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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reflections on Literacy Work at LFHS by Michelle Brann, Literacy Team Chair

This school year marked my fourth year on our school’s staff Literacy Team.  I remember being asked to be a member of the new team and attending our first professional development workshop only to experience a moment of panic – was I going to have to learn how to teach students to read?! I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was tempted to excuse myself from the team that day. I had majored in history in college and only made my way in to teaching on a whim – my school had a January term which offered the opportunity to student teach for a month. At the urging of my mother I decided to try it, and to my great joy, realized that I loved it. However, in my mind, what I loved was teaching history, NOT reading.  I distinctly remember thinking, “if I had wanted to teach reading, I would have become an elementary school teacher.” So it became a very pleasant surprise to me, after deciding to stick it out a little longer to see what this “literacy stuff” was all about, that I soon realized that teaching literacy is teaching students not how to read, but how to think – my goal as a high school history teacher to begin with. The teaching methods I learned through the literacy team have helped me immensely to help my students reach that goal.

I experienced success with many of the teaching practices I learned with the team almost immediately. During my first two years on the team, strategies such as “QAR” (Questioning-Answering Strategies for Children, Taffy Raphael) and “REQUEST” (Improving Reading Comprehension Through Reciprocal Questioning, Manzo) changed the way I asked my students to think and had a significant affect on their academic performance. Through the training we received on the Literacy Team, and books like Reading for Understanding, by Shoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz, I was able to add to my teaching “tool-belt” in a way that greatly benefited my skills in the classroom and consequently, also benefited my own students' learning.


Despite the success that many of our team members were seeing in our own classrooms during those first two years, we had a difficult time in trying to make our practices part of the school’s wider culture. Last year we were finally able to begin presenting to the staff in a way that at least began capturing non-team members’ (positive) attention, providing mini-lessons on some of our most successful practices at various staff meetings throughout the year. While the mini-lessons certainly did not start any revolutionary changes at the high school, they did at least set the tone for the team to begin making a really significant impact on teaching practices at the school this year.
During the summer of 2010, with a change in administration, the team began to reorganize and added some new members. We met during the summer to give new team members a “crash course” on literacy, but more importantly, we began laying out a plan that would allow us to make staff-wide, meaningful change in our school’s best teaching practices. As the year progressed, it became clear that we had two major goals. We wanted to help staff make learning goals and objectives clear for students and we wanted to find a way to make reading for pleasure a regular part of every student’s week.
Our first major goal was to introduce a lesson plan framework that would help teachers focus in on the specific objectives they want their students to achieve and to construct their lessons using a consistent format (adapted from EDU 590 LMFHS October 26 PowerPoint). The format we chose to introduce uses an opening activity, usually in the form of a quick-write, that allows students to apply prior knowledge and experience to learning new information in meaningful chunks. Each class ends with a closing activity that allows students to process the information they have learned that day and gives teachers a quick opportunity to check for understanding and adjust upcoming plans accordingly. Most importantly, the framework requires that teachers have clearly posted objectives each day that are explicitly referred to throughout the lesson, making it clear to the students what the learning goal is and giving them an opportunity to self-assess for understanding through the class period. Finally, having a consistent classroom framework created a learning environment in which students knew exactly what to expect each class. Rather than spending energy on interpreting what the teacher expected from them, they could instead spend their energy where it was most needed – on learning objectives.
The team members piloted the lesson plan framework in our own classrooms first, and I soon noticed my own teaching and classroom management improving dramatically. Beginning every class with a quick-write activity established a clear expectation for what every student should be doing at the beginning of the class, having an immediate impact on student behavior throughout the rest of the period. And of course the main reason for the quick-write, activating students’ prior knowledge, helped students to connect with new material more effectively. I soon noticed an increase in student attention and participation in class discussion.
By posting the day’s objective on the wall and explicitly referring to it throughout the class period, I found it significantly easier to stay focused on the day’s goal, and I believe it improved my delivery. I have also found that reflecting back on the objectives several times throughout the lesson is helping me to identify areas of my unit plans that need adjustments or, in some cases, even need to be eliminated completely. I found that having the posted objective to refer to throughout the lesson was helping me to make better use of my students’ time in my class.
After taking enough time to really understand the benefits of the framework and feel comfortable using it, we partnered up with other staff members to begin making it a staff wide practice. We began by having our partner teachers observe our classrooms. After providing them with time to try it in their own room, they then had the opportunity to have us in their classrooms to help with any questions or concerns they still had. Overall we received a positive response. Some teachers immediately saw value in the framework, and one of my partner teachers went so far as to say, “It has made me a more effective teacher.” (Personal conversation) Even when teachers had reservations about the framework itself, they still appreciated the format we used to present it. Many teachers commented on how valuable it is to be able to visit other classrooms, and several also expressed appreciation for having team members, their own co-workers, in to help provide constructive feedback in a non-threatening atmosphere. While there is still much work to help everybody feel truly comfortable using this framework on a daily basis, we have already made significant gains.
The team’s second major goal, creating time for students to experience reading for pleasure on a regular basis, took shape in the form of our new Free To Read program. It ‘s overall structure was the brainchild of one our teammates, Library Media Specialist, Cathi Howell. With her expert experience and ideas for the foundation of the program, the team worked together to establish the details and to anticipate any questions or concerns that might prevent the program from finding success among the staff and students. We began with the premise that students benefit most when they have several short (30-40 minutes) opportunities each week to read something they are interested in rather than having one extended period each week (SSR with Intervention, Leslie B. Preddy). With that in mind, we decided the program would begin with two forty-minute reading periods a week, with the hope that it may someday be expanded to three days a week. We also knew that students would benefit more if the reading program included an opportunity to think about and discuss their reading (The SSR Handbook, H.M. Miller). Therefore we decided that each reading session would end with a five-minute opportunity for discussion among teachers and their advisees.
Once we had a plan for what we wanted our reading program to look like, we began preparations to introduce it as successfully as possible. Cathi administered a student survey to gather information on student reading habits and book interest. Group members solicited local businesses for gift certificates that we could use as rewards for participating in the program. We also created a presentation for staff and students to help explain the program using Scholastic’s Reader Bill of Rights ( We presented to other teachers during a staff meeting and provided them with an opportunity to fill out a comment/question card. We organized a school wide assembly for the student presentation, and even invited local town library staff in to speak about reading opportunities in their own library.
The first month and a half of our Free to Read program has gone exceptionally well. We made it clear from the beginning that this reading time would be considered “sacred” and found a way to include it on all regularly scheduled days, even when other events threatened to get in the way. Teachers report that they have faced very little resistance from their advisor groups, and many students have made positive comments about looking forward to the reading time. Perhaps most gratifying, we have had visitors from outside of the school witness and make extremely positive comments about the program, one going so far as to say that we “are doing it the right way.” (Conversations with USM Professor of History Libby Bischoff and Maine DOE consultant Steve McDougal)
We are so proud of the work that we have done this year. At times we have struggled to maintain the energy and positive attitudes necessary to make such far-reaching change, but it is truly gratifying to now see the fruits of our labor blossoming. There is a great deal more work to be done, but based on the slow change in culture we are already seeing, we are looking forward to continuing our work next year.