I was sitting in my doctoral quantitative research class feeling overwhelmed and frankly, stupid. I didn’t understand numbers. I was an English teacher. I had subscribed to the notion that as an English teacher, I could embrace being bad at math. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, if I wanted to get my doctoral degree, I was going to have to learn how to conduct quantitative research which included collecting data (i.e., numbers), analyzing the data using statistics, and displaying that data in a way that would be user friendly. I found myself experiencing what I believe many of my students experienced when I asked them to independently read a complex classic. Anytime I opened my textbook, I found myself frustrated, de-motivated, anxious, and on the verge of shutting down.
Instead of giving up, I leaned on colleagues who could support me. I used reading strategies that had helped me in the past—slowing down, re-reading, looking for supplemental supports such as Statistics for Dummies and various YouTube videos. I also picked a research question that I genuinely cared to find the answer to, “How many incoming ninth graders do we have who are reading below (at least 2 years) or far below grade level?” To answer that question, I had to look at data. I also learned I needed to triangulate that data to verify the findings. This was a challenging project which required me to push through frustration, make mistakes, and generate new questions. I started to ask more questions about the incoming ninth graders such as:
- “How many of these students reading below grade level are identified for special education services?”
- “Which services do they receive?”
- “Are they getting direct reading instruction from a licensed reading teacher?”
- “If not, how might they?”
- “How many of these students are receiving English Learner services?”
- “What level of services are our English learners who are also showing they are reading below grade level receiving?”
While I had accomplished my goal of successfully completing my quantitative research project, the work wasn’t done. More questions emerged as I examined the data. And as more questions kept coming, I knew I needed more people to help me answer them, so I set out to develop what we called our “stakeholder” team.
On the team were:
- our administrator overseeing intervention within our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model
- a special education teacher who worked primarily with students who qualified for reading services
- an English Learner teacher
- myself, a licensed reading teacher and doctoral candidate also serving as a literacy coordinator and English teacher at the high school
- another English teacher who also had a K-12 reading license
- a district-level literacy coach.
We gathered as much literacy data as we could spanning the previous three years for the incoming freshmen. This process took place in November/December so it could inform registration and scheduling, which for current eighth graders was in late January. We pulled the following data:
- NWEA MAP Scores from grades 6-8
- state reading tests grades 4-7 (students would take the test in grade 8)
- 5th grade Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) Data. Our middle schools did not do any kind of informal reading assessment, but we wanted this data for triangulation purposes.
While the process was imperfect, we were looking for trends and for high school students this was our best screener. We compiled a list of students who seemed to consistently fall in the 1-30th percentile on the standardized tests. We used the BAS to do some initial verifying and clarifying if students’ scores seemed to be inconsistent.
From there, we started having conversations with middle school special education case managers, administrators, and English teachers to learn more about the students we had identified as adolescent readers in need of additional support.
You may notice that one data point we chose NOT to include is grades. We were finding that some students who consistently struggled on reading assessments might actually get As in English and that was because they had a lot of support. Ultimately, we wanted to ensure we were supporting students in tackling complex literacy independently. This whole process allowed us to seek solutions from a much more empathetic place.
Once we had our list of identified students, it was time to market the opportunity and get students, parents, and case managers on board to register these students for a course we developed called Academic Literacy 9. This was a year-long course students would take in addition to their English class to have a double dose of literacy instruction. We kept the class sizes small (<15 students) and offered it several times during the day so it could fit in their already tight 9th grade schedule. For some students, it meant they were with one of the reading teachers instead of a special education academic support hour for reading instruction. This meant some Individual Education Plans (IEPs) had to be revised. For other students it meant postponing a language and starting it in 10th grade instead. Our school administrators were also great about allowing students to postpone wellness and individual fitness classes so they could have this reading class.
The more challenging part was convincing students that we were not only going to advance their literacy, but we were also going to have fun. It was a little like trying to convince an English teacher that performing statistical tests to determine significance would be empowering. Fortunately, we were able to sell the course and once the first year was under our belts, students did the selling for us.
For more on the Academic Literacy class, I invite you to read an article I wrote for Education Leadership called Baiting the Reading Hook.