Equity Drives Essential Schools’ Push for Adolescent Literacy

Much of the “quiet crisis” in adolescent literacy has to do with empowering students to use language critically– seeing it not as a barrier but an entry into a world they can question and shape.

As jason sat Through his seventh-grade classes in those days–the room crowded to bursting with New York City students like himself–he learned to tune out the labored, halting drone of “group reading” exercises. Paragraph by paragraph, a text would make the rounds of the room, and Jason knew that once his turn had passed the piece would not hit him again. Staring out the window or talking to a friend, he would wait for a quieter hour when he could go at his own pace, read what he wanted, think his own thoughts about it.

Last year, Jason’s account of that in his “reading autobiography” at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx brought the school’s teacher-director, Nancy Mann, up short. (See sidebar, page 2.)

“I had always asked myself how Jason was going to graduate,” Mann said. “He would sit in the classroom and talk to his neighbor!” But his reflection shed new light, she said, on Jason’s puzzling ability to have good conferences with his teacher about the work.

“He got the message early that class is a lot of waiting that didn’t really matter,” Mann said. “But then he would go home and work through his reading. And he carried that pattern on into high school. He had developed an intellectual technique.”

Jason is now a first-year student at City College in New York, but millions of adolescent students around the country are still confounding their teachers with classroom performance that makes it look like literacy is losing ground fast.

Most adolescents are able to carry out basic reading tasks, but only 40 percent can read well enough to comfortably manage standard high school texts, according to the U.S. government’s 1998 National Assessment of Education-al Progress (NAEP). And their problems usually have to do less with simply reading the words than with comprehending ideas and content.

But like Nancy Mann, many Essential school teachers–whose Common Principles call for developing thoughtful habits of mind in active, inquiry-based classrooms–are starting to crack the conundrum of adolescent literacy by looking closely at why individual students are having trouble.

And as they prise out some answers, an increasing number have come to see the “quiet crisis” of adolescent literacy as an issue of not just instruction but equity, not just textbook techniques but social and academic empowerment.

In an era where print is losing ground to visual images, they are finding, students must discover their own need and desire for reading and writing as a vital prerequisite to competence in those areas.

And as students from more diverse backgrounds fill the nation’s classrooms, they need more than mere instruction in the dominant culture’s texts.

They also require the intellectual training to take any text–whatever its genre or medium–and identify its place and meaning in their own lives. Just as important, they need the chance to generate new knowledge and understanding, through producing new work of their own.

Apprentices in Reading

For Christine Cziko, an English teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in San Francisco, that realization presented an opportunity for action. She partnered with fellow teacher Lori Hur-witz and researchers at WestEd’s Strategic Literacy Initiative to develop a year-long ninth-grade “academic literacy” course, aimed at helping their ethnically diverse students become active, interested readers. (See sidebar)

Students start the year by exploring how reading can transform lives–partly by reading the accounts of writers like Frederick Douglass or Maxine Hong King-ston, and partly by thinking about the links between reading and their own life goals. In class, they do sustained silent reading of books they choose, amounting to 200 pages a month. They keep reading logs, write letters to the teacher about their reading, and design projects about their books.

Soon, the class begins approaching a variety of mainly non-literary texts–from CD liner notes to tax forms, cereal boxes to web pages. “Apprentices” to their teacher as “master reader,” students learn to analyze what they do and do not understand, and why. Along the way they realize that all readers struggle with some materials–and they begin to think of themselves, too, as readers and writers who can actively engage a text.

By the second semester, these apprentice readers have gained practice in a number of “invisible” moves that experienced readers use without thinking–everything from using signals in the text to breaking up complex sentences into manageable chunks. (See sidebar, page 4, for a sample exercise.)

Students also can see the difference it makes to know the distinct vocabulary, writing styles, and concepts that go with different disciplines. They then put their new skills to use in tackling the texts of history, science, or other subjects.

At the end of the first year’s course, these Thurgood Marshall ninth graders had jumped from an average reading level of late seventh grade to an average late-ninth-grade level–across all ethnic groups and in all four classrooms. And their positive attitudes and progress continued; by the end of the following year, they had gained another two years of proficiency on the Degrees of Reading Power assessment.

Equity as Driving Force

At the Bay Area CES Center, Tony Smith also partnered with the Strategic Literacy Initiative to support a network of 38 teachers in seven Essential secondary schools who would put equity at the center of their drive to increase literacy. By adapting the SLI approach to the needs of that professional learning community, “we have seen some students gain as much as four to six years of reading power in the course of a year,” he said.

Teacher Peggy Raun-Linde at Sunnyvale’s Fremont High School, where 1,700 students speak some 50 native languages among them, focuses her academic literacy course on building community in the classroom. “She uses literacy to open up the conversation about kids taking care of each other,” Smith said, “and to talk about how some students have been kept out of the mainstream.”

In north Philadelphia, fifteen girls at Simon Gratz High School meet weekly as Sisters Together in Action Research (Star) to research, analyze, and discuss issues in their own lives. Reading and writing together is their primary strategy: in a book club, for example, they explored the stresses of puberty for urban girls of color by reading Omar Tyree’s novel Flyy Girl. Mentored by researchers from the Philadelphia group Research for Action, the young women also work with almost 100 students from the middle and elementary schools nearby, providing leadership, solidarity, and support for younger girls facing academic or social challenges.

Literacy Is Social, Too

In fact, literacy is both a social and a cognitive process, most researchers in the field now agree, and adolescents are uniquely positioned either to embrace or reject it.

If they have not already spent years with the mysteries and pleasures of printed English, students arrive in secondary school with little experience and less confidence in tackling demanding reading and writing. Especially vulnerable to humiliation at this age, they need personal and respectful attention to improving comprehension skills.

One powerful entry point to such learning, many teachers find, comes from the insights into the human experience that reading and writing provide. At New Mission High School in Boston, teacher Connie Borab urges her students to chew over the quandaries characters face in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple, finding links to their own lives before launching into an analytical paper. “Is it okay to assume something?” one girl asks in class. “Like the way Shug sleeps around might be from some abuse that could have happened to her before.” Borab uses the query to get her class talking about how to draw inferences from evidence in a text.

As they grow more involved in questions that matter to them, students gain in their literacy skills, research shows. Student writing improved in high school social studies classes when teachers posed more compelling discussion questions and gave students more choice in what to write about, University of Wisconsin researchers Martin Nystrand, Adam Gamoran, and William Carbonaro have concluded.

Lack of context also can inhibit students’ comprehension, as John Butler found when he tried to interest his African-American male students at Chicago’s Sullivan High School in reading the Gettyburg Address for a Socratic seminar. “It wasn’t just problems of words, phrasing, and style,” he said. “It was a cultural stance they were not able to take.” As an entry point, Butler instead started a discussion about racial profiling, introducing the abolitionist writings of Freder-ick Douglass. Students’ interest grew, and they ended up writing their own Fourth of July speeches–and learning more about Lincoln’s address in the process.

What Counts as ‘Text’?

Many students approach non-print media with far more confidence than they do print, as Nina LaNegra discovered in her after-school media literacy class at Boston’s Mission Hill School. Her students wrote and produced a radio play titled “Teens on the Verge of Struggle,” which dealt realistically with a variety of family and social issues, including drug use, alcoholism, and teen-age sex and pregnancy.

Defining literacy as the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate messages in a variety of forms” opens up a rich world of text that includes film, television, folklore, art, photography, and other products for student inquiry, asserts Renee Hobbs, a Babson College professor who has written extensively on the subject.

The same skills involved in studying a movie like Apocalypse Now, Hobbs notes, can be used to tackle Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness and T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, as one Houston high school class did.

Sullivan High School art teacher Cass Hale-Daoud drew struggling readers into a Socratic seminar by introducing artworks depicting the Prodigal Son before asking students to read the text of that Biblical parable. “I could see one girl sticking with that reading because she wanted to after seeing the art,” said a colleague, Eileen Barton.

In Central Falls, Rhode Island, thirty students with little or no English presented a multimedia performance called “Postcards from America,” exhibiting their own photographs of the immigrant experience along with their writing, music, and theatrical performances. Working with the Arts/Literacy Project at Brown University, the students were coached by a local newspaper photographer and a theater director as they found a new voice, a new vocabulary, and a strong sense of community both inside and outside the classroom.

Everyone Teaches Literacy

As more Essential school teachers at the secondary level grapple with literacy issues in their content-area classes, their need for new ways to help students grows ever more urgent. In Broward County, Florida, a project called Secondary Tech-niques Accelerate Reading (Star) brings teachers from different academic areas together with at-risk students to try out an approach that centers on a mix of “student-owned” strategies.

“We go for depth, not breadth,” said Sharon Kossack, a Florida International University professor who later linked Star with a national program called Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies (Criss) that stresses reading, writing, and learning strategies across the content areas.

Working in an unfamiliar content area, the teachers try out each strategy as if they were students themselves. Then they transfer it to their own subject and come up with a lesson to try with a student. “We do a lot of modeling,” Kossack said, “a lot of processing what works and why.”

After ten weeks, teachers are seeing major improvement in students’ Degrees of Reading Power scores. “As a content teacher for many years, I used to think that if a child is not reading by age ten you have lost him,” Kossack said. “We found that is absolutely not true.”

As teachers learn more about their own styles of approaching unfamiliar texts, she said, they add to the techniques they can draw on when students have trouble. “They are learning about themselves,” Kossack noted. “If a kid doesn’t get it the way they are pitching it, teachers may need to use other channels than the ones they are most comfortable with.”

In Class, But One on One

For the faculty at Fannie Lou Hamer, a cross-curricular push for literacy was “on the table from the first year the school opened,” says Lorraine Chanon, who as literacy coordinator there has worked every possible angle to give each student the adult coaching she believes is key.

“At first we would pull out the students who needed help,” she said. “But this year we realized it worked better to ‘push in’ by coming into classes for extra support.” Spanish is the predominant native language among Hamer students, so the school used some of its ESL teacher’s time for that coaching, and also hired another Spanish teacher to work specifically on native language literacy.

All Hamer’s teachers introduced their students to a new strategy for reading comprehension in the content areas. (“Buy-in from the kids was the key step,” Chanon noted.) A reading specialist comes in monthly to model the approach directly with selected struggling students, while teachers observe.

“It’s totally Coalition,” Chanon said of Hamer’s schoolwide commitment to literacy. All students present a portfolio in the language arts to a juried committee before they may move on from tenth grade, and reflect on their progress again in a graduation portfolio. Working on literacy skillls in content-area classes, she says, also “gives kids a reason to wrestle with comprehending a difficult text.”

As they do, students slowly acquire the active, inquiring habits that she hopes will stay with them long after graduation. One day this year, Chanon watched after school as a student named Latitia struggled through a passage from the book Amistad with her humanities teacher’s help. “Latitia needed to understand it for an exhibition she was preparing about slavery,” Chanon said. “I watched her teacher patiently go back and ask her again and again: ‘What is a detail that supports that main idea?’ It takes really intensive coaching, but you can see Latitia turning from a passive reader–where we tell her what’s important–into an active reader who can read, ask questions about its ideas, and support the answers on her own.”