multimedia, events, presentations, and more for over twenty non-profit organizations in their community.
Educators are able to connect students with members of the non-profit community, creating a symbiotic relationship wherein the student gains valuable real-life skills and the non-profits get a free service. Not only is it easier to engage teenage minds directly if they feel a sense of involvement and contribution towards the betterment of their community, it also helps teens build invaluable skills for the transition into their adult lives.
How can service learning support non-profits and drive engagement for learners?
There are many service learning projects around the country, but few, if any, that drives content in the classroom around producing products for non-profits. The CFCO model has elements of numerous trends in education, such as:
- project-based learning
- student-centered learning
- and new technology,
but is truly innovative for the level of engagement it produces for students.
This program has seven distinct goals.
- Research the non-profit groups and social issues in students’ communities.
- Hold ‘Round Table’ discussions with local experts on special topic issues using the latest online literature and information.
- Tour the non-profit facilities and volunteer with local organizations and events.
- Collaborate with leaders on project ideas and write formal proposals
- Use project based learning and technology to design and create materials
- “Pitch” their ideas through benchmarks and final presentations
- Openly communicate with the community through blogging and video reflections.
Importance of Community Support
Students are immersed in the tangible application of skills from the classroom, and since students know what they are doing will have a real impact on their community, it is readily apparent how seriously they take it. The program has relied on a tremendous amount of community support and is currently in it’s third year of operation. Fortunately they continue to draw in new non-profit partners based on the satisfaction of their initial partners and publicity the projects have generated for the mission of non-profits in Evansville.
What is the impact?
So where are the teachers and students of Harrison High School now, a year into the program? Reports have come back with very positive results, including:
- Students have a sense of ownership and engagement in their work as well as their community.
- Non-profit data shows that the community’s organizations have much higher perception of the schools and teens’ abilities after working with the CFCO.
Moving forward they plan on moving the program to a half day model, to increase student exposure, as well as continuing to nurture community involvement and contribution.
With such an easily adaptable model, educators around the country should be looking to Evansville, and Harrison High School in particular. How they proceed could very well dictate how dozens of similar programs pop up in the future. Community involvement and concrete links between lessons learned in the classroom and real world applications are key in both advancing education as well as building a student body that is invested in the present and future of their community. While the saying “It takes a village to raise a child,” has been politicized as of late, I think we can all agree that fostering a child’s investment and involvement in his or her village can only lead to positive results.
For more information
- What is Service Learning?
- NSSE Results 2013 (teachingresearcher.wordpress.com)
- Creating Space for Marginalized Voices: Re-focusing Service Learning on Community Change and Social Justice (knrajlibrary.wordpress.com)
- Online Student is Set on ReStore-ing Ethics (blogs.msbcollege.edu)
As we wrote earlier this year, “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.” The multi-year project Opening Classrooms to Close the Knowledge Gap‘s goal was to enhance students’ ability to develop literacy across the diverse content areas. In the first post, we shared how teachers at School for the Future in New York City had addressed students’ ability to work autonomously through Peer Assistance and Review seminars that took place after school.
In this post, we’ll look at how the project worked to build a school wide culture of Teacher-Led Professional Learning Communities.
A professional study group around lesson analysis
To support the goal of building this teacher-led culture, School for the Future teachers engaged in a professional study group around a shared text, John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers. This book challenged their thinking and pushed the teachers into incorporating many of the exercises into their own coursework. A specific example from the book gave instructors a simple three-step process to analyze their own lessons by looking specifically at the learning intentions.
- What is the outcome I am tracking progress toward?
- How do I track progress toward that outcome?
- How do students track progress toward that outcome?
In establishing the learning intentions the teachers looked at two things; skills necessary for participation in a democratic society and skills necessary for success in secondary and post secondary school.
Improving feedback on persuasive writing
What did teachers choose to focus on? Persuasive writing.
Although the teachers understood the need to zero in on writing performance, the students were somewhat harder to reach. To assist, teachers established another simple method of tracking student progress that included a common rubric that was used on every persuasive writing task and an online grading platform accessible to students, teachers, and parents.
Every participant teacher constructed a video that encapsulated how participating in the study group enhanced their professional practice. During the first year, only 11th and 12th grade teachers participated while in the second year it was expanded to include 9th and 10th grade teachers.
After the first year each of the participating instructors constructed a video encapsulating what they gained from participation and how the study group improved their professional practice. In this example, Scott Chesler, Inclusion Teacher, explains the impact of the teacher led professional development community.
In the videos teachers spoke how the group led them to alter how they gave feedback to students, leading the students to get to know more about themselves as writers. Teachers noted in their annual report that they are attempting this change from the bottom up rather than the top down. For example, teachers like Stephanie Van Duinen (9th grade social studies) asked students for feedback about the course and then analyzed the information. When she learned that a signifigant group of students needed more feedback, she worked with her professional learning community members to form an action plan for providing “in the moment feedback” so that students could use the information to improve their work as soon as possible.
This was a highly rewarding experience as it forced me to reexamine my beliefs about my own personal practice and think not so much about my methods of teaching but about their effectiveness.
-Stephanie Van Duinen, 9th Grade Social Studies Teacher
School of the Future, Manhatten, NY
One teacher reported that the course helped him realize that student expectations have a high effect on performance so he reimagined his course to track individual student goals, regularly meeting with the students as he coached them forward. Jessica Candlin, 11th Grade English Teacher, presented how she used commenting features in Google Docs to support enhanced feedback for student writing in the slides below.
Teacher-led collaboration creates powerful connections
Although there was a certain amount of trepidation when new teachers were introduced into the program during the second year, the collaboration ultimately led to powerful connections between educators. Teachers reported they could have started earlier in the year to complete the project. While it seemed like March would be an ideal start time, as most teachers have “settled” into their schedules, it made it difficult for them to get their video materials together in time for the deadline. In the future, the teacher led professional learning community will be able to draw on the important learning experiences from this project and continue making an impact on student literacy.
Explore the following articles about teacher-led learning communities to learn more.
- Redefining Professional Development as Teacher-Led Professional Learning – NWEA 2013
- Teachers, Learners, Leaders – ASTD 2010
- When Teachers are the Experts – Education Week 2009
Why does this matter in real life?
One of the chief complaints you hear from students is “How can I actually apply what I’m learning to the real world?” And while there is no helping Algebra in that department, there are a myriad of other subjects that can benefit from a dose of real world interaction. This is what the Digital Art Afterschool Studio is doing. It’s taking a cue from larger real world curriculum programs, such as Career Oriented Curriculum and focusing on digital artistry and community involvement.
What is Career Oriented Curriculum and how can it benefit students?
According to District Administration, a website focused on creative solutions for school districts: “A summer job for a 16-year-old typically involves serving coffee, scooping ice cream, or babysitting the neighborhood children. Some students at Miami-Dade County (Fla.) Public Schools, however, spent their summer vacation designing a children’s Web site for the city of Miami Beach. An increasing number of students are finding themselves mingling among professionals with internships in local businesses—the culmination of a work-based learning curriculum.” These real world experiences are invaluable to students as they do two things:
- Reality Check Experiences like this show the students the real life application for what they are learning.
- On the Job Experience Projects like the digital after school studio create professional connections that go beyond graduation and help move our students forward professionally.
One organization with a stellar track record in this area is the National Academy Foundation (NAF). Since 1982 they have worked tirelessly with teachers and schools to create and implement career-oriented curriculum. Schools that work with the NAF will frequently require an internship with a local business before allowing the student to graduate. According to NAF:
“Over 90 percent of NAF students graduate from high school, and four out of five students continue to college or postsecondary education. Of those students, 52 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.”
How do you do it?
So how are the teachers and students at Overton High School, where the Digital Art Studio program has been in full swing for two years, applying the idea of career oriented curriculum to their specific needs?
According to their proposal “The after-school Digital Arts Studio program … enables students to build professional-level skills, as they develop their artistic portfolios. … The students will be introduced to client-based projects where they are expected to develop a working relationship with the client resulting in a marketable product.”
The program operates similar to a small graphic design studio. Taking place three times a week for two hours after school, students have the opportunity to really put work into a portfolio, and increase the possibility of scholarships and if a professional internship is tacked on, some AP credit. Projects are introduced from the needs of real world clients who the students and teachers reach out to. The projects can be anything from helping a local business create a print add to designing a website for a church event. This helps create crucial bridges between the school and the community around them, ultimately strengthening both.
This program has had to start small, accommodating only a few students at first. The principal and instructors consult with local ad agencies to create an interview process for students to simulate a job interview. The students selected work together to create a marketing campaign to alert the community to their presence and start soliciting clients. It is their hope that this model will, after a couple years, become self-sustaining.
What is the impact of a Career Oriented Curriculum?
So where are the students that have already passed through this program? Here are just a few of the success stories.
- Olivia Campbell, a second year participant, was awarded a full scholarship to attend University of Tennessee’s summer program for her Digital Art exhibited in the West Tennessee Regional Art competition last winter.
- Darion Beasley, King Hobson, and Maurico Farmer (all second year participants) were selected as three of the thirty-three students chosen to be represented in the Frist’s Museum’s exhibition Tennessee’s Top Young Artists.
- This year’s West Tennessee Regional Art Competition just released their awards and participants currently in the program won Best Graphic Design work, Best Photographic work, and placed in several other categories.
- One of the program’s participants, Cesar Pita, was just offered a $66,000 scholarship, the Presidential Scholarship, from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, one of the finest art colleges.
And these are just a few stories of success as this program continues to grow.
It’s clear from the work that NAF does and how Overton High School applies it to their own program that career-oriented curriculum puts students at a huge advantage over their peers that do not participate. By giving students an education grounded in reality, rather than existing in the abstract on the white board, we strengthen their chances of succeeding in the real world. Forging professional connections early on only increases the chance of future employment and education. By also giving students a personal stake in how their work is perceived by the community at large we give them the opportunity to push themselves to create something they can be proud of.
Learn More with these Related Links
- Career and Technical Education: Research
- Linking Learning to Life
- Career-Oriented Curriculum Delivers Critical Skills
- Proof is in: Career-oriented education works
The Bigger Picture on Holistic Writing
What is Holistic Writing?
So what is holistic writing and how can we apply it to our classrooms? Holistic writing is about mastering the art of looking at the big picture in its entirety before even putting pen to paper. It’s starting with the sum rather than the individual parts. Plot, characterization, grammar, cadence, all of these things are extremely important to learn individually; what’s more important is learning to use them in tandem. Even if every part is working fine on its own, if they don’t fit into the larger whole, the machine doesn’t work and the writing suffers for it.
By changing how we approach teaching writing, we can impact how students comprehend material.
How do you do it?
So what can educators do to integrate holistic writing in the classroom?
- Learn and foster a new writing process: This can include cross-genre analysis of texts, incorporating new media into their writing assignments, and fostering a collaborative writing process.
- Require all students to write extensively: By writing frequently and for many purposes, learners can be comfortable writing extended prose in elementary school and onward, setting them up for success in college. Schools can aid this process by making sure they hire excellent writing teachers as well as creating a curricula that fosters writing across all content areas at every grade level.
How can Holistic Writing be integrated in a Chicano Studies class?
Teachers at Valley High School a public school, with a predominately Latino population, were awarded a McCarthey Dressman grant to develop a Holistic Approach to Writing. This school is in a high poverty area where most students are English Language Learners and close to 90% of them receive free lunches. Valley High School Educators decided to address student gaps in literacy by taking the holistic writing approach and integrating it into their Chicano studies class.
The course is about the Chicano experience in relation to the following themes: history, identity, labor, gender and culture. While this course focuses on research and writing it takes a holistic method to teaching and learning. Students create murals, linoleum prints, and spoken word along with other forms of art. Each art piece is supported by research, a works cited page and thesis. Research skills are strengthened along with the student’s writing. In addition, students are required to construct a thesis surrounding their artwork, backed up with cited research. Instead of teaching writing and research separately, research lessons were taught throughout the year. Students were evaluated both on the artwork itself and the research that went into it.
What is the impact of Holistic Writing integration?
While initially it served eighty students, portions of the lessons bled over into history courses as the program moved forward. Over the three year project, they will reach 600 students and over 3,000 students will view their murals. Collaboration and teacher training has been a key factor in creating curriculum for this project. In the beginning of the project, it was necessary for the teachers to research the quality of papers at the college freshman level. Using what they learned, they developed a common rubric for the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE).
Their program has proved very effective. The Chicano studies instructor accomplished this by collaborating with the English instructor. He brought a sense of structure and form, while the English teacher helped the students understand style. According to the report, the students participating in this method have a 79% CASHEE passing rate, as opposed to the school’s average of 59%. The students have used a multi-disiplinary approach to Chicano studies including creating pieces of art (sugar skulls, day of the dead altars, murals painted with both acrylic and aerosol paints). When this method was later applied to the World History class in the second year of implementation they found the same thing happened, 79% vs 59%. The results speak for themselves.
If students are given the proper tools to excel, they will. The great thing about the holistic writing approach is that its reach far exceeds that of simple literary skills. It helps create a broader lens in which the student can view the world, their work, and ultimately themselves.
Learn more about Holistic Writing
Writing Now – pg. 4
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.
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.
[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”
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.
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
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