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Cross-Curricular Literacy Improves Students' Test Scores--and Lives

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By Maggie Coleman

It's true that literacy skills are the building blocks of how we think, communicate, and read. We may not realize it, but they're linked to everything we do, and they no longer encompass just knowing how to read the headline of a newspaper or write a few sentences. The definition of literacy for teachers and students has evolved to include being "intellectually, culturally, and electronically capable."

This means that, as a social studies teacher at Academy for Environmental Leadership, I am expected to provide my students with the resources to construct arguments, read articles thoughtfully, and speak in a way that illustrates their intelligence. These critical thinking skills are assessed on today's rigorous assessments, such as the Regents Exams, with two main goals in mind: assessing student achievement and measuring school and teacher effectiveness.

Teaching Literacy Across the Social Studies Curriculum

In New York, the statewide Regents Exams, which are conducted in June every year, are required for students to graduate. Each exam has five topics, including Global History/Geography, U.S. History and Government., English, Mathematics, and Science. Students are tasked with mastering these areas and showing their mastery  by writing arguments and supporting them to pass the exams. The knowledge and skills learned along the way serve the purpose of providing students with transferrable, life-long skills.

Last fall, I felt that I had tried everything, but my students were continuing to have a hard time mastering the literacy skills they needed to succeed on these exams. Not only was I on a mission to help my students, but I also wanted to make my classroom paperless. To become fully digital, I adapted a few tools at school, such as Google Classroom, Kahoot, Padlet, and ThinkCERCA as the primary medium for our writing assignments. With the help of these tools, I created a fun and engaging classroom, where students do about 30 minutes of online computer work and 10 minutes of writing each day.

I started using ThinkCERCA, which aligns with the Regents exams, last September to help my students become better thinkers, collaborators, and writers. The platform provided readings for my students in a way that truly opened their minds and worldviews--and I no longer had to search on my own for differentiating writing.

One assignment that truly stood out was about free speech. My students decided to conduct protests with my senior government class. Everyone was engaged in the reading and the assignment. It was culturally relevant and very in the moment with what's happening in the real world. From analyzing and exercising their First Amendment rights, to connecting these rights to their own lives, the students who completed this assignment started to see their work in an entirely new way.

From No Writing to Full Paragraphs

Since last fall, I have seen my student's writing progress excel from a simple question prompt by them, such as, "Should there be limits on freedom of speech?" to, "How did the murder of Andy Goodman impact the chain of events of the civil rights movement?"

In one month alone, my students went from asking an initial, broad question, to formulating a thoughtful, specific question that encapsulated a strong idea for their writing. A few of my students, who showed the biggest sign of improvement, went from not writing a single word on their Regents Exam last year, to retaking it in January this year and formulating a full, cohesive paragraph. Not only theirs but other test scores soared, with one student improving from a low 28 last year to an impressive 71 this year.

My fully digital approach has also helped equip students with the skills they need to take these tests. In my special education class, I have seen students go from not knowing how to navigate a website to logging in on their computer and starting an assignment without me having to say a single word. In these classes, I construct one assignment a week, along with a checklist and vocabulary activities. It provides students structure and consistency, which helps them know what to expect each day. Rather than tell these students what to do, I'm facilitating their learning in a way that engages and excites them.

Keeping the Literacy Train Moving

It's so important for me to guide my students and help them continue improving their literacy skills. For example, rather than simply telling a student they got an answer wrong, I provide them with feedback on why they got it wrong. When it comes to literacy skills, it's not as simple as saying, "You circled the wrong answer." Instead, I need to provide them with a response that structures what they can do differently to achieve better results next time.

While my students have certainly improved their literacy skills by demonstrating their comprehension, writing, and overall communication skills, I'm excited to see what the future holds for their success. Next month, we will begin the next round of the Regents Exam. Once those are complete, I will have a stronger sense of where they improved and where they may need a little more work.

For today's students, mastering the art of literacy means they can write, speak, think, and collaborate with others in a way that's thoughtful and cohesive. Once they develop these skills, they'll be using them in every aspect of their life, from personal to career.

Maggie Coleman is a social studies teacher at the Academy for Environmental Leadership in Brooklyn, NY.

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