Monday, June 25, 2007

Improving Content Area Literacy

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) Report “Preparing STEM Teachers: The Key to Global Competitiveness” was released as part of a Congressional Briefing last week. The document highlights more than 50 programs at institutions across the country dedicated to increasing the number of effective K–12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educators. Why does this matter to those of us who teach English language arts and composition? NCTE’s “Teaching Composition: A Position Statement” provides the answer:

In the classroom where writing is especially valued, students should be guided through the writing process; encouraged to write for themselves and for other students, as well as for the teacher; and urged to make use of writing as a mode of learning, as well as a means of reporting on what has been learned. The classroom where writing is especially valued should be a place where students will develop the full range of their composing powers. This classroom can also be the scene for learning in many academic areas, not only English . . . . Teachers in all academic areas who have not been trained to teach writing may need help in transforming their classrooms into scenes for writing. The writing teacher should provide leadership in explaining the importance of this transformation and in supplying resources to help bring it about. [emphasis mine] (“The Scenes of Writing”)
We call this kind of interaction by many names, including reading and writing across the content areas, interdisciplinary learning, integrated curriculum, writing across the curriculum, and writing across the disciplines. What all of these undertakings have in common is their focus on collaboration among teachers who teach different subjects or who have different academic expertise. Here are some additional resources to help you get started on collaborations that can increase student success in every classroom:

Monday, June 18, 2007

Stopping the Summer Slide

sliding board
Image © stock.xchang (
The more learning that children and teens do during the summer, the better prepared they are to re-enter the classroom in the fall. When learning stops during the summer, these students suffer from what is referred to as the summer slide—a loss of ability and knowledge from the close of school in the spring to the reopening in the fall. As a result, teachers end up reviewing and re-teaching information covered in the previous school year to bring students back up to grade level. Children may be 1–3 months behind when they return to the classroom.

Naturally, the learning loss varies by grade level and content area as well as by socioeconomic status. The Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University reports that “On average, children from low-income families lose nearly three months of grade-level equivalency during the summer months each year, compared to an average of one month lost by middle-income children when reading and math performance are combined.” Because of this socioeconomic factor, summer learning loss contributes to the achievement gap for children of low-income families.

The Detroit Free Press article “Keep Kids Learning All Summer” reports that these losses matter even more in states like Michigan that require children to take achievement tests in the first months of the new school year. Quoted in the article, principal Jo Kwansy of Boulan Middle School explains bluntly, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

The solution? Summer learning activities that support and develop children’s skills like the following:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Supporting English Language Learners by Supporting Teachers

Some weeks the education news leaves me confused. This week, there has been a Houston Chronicle story on the ways that “Limited-English Students Lag on Test Scores.” The article reports, “Texas students who struggle with the English language fell about 60 percentage points behind white students in passing reading and math tests by the time they reached the eighth grade, a study released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center says.” The article details the concrete costs of educating these English language learners and suggests the less measurable costs for a society where students are not able to achieve in the classroom because they do not find adequate support for their language development.

The issue noted in Texas is found nationally. The Washington Post article “Rating Education Gains—Achievement Gaps, Advanced Placement Exams, Demographic Shifts, and Charter Schools: What Do They Add Up To for Students?” summarizes the findings of “The Condition of Education 2007,” a report released this month from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. The article concludes by pointing out that the “achievement gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged groups have narrowed somewhat but remain large.” For many of these disadvantaged students, language learning is the key to achievement. The number of English language learners in the United States has been growing steadily. “The Condition of Education 2007” reports that “The number of children ages 5–17 who spoke a language other than English at home more than doubled between 1979 and 2005.”

So we know that we have growing numbers of English language learners in the classroom, and we know that these students are frequently disadvantaged in their language development and academic achievement. How, then, can I respond with anything other than confusion when I read the Miami Herald story “Measure would cut ESOL training”? The story explains that legislation has been sent to Florida’s governor Charlie Crist that would reduce the amount of training required for Florida Department of Education ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) endorsement from 300 hours to just 60 hours—only 20% of the time currently required.

Is it any wonder that ELL students lag on test scores when legislation undermines support for the training teachers need to help those students succeed? NCTE's Executive Committee approved a list of “Principles of Professional Development” in November of last year. The first item on the list? “Professional development of teachers/faculty is a central factor leading to student success.” Educators know the importance of professional development. If legislators would begin to understand how teacher training results in student success, we might finally be able to close the achievement gap for all learners.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Year-end Reflections and Summer Planning

As I read through the articles for this week’s Inbox Ideas section, I noticed that we ask a lot of questions as the academic term comes to a close:

  • What are we (students and teachers) going to read this summer?
  • What were the best teaching ideas this year?
  • What were the most powerful words students have written this year?
  • What can we do to refresh ourselves during summer vacation?
Typical questions like "How long does this have to be?" fade out, and we turn our attention to questions that focus on best and favorite classroom experiences and on plans for the future.

As a teacher, I always set off into the summer vacation with a huge list of things to do—books to read, articles to write, research to do, classes to plan, assignments to write. I never got it all done. Now that I work full-year, my summer months offer less of a chance for grand projects, but I still have a summer to-do list: revise that book manuscript, write articles in response to a couple of recent calls, work on some lesson plans for ReadWriteThink.

So I’ll be busy the next few months (and people think teachers get the summer off!). How about you? Please take a few minutes to share your stories of wonderful moments in the classroom and your plans for the summer in the comments. We’d all love to hear from you.