Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Melding a lit program from New Mexico with Vermont?+

How does this success transfer to a rural Vermont high school?
In December I will return from my sabbatical to teach high school history at the public school that I have been teaching in for sixteen years. There are a few big ideas that I definitely need to bring from this literacy program in New Mexico to both my own teaching and the newly shaped literacy program in the high school. I have never worked with someone as organized as the director of this program.  She has to be.  She constantly updates changes in a daily school schedule and her volunteers' schedules in order to guarantee consistent student contact with reading and writing. Every lesson has to be organized so that students and mentors can follow simple directions without misinterpretation.  Each day must follow specified routine.  This is the foundation for building a supportive community between school and everyone else. I see a great value in bringing organization to my class curricula that will encourage collaboration, differentiated instruction and individual attention to each student.  Most of the lessons I currently teach are not written for a general public to interpret and my routines are subject to change. I am very responsible for the learning and the teaching in the class and it is difficult for me to step aside, allowing substitutes or students or others to take over.  I would like to develop a role that mentors and study advisors could actively engage in.  To develop these meaningful roles, I think it would benefit me to develop easy accessible routines for learning both online and in paper format. Once organized, my time would be spent modeling application of content while advisors or mentors would help students practice routine assignments.  Weekly assignments, consistently utilizing a simple format, allow for purposeful assistance towards incremental student improvement. The change for me would be to give up the time I spend monitoring student work on assignments to spending more time reviewing student work, instantly responding to skill level or depth of content and then helping them choosing what area of improvement they would agree to work on.  Students would  utilize class time for revision and editing with supervised help. 

In my traditional teaching role responsibilities included teaching content, developing assignments and student activity.  I graded students on number of assignments completed, averaged with scores on tests.  Some students finish faster than others, some students will speed through their work to enjoy time spent accomplishing little.  It has been hard for me to keep students actively engaged for every minute of class time.  What I learned from this literacy program is that the first routines students engage in are the most important for assessment and then as a teacher I need to overplan additional tasks.  Students engage because there is a degree of choice in what they choose to accomplish.  The last ten minutes of the program involve enrichment and depth of knowledge.  One weekly gaming day  also provides an incentive to complete a task.  Students are expected to be engaged and should be scored on effort not necessarily number of final products. For my purpose, if the enrichment gave students a second opportunity for improvement or editing then their overall grade should be reflective of this measured result.   I have learned that it is possible to base my entire grading system on % of active engagement instead of total assignments accomplished.  A student who needs more time to accurately accomplish a task would receive a grade comparable with a student who finishes tasks with ease but chooses an enrichment to augment their research.  In this case, no project is necessarily complete, it could always evolve into something richer. 

A literacy lab is a perfect place for students to work on skills that would also be expected of them in their core subjects.  Reading comprehension, especially of document or quantitative writings (instructional, non fiction, etc.) is necessary and transferable to all content areas if all teachers adhere to a minimal set of similar practices and assessments. I have discovered that reading comprehension accelerates if students can work on one concern or miscue at a time.  If work on that particular issue, (punctuation or text structure of informational text) is isolated, practiced and then is measured, students have a purpose for success.  Pairing students with a mentor to work as a team on isolated issue validates and guarantees that the skills of literacy are important throughout life.  Every single volunteer paired with one of the 92 students in our program absolutely love the feeling of accomplishment and express genuine appreciation of the school system that allows this relationship to exist.  The self esteem and confidence that students and mentors develop together becomes the incentive for meeting higher expectations as a year progresses.  It is important that the work of the literacy lab results in incremental progress in the core classrooms and it is essential that teachers believe that the system is actually working to help them.

I absolutely love the rapport with the community, the one to one learning and the weekly team assessment of student skill development.  I miss the creativity and spontaneity that at times, overwhelmed my former classroom.  But I believe mentors have this to offer as well.  Facetime chats with authors or face to face meetings with local authors can bring some excitement to a program.  Mentors here bring licensed dogs from the Pet Outreach programs. Students love reading to a dog, or petting a dog.  I could see mentors having a day where they share something special that brings literacy to life.  And of course giving students the opportunity to develop or present to mentors is very powerful too.  By having an organized literacy program, core teachers could enjoy their own spontaneity and creative classrooms without worrying that they are giving up content or skill development.  Literacy focus can bring back that team effort to teaching.

This program depends on resources from several literacy programs.  It also depends on teachers’ collective experiences with texts and suggestions from core teachers.  If, for example, the English department notices a particular miscue that is setting back a majority of students, the literacy lab can adjust to address this concern. The program at my high school would need to access more online tools or resources than are available to elementary students here in New Mexico.  Jerry John’s Basic Literacies and Susan Lenski’s Reading Strategies are reliable for starting literacy labs or classroom supplements. is a great resource for literacy in all core subjects and the resources are useful to parents as well.
This write up was edited while perusing writings by Daniel Williams. AKA- Ask the cognitive scientist. link to latest column here

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