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Improving Literacy With Improvement Science

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[CORRECTION: The name of the Degrees of Reading Power test was incorrect in a previous version of this post.]

This post is by Audrey Moilanen and Christopher Barrera, teachers at High Tech Middle School.

As soon as we mention English Language Arts or Humanities we find ourselves in an educational thicket, confronted with complex issues regarding literacy, equity, deeper learning, best practices, the politics of text selection, common core, and so much more. What follows is a story of how two middle school humanities classrooms tried to make their students better readers through the principles of deeper learning and improvement science. Spoiler alert: student engagement and meaningful education ensue.

Researching Tools and Building Empathy

As a school, we decided to use improvement science to help tackle the challenge of building student literacy skills. Improvement science provides a set of tools that can be used to engage in quick iterative cycles of inquiry to solve a problem. The first step is to dig into the problem.

As a school that uses project based learning to create an equitable learning environment, we have a history of being cautious, using only one assessment to measure student progress. To get a nuanced picture of literacy across our schools we conducted empathy interviews with our students to get a sense of their reading habits, their mindsets about reading, and other factors that may impact their relationship to reading and literacy growth. We also assessed our students' beginning-of-the-year reading levels through a Common Core-aligned test called Degrees of Reading Power, developed by Questar Assessment Inc. When we looked at the data from our interview field notes and DRP, our course of action seemed clear. As a grade level we needed to focus on our students' ability to integrate knowledge and ideas. Moreover, we wanted to do it in a way that would build student confidence and foster student conversations with each other, while still having fun.

What happened next was a bit of serendipity: we found CATP. At a staff professional development session, our director showed us a video from Expeditionary Learning where a class was dissecting a text using a graphic organizer and dialogical structure. Students were making Connections, Asking questions, Translating (writing summaries), and Predicting. Students were writing each of these elements on their graphic organizers, which then served as a launching pad for classroom discussions about the text. We immediately recognized CATP, in particular the connections piece, as the close reading strategy we wanted to use to help our students integrate knowledge and ideas.

Collaborating and Iterating

To promote critical thinking in our classrooms, we identified texts that covered a range of real world issues. The topics of these texts varied from gun control, to the Flint Water Crisis, and even to Beyonce's Formation performance and video. We blended our study of the Constitution and its amendments with current events and pop culture. By doing this, we gave students opportunities to formulate their own opinions of the world and build a concrete understanding of United States History. Students were confronted with current political issues and pushed to create a deeper understanding of the policies and philosophies that shape our political system. Our project culminated in students writing and revising their own op-eds on subjects they found personally relevant.

By chunking texts and taking time to perform different parts of CATP throughout class readings, students were given multiple opportunities to process and discuss the content. When we first started, we noticed that students would just make any old connection without providing evidence to support it; the initial graphic organizer did not require students to justify their connections. This prompted our first iterative improvement cycle. We added a sentence frame "This makes me think of ______ because ______" to structure the connection task and encourage students to explain their thinking. After adding this very simple structure, we noticed that students were communicating their thoughts much more effectively. Students were given the opportunity to pull from their own experiences and understanding to build meaning in a way that connected the text to their own lives.

The next improvement cycle was the most intensive in terms of duration and complexity: we brought our students in as collaborators to refine the quality of the connections students were making. We were pleased that students were now justifying their connections, but realized that there was still a wide range in quality. Some connections were phonetically related: "This makes me think of statues because statutes sounds like statues."  Others were more complex: "The op-ed about the Flint water crisis reminds me of Erin Brockovich because their water caused cancer for their children and it was another example of the government failing to protect its people."

Chris and Audrey.jpg

Student op-eds ready for exhibition.

The students let us know two things fairly quickly: they enjoyed making connections and they wanted a way to know if they were making good ones. Through a process that involved student surveys, class discussions, and looking at student work protocols, our students helped us create a three-level rubric evaluation system that they could use to self-assess their connections. It broke connections into three categories: connections between words, connections between topics, or the deepest level, connections between themes.

As teachers we tracked the levels of connections being made and the percentage of students who correctly self-assessed their connections. We were thrilled to find that only one or two students ever miscategorized their connections. In addition, by bringing our students in as collaborators they felt empowered to reflect on and analyze their work. Students even began to make connections outside of the CATP task because they had internalized the process. When we spent a class period practicing for the Smarter Balanced tests, both classes remarked at the relative ease of the texts given the reading they had done with CATP previously, and many students volunteered connections to the sample texts even though they weren't tasked with doing so! A clear demonstration that students were able to transfer the cognitive task of making connections to activities beyond CATP.

Results and Academic Mindset

At the end of the year our students took the Degrees of Reading Power test once again. The data revealed that we ended the year with many more students reading on or above grade level. In addition, our students had learned and committed to a process of active reading, where they constantly look for connections, ask questions, summarize, and make predictions of texts.

Providing opportunities for all students to engage with complex texts is our responsibility as teachers. By collaborating with our students to improve the CATP graphic organizer, we were able to honor our students' experiences, create meaningful learning opportunities, and equip our students with the literacy skills to integrate knowledge and ideas. 

Photo by Audrey Moilanen

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