Increasing Literacy in the High School Library: Collaboration Makes It Happen
By Long, Deborah
OUR HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOMS ARE FILLED WITH STRUGGLING READERS. WE RECOGNIZE SOME OF THEM BY THEIR INTTENTION TO DETAIL, LACK OF ENGAGEMENT WITH TEXT, AND REFUSAL TO USE READING COMPREHENSION STRATEGIES. BUT MANY OF OUR STRUGGLING READERS ARE MORE DIFFICULT TO IDENTIFY. READERS AT EVEN THE MOST ADVANCED LEVELS OF SKILL BECOME STRUGGLING READERS WHEN FACED WITH THE COMPLICATED VOCABULARY, THE CONFUSING SYNTAX, AND THE CHALLENGING CONTENT THAT HIGH SCHOOL COURSES DEMAND. Because of today’s public educational environment, which requires high-stakes testing by state mandate and the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools are developing programs and strategies aimed at improving students’ reading scores on these tests. Public schools, especially those whose scores are not improving, are emphasizing reading instruction at all levels and in all subject areas. They are developing programs and strategies designed to meet the needs of their struggling readers, and they are implementing them schoolwide. At the same time, teachers are being asked to collaborate with one another to make these initiatives happen. This article presents a successful collaborative project designed to implement a successful reading strategy-reciprocal teaching (see Text Box l)-within the confines of students’ library research.
THE CHALLENGE OF SECONDARY LITERACY
In elementary schools, the focus of reading instruction has been on learning to read, whereas secondary schools have been charged with reading to learn (see Alfassi, 2004). However, in many high schools today, students lack the skills they need in order to read to learn from their textbooks. In addition, the content and curricular standards established for secondary schools require students to read a variety of complex, specialized informational texts. To read these texts, students must use a range of reading strategies to learn the information and to practice the skills that they will need to meet the content standards. In today’s school environments, however, students and their content area teachers may not have the necessary knowledge to learn to read their textbooks in this way. Many of today’s high school teachers have received little or no preparation in teaching students to read. These teachers, working in isolation, struggle to provide the reading instruction that students need to succeed in their content areas.
When these students and their teachers come to the library media center to conduct research for class projects, they face daunting challenges. Confronted with reading materials that they do not have the skills to read, students find the task of reading to conduct research overwhelming. Even with the best information literacy instruction, students who succeed in locating resources still struggle to read those often-complicated materials and learn something from their research. Rather than work to make sense of what they are reading, many student researchers give up and just use the copy-and-paste method of research. Their teachers, who may not know how to teach effective reading strategies in their content areas, are frequently frustrated by the poor results that their students achieve and the lack of understanding that their projects demonstrate. Therefore, they either avoid research projects altogether or grapple alone with the search for effective strategies.
The library media center provides a unique opportunity for collaboration among school professionals that can play a vital role not only in helping students learn to read the informational texts that they encounter but also in assisting teachers to employ strategies to teach students to do so. The school library is a natural setting for teaching students to read and interact with content text. According to Joyce (2006), reading comprehension of informational texts connects quite naturally with the research process. Content area teachers, in collaboration with one another and with other school professionals, can improve instruction in the effective comprehension strategies that students need to use to understand and remember the content area materials that they read. This process then helps them use what they have read in conducting and presenting their research. Research shows that the reciprocal teaching method has been effective in helping students improve their reading ability and in promoting reading comprehension, as measured on standardized tests (Palinscar & Brown, 1984; see also, Carter, 1997). The school library media teacher, in working with other teachers, can use this strategy to positively affect student achievement and help students and teachers meet the academic goals of the school.
Merced High School, Merced, CA, is one school in which students used reciprocal teaching within the research process (see Merced High School Library, 2006). The principal and the leadership team at the school selected reciprocal teaching as the focus of the school’s academic initiatives in language arts. They selected this focus because student performance on standardized tests in language arts (California Standards Test) was well below grade level. Only 33% of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders scored at or above proficient levels in 2005. This strategy, when applied in all subject areas, has been proven to increase students’ achievement in language arts.
The school introduced reciprocal teaching to the staff during the 2005-2006 school year. The literacy coach trained teachers to use the strategies, and administrators encouraged teachers to incorporate these strategies into their lessons. Posters were created for each classroom, and the literacy coach worked with teachers on an individual level to design lessons and implement the strategies. Many content area teachers, particularly in areas such as social studies, began to use the techniques with their students.
In fall 2006, several teachers began to collaborate on a research project. The senior English teachers and senior government teachers at the school wanted to combine the debates conducted in government classes with the research conducted for papers in the English classes. For this project, they sought the help of the school library media teacher, the literacy coach, and the school’s webmaster. Working with this group of teachers, the library media teacher and literacy coach created a research template that incorporated some of the elements of reciprocal teaching.
The teachers involved in this project had a variety of goals. The library media teacher wanted to demonstrate important information literacy skills to students, such as using high-quality sources and methods. She also wanted to become involved in the school-wide literacy initiatives. The literacy coach’s goal was to increase the involvement of content area teachers with the reciprocal teaching strategy. She was hoping to demonstrate its effectiveness within the project so that teachers would become familiar and comfortable with the strategy and employ it to help students read content area texts. The English teachers who were involved in the project were hoping to move their students away from blindly copying large amounts of text and pasting it into their research papers. They believed that the template could increase the amount and quality of reading and summarizing that students were doing to conduct research. They also wanted to streamline and standardize the research process among all the senior English teachers. The government teachers sought to have students use well-reasoned arguments and scholarly sources so that the debates that they conducted would be of a high quality. The surface-level understanding of the issues that students had exhibited in previous debates frustrated them. They hoped that the template would move students into higher levels of thinking. The webmaster, who was a business teacher, was in the process of redesigning the school’s web page to make it practical for students and staff, which he anticipated would make more students and staff use the web site. This project allowed him to make a direct connection that students could use, thereby giving them a viable reason to visit the school’s web site.
THE RESEARCH TEMPLATE PROJECT
The inspiration for this template came from recommendations made by Doug Achterman (2003), library media teacher at San Benito High School in Hollister, CA. Achterman suggests that teachers not fight students’ impulse to copy and paste but rather teach them how to copy and paste and process the information that they collect. The template was created using the tables feature in Microsoft Word. It has two sections, into which students can copy and paste information.
In the first section, students can record bibliographic information that they will need to use to create a works-cited page for their research papers (Figure 1). This section includes a link to Citation Machine, http://citationmachine.net/, a web site that creates bibliographic entries in various formats that can be copied and pasted into other documents. The reciprocal teaching focus in this section is on predicting. After copying the title and other bibliographic data, students are asked to predict the kind of information that they will find in the source.
The second section of the template involves note taking (Figure 2). In the first column, students copy and paste key passages or paragraphs from the sources that they have read. In the second column, students respond to what they have copied and pasted. In this column, they are asked to summarize, ask questions, and clarify. These three components are part of the reciprocal teaching model. After they finish working with each source, students are asked to summarize their notes and predict the source’s usefulness to their research. Again, these activities are part of the reciprocal teaching model. The template therefore reinforces the components of reciprocal teaching while encouraging the students to do more than just copy and paste information directly from an electronic source into their papers. The literacy coach presented the template to senior English teachers at their weekly collaboration meeting. After she made some modifications suggested by the teachers, she and the library media teacher presented the template to students. The library media teacher began each session by introducing the students to the highquality research sources in the school library’s databases. The literacy coach then used the library’s local area network to demonstrate the steps involved in using the template with an actual research source taken from the databases. Students were shown how to save the template, how to use the Citation Machine, and how to organize their notes as they moved through the template. The English teachers then supervised students as they compiled works-cited information and notes using the template to conduct their research. The teachers incorporated the template into the writing process as their students wrote research papers. The school’s webmaster created several links to the template on the school’s web page so that students could use the template in a variety of versions of Microsoft Word from remote locations. The government teachers helped students to organize their notes in a debate format and held the debates in their classrooms.
RESPONSE TO THE TEMPLATE
At the conclusion of the project, teachers and students were surveyed regarding their reactions to the template. Teacher response to the template was quite favorable overall. English teachers preferred the template format to the notes that students had done in previous years. They did suggest, however, that the works-cited and note-taking sections be separated because doing so would provide more space for students to use in taking notes. Government teachers thought that the template greatly improved the quality of the debates conducted in their classes. They found the students’ arguments to be better reasoned and presented than how they had been in the past. They credited the reciprocal teaching areas of the template with encouraging students to think deeply about the resources that they read and therefore present their arguments effectively. All of the teachers were eager to make some modifications to the project together and repeat the collaboration in subsequent school years.
Student responses to the template fell into two ranges. The largest group of students liked the template, and although they sometimes found the technology frustrating, they still found the template preferable to the paper-and-pencil formats that they had used in the past. Some even expressed plans to use the template in their future college classes. Students who did not like the template did so for two common reasons. Some students were not able to adjust the template to suit their needs, perhaps owing to a lack of skill or practice in using templates or the technology itself. They became frustrated when what they had copied and pasted became too large for the template space. Some reported difficulty in getting access to the template from anywhere other than the school server. However, with the options created by the webmaster, most of these problems should have been mitigated. The second reported reason involved the response column. Students did not like having to create questions and clarify and summarize the information that they had copied from their sources. This frustration, however, speaks to one of the goals of the project. Students’ perceptions were that it would be much easier to just copy and paste. The purpose of the project was to create a format in which they were not able to just copy and paste and call their notes “finished.” The response column compelled them to read what they had copied and to interact with that information in some meaningful way. Therefore, those students who did not like the response column were in most cases reacting negatively to being required to do what could be described as authentic research, reading what the resource says and responding to it with original thinking.
The intention of this project was to improve the quality of research conducted for projects in senior English and government class projects. This project achieved many of the instructional goals of the teachers involved. One of the English teachers’ goals involved the facilitation and standardization of the research process among all the teachers involved in the project. The template made the process of creating bibliographic entries and taking notes from research sources much easier for students and teachers. It gave English teachers a common tool to use in teaching their students to conduct research appropriately. All of the English teachers involved in the project used the template with their students and were able use it to instruct them in the proper use of copyrighted information. It gave the teachers a framework to use in discussing plagiarism with students as well, which then improved the research that students used for the research papers written for their English teachers and in the debates presented for their government teachers. Also, the reciprocal teaching elements helped students to interact with the informational texts that they were reading and to construct meaning from those texts. The reinforcement of reciprocal teaching strategies in a variety of cum’cular areas was an important outcome for the literacy coach, who wished to see content area teachers use the strategy. This outcome supports the overarching school goal of increasing the academic literacy of the school’s students. The library media teacher also became involved in the reciprocal teaching initiative as she was able to demonstrate appropriate information literacy skills and high-quality resources. The webmaster increased student interest in and practical use of the school’s web site as well.
The most significant outcome of this project, however, is the successful collaboration among school professionals, which resulted in student achievement. More so by working together than by working alone, these teachers were able to achieve high rates of student achievement and improve students’ ability to use effective comprehension strategies to read content area texts. The success of this project and the subsequent modifications that will be made to it in years to come will promote successful collaborations in other areas. This project is an important demonstration of how a school library media teacher can work with other teachers to further the academic goals of a school and positively affect student achievement.
TEXT BOX 1
Reciprocal teaching is an instructional technique that promotes student thinking and interaction with text. As they read, students practice four comprehension strategies: predicting (making an educated guess about text content), asking questions (both recall and higher level), clarifying (words or concepts), and summarizing (identifying and restating main ideas or concepts). At first, the teacher models the use of these strategies in understanding content area texts. Later, students practice the strategies in group dialogues about the text. Eventually, students take responsibility for practicing the strategies.
What Is Reciprocal Teaching?
Achterman, D. (2003). How to stop your students from cutting and pasting: Teach them how to cut and paste. Retrieved November 17, 2006, from San Benito High School web site: www.sbhsd.k12.ca .us/ sbhslib/teacherhelp/cu tting.htm
Alfassi, M. (2004). Reading to learn: Effects of combined strategy instruction on high school students. Journal of Educational Research, 97. Retrieved November 16, 2006, from http:// vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com .libaccess.sjlibrary.org
Carter, C. (1997). Why reciprocal teaching? Educational Leadership, 54. Retrieved November 16, 2006, from http://vnweb .hwwilsonweb.com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org
Joyce, M. (2006, April/May). A niche for library media specialists: Teaching students how to read informational text. Library Media Connection, 24. Retrieved September 21, 2006, from http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb .com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org
Merced High School Library. (2006). Senior research template Web site. Retrieved December 29, 2006, from www.mhs .muhsd.k12.ca.us/ lmc/Files/Works%20Cit ed%201nformation%20Long.doc
Palinscar, A., ft Brown, A. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 117-175.
Deborah Long is a full-time mentor of new teachers and the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment program coordinator for the Merced Union High School District. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright Ken Haycock & Associates Oct 2007
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