Christine Cziko's Freshman English Class, Thurgood Marshall High School
San Francisco, CA
The following is an adaptation of a story written by Christine Cziko, a former high school English teacher from San Francisco. It originally appeared in California English (vol. 3, no. 4, 1998) as "Reading Happens in Your Mind, Not in Your Mouth: Teaching & Learning 'Academic Literacy' in an Urban High School." The full article, in its original form, can be found at: http://www.WestEd.org/stratlit/prodevel/happens.shtml
Although I have been teaching English for over 20 years in both middle and high school classrooms, I hadn't thought explicitly about teaching reading until 1995, when I became involved in the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI), a research and professional development effort based in San Francisco. I had become increasingly concerned about getting my students to read, but reluctant to look at the problem of reading head-on.
More and more, students in my urban classroom were not reading books, either for class or for pleasure. I couldn't count on many to finish a short story for homework. Even those who insisted that they had "done the reading" often could not explain what they had read.
I tried to find ways to provide everyone with at least some common experience with the book at hand. I read to students, gave time in class to read, "talked through" the book, and, when desperate, showed the video. I started to feel that I was in a kind of co-dependent relationship with my students--an arrangement that actually enabled them to not read.
My first conscious reaction to this dilemma was resistance: "This is high school, teaching reading is not my job!" But since it was clearly the job that had to be done, I couldn't hold onto that attitude for long. In 1995 I joined the HERALD Project's Strategic Literacy Initiative. The HERALD Project had been working with high school teachers in San Francisco to improve students' oral and written language skills across the curriculum.
The Academic Literacy course began as a 10-unit, year-long course for all our freshmen in Fall 1996. We knew that for students to become active readers, they had to first believe that reading with comprehension was something that could be learned; that it was not a mystery that you either "get" or "don't get," and that 9th grade was not too late learn.
We thought that if we could create classrooms in which students could use some of the energy they put into hiding what they don't understand into revealing and working to figure out their confusions, we might create a powerful new learning dynamic. We thought about ways to make it "cool" to be able to articulate what in a particular text is confusing and why, and about how to invite the entire class to contribute strategies to unlock difficult text. The model was: teachers as "master readers" and students as "apprentice readers." It was not a remedial course.
We began by reading works by authors including Martin Luther King, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Frederick Douglass writing about the role of reading in their lives. They explored questions such as, "What roles does reading serve in people's personal and public lives?" The students were also prompted to think about their own relationships to reading, reflecting on questions such as, "What are my characteristics as a reader?" and "What strategies do I use as I read?"
We also read and discussed articles that provided a common conceptual vocabulary for thinking about one's own cognitive processes. Students learned about schema, metacognition, and attention management. The following comment illustrates how students internalized some of these ideas and strategies.
In Academic Literacy they taught you about different channels of your brain. Like my teacher would say, "You have one channel for being with your friends, and one channel for getting dressed, and you have a channel for being in school." And so then we would be supposed to ask ourselves, "What channel am I on now? Am I on my school channel?"
Another key element was in our modified version of Silent Sustained Reading. Books were self-selected, but students were expected to finish a 200-page book each month and keep a record of both what they were reading and what they were learning about themselves as readers. They were introduced to and given frequent opportunities to practice a variety of cognitive and "text-wise" strategies: questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting; use of graphic organizers; and breaking sentences into manageable parts.
After seven months of instruction, students on average moved from being able to independently read a text at the level of Charlotte's Web to a text comparable in difficulty to To Kill A Mockingbird. According to the test developers, this is equivalent to a change from the early 7th grade level to the late 9th grade level.
Although we realize that we are just beginning to figure out how to do this work, one student's comment reflects a common feeling among many of the Academic Literacy students: "I feel proud of myself as a reader. I really did grow."