Fenway High School's Literacy Program
Fenway's culture of literacy is evident from the first activity incoming students undertake. In the first hour on their first day, 9th graders, along with students in grades 10-12, meet in the auditorium to participate in an activity developed by the humanities team. This year, the team had selected a short story by Jesus Colon entitled "Little Things Are Big," which presents a real-life dilemma without an end. At the assembly, teachers and students discussed which members of the school community should be selected to read aloud. This resulted in new students, old students, top students, struggling students, new teachers, interns, the director, the physical education coach, and others reading, in turn, at their own ability and in their own voice and style.
After completing the reading of the story, the teachers and students broke into small groups, each led by a faculty member and facilitated by a student. The purpose of these smaller discussions was to draw out questions about personal experiences, speculate about the story's ending, and move into Fenway's year-long Humanities Essential Question: "How do you do the right thing in the face of injustice/in an unjust society?" For homework, students were asked to write an ending to the story and to defend the conclusion they chose on the basis of what they have seen or experienced in the society in which we live. This defense was the students' first discussion paper and the first entry in their portfolios.
Fenway's journey to build a school-wide culture of literacy began in 1999. The impetus for this effort came from
Fenway High School's former director, Larry Myatt, and other staff members felt strongly that the school should retain the thematic humanities format. Over the years, he argued, it had proven far more successful in its power to inspire students to read, write, and think critically than an earlier, fragmented (basic skills) approach that separated grammar, writing, literature, and history into discrete components. With his assistance, members of the humanities team focused on some key questions and a needs assessment that would help them to become more strategic in their teaching of literacy skills within the humanities format. Myatt also managed to draw out the district's timeline for hiring a literacy coach until the faculty had identified its coaching needs and located the right person for the job.
At the same time, Myatt also recognized the importance of building a culture of literacy with the adults in the building. In conjunction with the humanities and Learning Center teams, he initiated a process with staff in the winter of 1999 to identify what the school would look like as a literate community, i.e., what faculty, students, and staff would be doing. The planning team wanted this effort to model the literacy work they would like to observe in all classrooms: intentional, small group work. During the first faculty meeting, individuals were given 15 minutes to write a response to the question "What would teachers and students be doing DIFFERENTLY in a culture that valued and promoted literacy?" The responses were analyzed and the themes presented by content area in a faculty meeting three weeks later. Then, staff members were asked to regroup, to intentionally gravitate to small groups with colleagues from other departments, and to talk about what they had written. Following these discussions, the faculty was asked to write again for 15 minutes to respond in more detail to the same question. These responses elicited strategies linked to literacy that could be used in each content area, e.g., creating display boards and developing hypotheses in science, and using new techniques to support the comprehension of word problems in math. In the end, the entire faculty recognized that it wanted to develop a school-wide culture of literacy and was willing to work toward that outcome.
Realizing that they would need a special person to take on this task, the planning team asked the staff to write a description of the person they felt could lead the school in its journey toward greater literacy. Some of the skills and characteristics they suggested were:
This process resulted in several outcomes:
What It Looks Like
If you peeked into the 9th grade Foundations of Literacy class on a given day, you might see the following: Kids are at tables in groups of three or four. There is lots of lively discussion. Kids are sharing poems together or shouting across to other groups to share a poem. Half of the class time usually is focused on writing, while the other half focuses on reading. Class starts with a mini-lesson. After the mini-lesson, the two teachers circulate around, hunching over tables to work with some students while other students work with each other. Classroom management is not really an issue because there are clear purposes for each chunk of time and the students understand when to be quiet and when it is okay to chat.
Looking in classrooms throughout the school, you might be struck by how much group work is going on. You would see teachers doing mini-lectures, kids working in groups, reading from Facing History and Ourselves, doing journal writing. The curriculum is heavy on activities and projects throughout, and evidence of these in progress can be seen around the school and in just about every classroom.
During Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), the kids are really reading.
(Adapted from an interview with a teacher intern at Fenway during the 2002-2003 school year.)