Joe Moore, principal of Jay High School, and Scott Walker, assistant principal of Mt. Blue High School, pose for a picture after completing their first year in the WMEC literacy initiative. Both administrators participated with their teams during the training and spearheaded the implementation in their respective high schools. They have graciously agreed to provide a written reflection on the process in their respective buildings.
We begin with a reflection by Joe Moore who wrote on the implementation of the literacy initiative at Jay High School. His narrative is written from the administrator's point of view, including interviews from teachers and students alike. This is followed by Scott Walker's reflection on the implementation process at Mt. Blue High School. His focus is on the change process and the team's reactions - including quotes from team members.
The Jay High School literacy team for 2008-2009 has been comprised of seven individuals; the principal, two social studies teachers, an English intervention teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher and a business education teacher. The team met with literacy consultant, Darlene Bassett, over the year in four structured full day workshops, four structured on-site coaching sessions and presenting to staff members in sister schools during half-day staff development sessions on literacy strategies. The project included readings, implementation of content literacy strategies, consultation through coaching, data gathering on student achievement and peer coaching.
I have been really impressed with how the teachers involved at Jay High School took off using the strategies. They approached this work with a flair for the cooperative, collegial spirit of doing what works best for students. The teachers have dialoged together and promoted the literacy work openly with the staff. Members of the literacy team have presented strategies at six of our monthly staff meetings in great detail. This sharing has been well received and provided a good hook to build the next cohort at Jay High School.
I have seen teachers use the literacy strategies on a daily basis by incorporating them into their daily instruction. The staff has adopted strategies that fit their particular instructional style and content areas. They have bravely moved from the traditional, sometimes mundane, to strategies that better fit the interactive, fast paced world of our contemporary adolescent learners. The teachers have also incorporated the literacy strategies into technology formats, which really allow students to take off in using these strategies. The use of technology really connects to the contemporary world of our high school students.
I chose to talk to some of our students about the impact of these strategies on their class work and on their learning. I interviewed a number of students in the classes of the literacy team teachers and asked the questions:
1. What has (Mr./Mrs.____) done to help you improve your reading in class or in your
2. How do you feel about the reading strategies (Mr./Mrs.____) uses or has explained to you as
you use these strategies in class?
I selected strategies I knew teachers had introduced to students and in some instances taught extensively to their students.
A strategy that most of the literacy team teachers utilized was the Four Square/Frayer Model -
(see the diagram to the left). This is a vocabulary exercise where a term is written in the center of a diagram, students have four identified spaces to write a.) definitions of the term, b.) characteristics of the word, c.) examples of the word, and d.) non-examples. The nice thing about this concept is it is content neutral, it can be used across subjects.
In my interviews with students I heard the following comments about the Frayer:
"We had real things to identify with our reading. I like having things spelled out in a way that helps me make sense of the stuff. Mr. B. puts a word in the middle of the sheet and we find definitions, features and other stuff for it. I like to see things in a diagram. My grades on the quizzes and tests have gone up! I think it makes a difference in my learning to see new words organized like this."
"I like working in groups with the vocabulary words and the categories. This is a lot better than just studying the words and definitions. I like having the examples so we have a chance to learn the words better. Mr. S. leaves the diagram on the smart board for us so we won't lose our place in getting the work done."
Another literacy strategy that was commonly used by all teachers on the team was the GIST (description follows).
2. Teacher selects number of key concepts in paragraphs.
3. Students underline or use post its to identify key concepts as they read the
4. At the end of the paragraph, students write a sentence using the key concepts.
5. Statements are combined into final summary.
6. Pair/Share is an excellent format to begin the process.
This strategy has the teacher actively reading portions (usually paragraphs of a text) and stopping to highlight key concepts of the text with students. Students can identify key words and concepts as they follow along. The students play an active role in sharing their ideas of key words and concepts through strategies like Think/Pair/Share. Students seemed to like the interactive nature of the teacher reading and giving them th opportunity to share their thinking. The activity was engaging them in the reading process and teaching them to break down complex texts into smaller parts. Here is what I head from selected students about the GIST:
"When Mrs. B. reads the paragraph to us and we select some words we think are important I feel like I'm paying attention better. We get to post our key words on the word wall and see what others kids have picked for words. I get surprised when we agree so much on the important words. We always have fun creating sentences out of our words, it is like a story to the story we are reading."
"Mr. H. starts by reading the book to us. I think this helps me to get the history stuff better because when I read it I don't get it. I like to follow along and then listen to Mr. H. tell us what is important. We can work in groups to share what we think is important, then we put the ideas together. This helps me because I can talk with other kids and I don't have to just read to myself and daydream."
Teachers used a variety of strategies to dig into the prior knowledge of students related to content readings. Literacy team members used these strategies mainly as pre-reading exercises to help students set the stage for text readings. It helped to give students some confidence in their ability to grasp subject matter. Here are some comments about prior knowledge activities from students:
"I like it when Mr. B. lets us list what we know about science or any vocabulary words (brainstorming). He asks to give our own ideas in our own words. I don't feel so stupid when I can see what I already know."
"Mrs. D. lets us share what we all know about presonal finance like pay stubs, taxes, and sales receipts. Listening to each other is important. It is pretty cool to see what we all know. Mrs. D. tells us how our ideas help her teach what we need to know."
Literacy team members used a "word sort" as a vocabulary tool. I saw the word sort used as a pre-reading strategy. A neat element to see is how teachers incorporated this word sort into technology. One teacher of social studies would e-mail word sorts as homework to students. The teacher computerized these word sorts so students could manipulate the words into categories. The teacher then included the vocabulary in the lessons and required their their use in projects and tests. The students liked the interactive nature of the word sorts and the ability to be creative in how they assembled words for summaries of their readings. The following are student comments on their learning from word sorts:
"In Mr. S.'s room we play a great vocabulary game. He picks categories for us and comes up with a bunch of vocab words that deal with government. We have to choose the categories for the words. This is fun! We get to compare our categories. I like to make stories out of the words and it is easy to study this way. I keep all the sorts in a folder on my computer so I use them to study."
"I like using the laptop for the words sorts that Mr. S. uses in class. The vocab used to be boring but now Mr. S. sends them to us using our school e-mail. I can do the sorts better on the computer, it is like a game. I think most students like this because they words are easier to learn when we can take our time on the laptops at home."
I had a math teacher who chose a unique project of working with the two other math instructors at our high school to come up with a list of twenty-five common math vocabulary words (based or R. Morazano's work on aligning assessment language with instructional language) that they would concentrate on teaching and reinforcing during the year. This started in September and carried on throughout the year. I checked in with the three teachers peiodically during the year and conducted an interview with them in April of 2009 to see how things went with the project. I also interviewed a few math students. These are some quotes from the interviews.
Mr. F., math teacher, "It made sense for us to agree on a common vocabulary in our math courses to help reinforce what we teach. I found that by the second semester the students were actually anticipating the use of vocabulary words in class. We selected terms that are common among math subjects, such as, operations, functions, equations, summations, etc.. Student reaction was positive. I saw grades improve for some marginal students, maybe it was becasue these definitions of vocabulary made more sense to them."
Mrs. K., math teacher, "I used a maath word wall in my classroom. I put up the common math terms and referenced them as they came up during lessons. It got to the point where students would reference the word wall whenever words came up. I gave students extra credit when they used the common vocabulary words in a math related sentence on quizzes and tests. This was a great motivator and reinforced some writing and reading skills."
Emily, a student, " The math words turned out to be fun. We did a word wall in class and it helped me feel better about math. I could define the words and I took my time to break down some fo the equations thinking about how the word definitions fit into what we were doing."
The real plus of this literacy team project was the collegiality of the teachers they worked together. The Jay team also stepped up in presenting literacy strategies at every staff meeting. They tackled this project with a real positive attitude and a willingness to share.
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Literacy Work at Mt. Blue High School, The Teachers’ Perspective
Scott Walker, C.A.A.
Mt. Blue High School
Assistant Principal, Athletic Director
The literacy team at Mt. Blue High School began our work in August with expectations that ranged widely from none to idealistically all encompassing. Our team was made up of seven participants including an assistant principal, three English teachers, a math teacher, a social studies teacher, and a special education teacher. The group has much in common, but specifically for the purposes of our literacy work they have predominantly ninth graders (at least at some point during the day). This group worked with Darlene Bassett through the course of the school year in four full-day training sessions, four observation and coaching sessions, and two “field trip” dates where we worked in classrooms with our counterparts from Jay High School.
As stated previously, the expectations from our team were across the spectrum. Many felt a great sense of trepidation about being observed by other team members and moreover with the prospect of sharing our findings and strategies with the remainder of the staff. We have a large staff comparatively (in excess of seventy faculty members) and to present our work to them brought about some obstacles. After the first training and coaching sessions behind us, however, I witnessed a perceptible change in our team’s perception. There was a level of comfort that became pervasive with growing confidence developed through hours of interaction with each other and with the literacy team from Jay High School. According to one of the English teachers at Mt. Blue, “I love the cohort model of this program and the collaboration that's happened with the Jay teachers.” As the same teacher addressed our other area of concern (full staff sharing) the change became palpable, “I feel like our staff has responded kindly and positively to our efforts and that they are receptive to continuing in this direction.”
I realize that these seem like such small steps given where we are now, but looking through our eyes in August, we had real doubt that we were going to have success when we came together as a full staff. The social studies teacher on our team added to the positive reflections about our work with the entire staff, “I was very pleased with how well it [the literacy work] was received by the rest of the staff. I feel that many staff members are trying to incorporate some literacy strategies into their classrooms.” Again these comments are light years ahead of where we were in August.
I think I would attribute much of the nervousness on our part about this process to the unknown. We all had to step out of our comfort zones to a degree, whether it involved having an unfamiliar colleague observe your class, or the attempt to implement a literacy strategy in an applied math class. Regardless of where we started, the partially finished product demonstrates a value to this collaborative work that was not viewed as possible early on. A simple, but powerful outcome came from the special education teacher on our team, “we have been able to integrate a few strategies very effectively into our various content classes.” She goes on to say, “I found the strategies themselves easy to implement but at the same time very effective.” That fear of the unknown is nowhere to be found now.
When searching through our notes from the training sessions and reflecting on the work we did, many teachers had wonderfully positive views on the format in which we did our work. Another English teacher noted, “The most positive aspects of this work were having uninterrupted time to concentrate and work with my colleagues from other departments on a common goal [and] having the opportunity to collaborate with another school's team that is a few steps ahead of MBHS's team.” This honest appraisal of our progress and the methods is most valuable. Furthermore, the team shared praise for Darlene and her ability to bring the two somewhat disparate groups together toward a common ground, “I feel like Darlene has been an invaluable resource for our team. Her knowledge, enthusiasm, and instruction has been a great model for us all.”
With a year under our belt, the literacy team at Mt. Blue looks to the future with much more confidence about our progress down the literacy pathways. The obstacles of the unknown and the uncomfortable are certainly behind us, and we look forward to working through the next steps with new team members and more progress shared across the curriculum.