Literacy and Democracy Go Hand in Hand: Teaching and Learning Literacy Skills in a Relevant, Meaningful Context

At Monadnock Community Connections School (MC2), mid-year Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores were in. 44 students, five teachers, two tutors, and two parents had accepted the community-wide invitation to join a discussion about the results. To clusters of six to seven students and an adult facilitator, I displayed the first chart of scores, showing that 23% improved, 40% stayed the same, and 37% lost ground.

“What do these numbers tell us?” I asked. Each group had five minutes to discuss the question and record their thoughts on chart paper before reporting out.

I showed the next chart, which broke the improved and decreased categories into sub-groups based on the size of the change. Groups again analyzed the meaning of the data before seeing the final set of graphs, displaying the delta in each the three tests: Language Usage, Mathematics, and Reading. The groups discussed two new questions: what are some possible explanations for the data? And what are some possible responses to increase overall student achievement?

In one group, a young man shared his story of blowing off the test, purposefully doing as poorly as the computer would allow without kicking him off. Then he heard that his learning goals for the second half of the year would take into account his scores. He retook the tests, scoring 50 to 70 points higher in each test area.

In another group, students argued about whether the scores indicated that the school needed more traditional English classes in which they’d learn to diagram sentences and “get worksheets on punctuation.” Yet another group observed the greatest gains schoolwide were in Reading, with one student commenting, “Looks like our reading groups are working.”

Democracy and Literacy, Together
MC2’s mission statement states the aim of our work: “Empowering each student with the knowledge and skills to use his or her voice effectively and with integrity in co-creating our common public world.” Our goal is to blend solid research in learning theory, cognitive theory, and developmental psychology with our commitment and belief in democratic practices. As a First Amendment School, we aim to be a “laboratory of democratic practice” based on rights, respect, and responsibility, engaging all stakeholders and encouraging our students to take civic action.

The discussion of our mid-year standardized test scores was a perfect opportunity to have students be the subjects of their own education, as opposed to objects who have school done to them. They used the dialogue skills they have been developing to look at the data that supposedly represented their accomplishments.

“Are our test scores public information?” asked one girl who was very active in the Public Achievement group working to improve the public’s understanding and acceptance of our school.

“The individual scores are not. The school scores—what you see here—are,” I answered.

“What difference does that make?” piped up a young man. “These tests don’t have any meaning to me.”

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but they do.” A tall boy with his hat on backward grimaced at the fact that he was speaking publicly in favor of something the adults were doing. “Since my reading scores are going to be part of setting my learning goals and helping me graduate, they DO make a difference to me. The teachers use these goals to figure out how to help us learn.”

“You can bet the School Board will be looking at these numbers, as well as the public,” I said. “But much more importantly these test results drive what we do in the school for each student. If you dropped over 20 points, we’ve got to give you targeted skill development. We’re accountable to each of you. If these numbers are a result of a choice-driven, hands-on, integrated curriculum, we damn well better stop and consider other options!”

“I don’t think too many of us took the tests too seriously,” said a quiet young woman. Several students’ heads nodded in agreement, while others shrugged.

“Yeah, but we still need a better way to take them,” groused another student. “I can’t stand sitting still that long.”

“Why do we take them? If it’s to practice tests, you probably better get used to it,” said another student.

“But if it’s supposed to be to show what I know, then why not let us take the test the way we work the best?”

“I need a stretch break.”

“I need to take it in the afternoon, instead of first thing in the morning.”

“I want to know what difference it’s going to make, anyway.” And so the discussion went.

After a final report out, each group’s chart papers were posted for the remainder of the week. Students were invited to add comments and questions to the papers before they were collected for a meeting where staff would deliberate, considering suggestions and deciding next steps. The most immediate response to students’ suggested actions was to offer after-school tutoring Mondays through Thursdays. Students have been slow to take advantage of this option, but they are beginning to incorporate tutoring as a strategy for meeting their learning goals. Other responses based on suggestions include allowing students to sign up for the time of day they prefer to take the MAP test, and to take a five minute stretch break during the test. During reading group time, students may opt to participate in a test prep group, or they may choose to use the school’s online subscription to TestGear, a test prep learning center.

Heterogeneity and Equity
Our students are diverse, hailing from 14 different towns and representing a range of socioeconomic conditions, motivations, skill sets, personal strengths, and confidence. What they have in common is that they want something different than what the large area high schools offer. Our classes are heterogeneous: all students able to sign up for any class based on interest, resulting in classes with students of mixed age, ability, motivation, and experience. As with any school, some students come to us with an excitement for learning, and others view school as a necessary evil. While any class is going to be heterogenous to some extent, MC2’s classes are heterogeneous across a wide range of preparation and other factors, offering a challenge to anyone who has taught tracked levels. Our teachers, however, view their first responsibility as creating learning experiences that will engage every student; when that engagement happens, the differences between ability levels recede. “It’s almost like engagement trumps ability,” says physics teacher Elizabeth Cardine. Motivation provides the persistence that a teacher can leverage to develop skills.

With students with varied backgrounds coming together from different towns and school experiences, we have turned to resources like Robert J. Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools to help us develop tools for building equity through competency. Marzano describes how “the research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.” Experiences like visiting a museum, watching the Discover channel, or reading are all examples of opportunities that contribute to a student’s background knowledge. Such learning opportunities are not necessarily a part of the fabric of all of our students’ lives, for some simply don’t have access to those diverse resources.

As in many public schools, our students cover a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds. The free and reduced lunch numbers are not particularly high (13%), but many families are in the “just getting by,” struggling to make ends meet. With both parents working and some working two jobs, there’s little time for museum visits, or even reading. Some students are regularly out of school, helping to provide child care at home or working late at night. Marzano’s review of the research literature clearly indicates that “the influence of family income creates huge discrepancies in academic success.” In education, equity is about reducing the predictive value of various factors, including socioeconomic status, on academic success. If we truly believe in creating equal opportunity for each student, we need to find ways to enhance students’ academic background knowledge, increasing their experiences of success in the academic arena.

For many families, MC2’s structures for family participation provide a supportive environment for them to be active partners in their child’s learning. The foundational structure for this involvement is the “EOD” or End of Day. The last twenty minutes of every school day is dedicated time for students to write a summary reflection of what they did, what they learned, and what they need to do next. EODs are sent daily to advisors and parents, who respond with prompts, comments, and questions. The EOD structure is a critical literacy component; students are writing regularly, with feedback, for an immediate and specific purpose. EODs form the basis for other requirements, such as documenting work and writing an autobiography. EODs also involve parents in students’ literacy as they increase families’ connection to MC2 and to their children’s progress.

Pedagogical Changes to Improve Literacy Skills
Reviewing Marzano’s work on direct and indirect approaches to enhancing academic background knowledge, MC2 staff members were encouraged to recognize the structures already in place in school that are examples of direct approaches. Marzano cites two direct approaches: increasing “the variety and depth of out-of-classroom experiences” and “help[ing] students establish mentoring relationship with members of the community.” Two foundational components of the MC2 educational design are experiential learning, based on real-world problems and “treks” (field based experiences), and internships, where students are in one-to-one mentor relationships with adults outside the school building.

What we lacked was an intentionally consistent application of the indirect approaches, most notably through direct vocabulary instruction and “the generation of virtual experiences in working memory through wide reading, language interaction, and educational visual media.” We read and discussed Marzano’s third chapter, “Tapping the Power of Wide Reading and Language Experience,” and committed three mornings a week to sustained silent reading. At the same time, teachers began to incorporate direct vocabulary instruction into their classes. This is our first year of targeted skill development for reading and vocabulary, so our implementation is a work in progress. MAP scores will be combined with student feedback and teacher observations to help us monitor our progress and make adjustments. With our next round of results, due in June 2006, we will work with students to identify what’s working, what’s not, and what needs tweaking. Intentional and targeted professional development focused on research-based literacy fundamentals conspires with our students’ desire for empowerment to constantly inform and improve our practices and performance.

Physics teacher Elizabeth Cardine has found direct vocabulary instruction provides an additional tool for engaging students in the content, using the complementary structures of individual vocabulary sheets or cards and a class-developed visual vocabulary web. “The individual sheets help students bring what they know, and their interpretation, to the content, and also help them solidify it in their heads with the visual creation. On the back, the (design your own) problem illustrating the concept often anchors the material in a creative (and interest driven) example.

In another class, the vocabulary was developed by the students. I had the students develop a list of words that they felt the whole class should know, in order to have discussions later on. These vocab lists were turned into cards that were available for public view during the discussions. The cards emphasize note taking and resource citation (two skills I focused on in this class in particular) but also allow students to have a visual hook as well. We did exercises webbing these cards as a class, to make some important conceptual connections, as well.”

Reading for purpose and using language in discussion are two powerful strategies for increasing students’ reading and vocabulary skills. Cardine relies on the Harkness Discussion format she first observed at Eagle Rock School and adapted for use at MC2. The Harkness Discussion is student-led, with participants directing their comments at one another and referring to their text(s). The leader is responsible for keeping the discussion moving, involving everyone in the activity, requesting clarification of vocabulary used, and focusing the discussion around the theme or issue found in the text. The teacher’s role is to diagram the interactions, visually recording who speaks, when, and how often. “The Harkness Discussion itself is democratic,” explains Cardine, “in that it allows space for more voices. One of the most important steps in the format I use requires that the students go over the ‘etiquette’ for a discussion, and then pick a goal to work on. Many students choose to work on ‘joining in the conversation’ or ‘staying on topic’ while others always choose ‘not to dominate the conversation.’ I have found that when the students vocalize these goals, the goals become shared by the other students. I have seen students stop themselves to let someone who is targeting participation speak up instead. I have also seen students remind each other (quite respectfully) of their goals to not dominate or to stay on topic. At the end, students either self- or peer-assess, and this has always resulted in a positive response or discussion opportunity, even when the goal was not met.”

Cardine’s most successful Harkness Discussion to date involved students bringing different readings to the discussion. “Some students felt freer to speak up because they knew no one else had read their book. Students were able to value diversity of thoughts and practices through how they approached the discussion.”

The Central Role of Relevance
This brings us full circle back to the “knowledge and skills to use his or her voice effectively and with integrity.” As students develop confidence in their abilities, they are engaging in rich language experiences, using the vocabulary of deliberation and debate, dialogue and discussion. They take their voices into our larger community, widening their “out-of-classroom experiences” and encountering compelling reasons to learn more about the world of which they are a part.

Literacy and democracy go hand in hand. For most of these students, high school is an exercise in frustration, valuing knowledge and skill sets quite different from those students encounter outside school. College isn’t even a question, let alone a possibility. It’s true that college is not the only path to success, but we have a moral responsibility to not eliminate options before our students have the opportunity to consider them. Our students are discovering they have a wider range of choices than they’d anticipated, learning how to negotiate for change and influence others through informed discussion. They are engaging in reading and language interaction naturally, as tools to help them shape their world.

References Cited
Marzano, Robert J. Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (ASCD, 2004)

Monadnock Community Connections School Facts
Located in southern New Hampshire, MC2 is a suburban public school serving 48 students in 9-12th grades. MC2 is a school of choice serving several towns in the Monadnock Regional School District.

Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) is a set of norm-referenced standardized tests that are administered via computer, adjusting question difficulty based on the user’s responses to previous questions. See for more information.

First Amendment Schools: Educating for Freedom and Responsibility
First Amendment Schools are a group of K-12 schools that belong to “a national reform initiative designed to transform how schools teach and practice the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that frame civic life in our democracy.” Monadnock Community Connections School is one of 17 current First Amendment Project Schools chosen by a selection committee for having “worked to integrate First Amendment rights and civic responsibilities into the daily lives of their communities.” For more on First Amendment Schools visit

For more on TestGEAR’s online preparation programs state standardized tests, visit

Kim Carter is the Director of Monadnock Community Connections School, a public school choice for high school students in southwestern New Hampshire. She was the 1991 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and the 1996 New Hampshire Media Educator of the Year. She considers herself a master learner and is always eager to share her love of her craft.