A raft of past programs have failed to substantially improve the reading skills of middle grade and high school students. CPS is trying once again, as part of a federal project that aims to help teens learn how to analyze complex non-fiction.
'I do not resent them'
Catalyst Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher visited Marshall High School Feb. 29 and March 16 to see the Office of Accountability reading team program in action. Here is her report. All of the subject-area classes I observed in March had the word of the day, "scrutinize," displayed on the board. All but one used a timed reading at the beginning of the class period. The math department uses daily timed word problems written by department members in place of reading passages.
Though teachers are conducting timed readings, some aren't happy about it. "It's taken away from the teaching of science," says science teacher Marge Siemieniak. "You really have a break after the timed reading. You have to start pretty much all over again to incorporate your curriculum. ... At some point, the kids are turning off because you're taking isolated passages out of context, and the relevance really isn't there."
The reading passages are geared to departments' subject matter, but they don't always correspond to what a teacher is teaching.
Students I spoke with gave mixed-to-positive reviews of the readings themselves. Some seniors chose research projects based on topics they learned about through timed readings, according to Barry Little, English Department chair and reading coordinator.
One day a week, Mary Dunne and Ron Browne each teach reading strategies to about 20 students referred by teachers. Teachers are invited to watch. This day, two are observing Dunne teach how to preview and skim text before reading it word for word. She is using a short passage about French painter Toulouse-Lautrec.
First, she gives the students 20 seconds to look over the text and pick up as much information as they can. Freshman Alexis Young volunteers her 20-second gleanings. "It's about a crippled genius, Toulouse-Lautrec," she says. "He wanted to live in Paris because he liked the artwork and all that."
Then, she directs them to read the passage twice, once skimming—reading only the first and last paragraphs, and the first sentences of the paragraphs in between—and once reading the whole thing. Students push their reading speed by gliding pace cards made of sandpaper line-by-line down the passage. "Pick up with those pacers," Dunne urges kindly. "I see a few people plodding along, a little too slow." After each reading, students answer 10 questions at the end of the passage.
Near the end of class, students report how well they did after each reading. Young went from five correct answers after skimming to seven correct answers after a full reading. Montisha Thomas rose from four correct answers to seven.
"What we're trying to prove today is that it takes the same amount of time to preview, skim and read as it does to read it once, and you pick up more information in the same amount of time," says Dunne.
Young and Thomas say they've found Dunne's weekly class helpful. "I read much faster, and I understand what I'm reading," says Thomas. She credits the course with improving her grade in her daily reading class with Marshall English teacher Pat Hawkins.
Team members also score points with the course. "It's a far more believable team than most external partners," says Marshall's Little. "I do not resent them telling me how to change my teaching because I know they've been there. The fact that I'm seeing Mary and Ron upstairs teaching before they tell me what to do goes a long way."
To Dunne, that's just common sense. "How can I tell people what to do in their classes if I don't have contact with kids myself?"