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Middle schools tackle disciplinary literacy

SchoolsMiddle SchoolsDr. SeussRenee Foose

Read Across America Day is a tradition in Howard County — at least in the elementary schools.

But on March 1, the Dr. Seuss-themed festivities expanded to at least one secondary school — Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City, where for the first time, staff expanded their quiet observance of the National Education Association-sponsored literacy project, honoring Theodor Geisel's birthday (March 2).

"This is the first time we've done it this big," said Dunloggin media specialist Meron Girma. "We always celebrated, always had green eggs and ham for breakfast, but this year we wanted to expand."

So they expanded, inviting guests from the county government and Board of Education to read their favorite Dr. Seuss books at assemblies, and to help students take the "Reader's Oath," pledging to read for fun each day for a month.

Expanding the Read Across America Day celebration at Dunloggin was doubly important, Girma said. Not only does the program encourage reading for fun, but that encouragement is needed more than ever with the introduction of disciplinary literacy in county middle schools.

While students still take English Language Arts classes, and reading interventions if low test scores demand it, this is the first year there has not been a standalone reading class in middle schools — the result of a massive re-working of the schedules and curriculum to better align with the Common Core standards.

The Board of Education approved the controversial overhaul in February 2012 in order to meet the demands of the Common Core Standards, and the upcoming Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career — or PARCC — tests that will replace the Maryland School Assessment.

Since then, teachers and staff spent months on professional development, said Clarissa Evans, the school system's executive director of School Improvement and Curricular Programs, who delivered a mid-year progress update on the program of studies to the board on Feb. 28.

"What we're asking students to do is engage with complex texts, pull information from those texts and then use it in some way," Evans said. "Students learn best when they apply skills in areas where they're deepening their knowledge of the (other) content."

Students receive explicit reading, writing and speaking instruction through their English Language Arts classes, Evans said, and then apply it to classes across the board.

More simply put, every teacher is a reading teacher, said Dunloggin reading specialist Kristen Vance, and reading lessons are incorporated into all other classes, like math, science and history.

"Students are expected to be able to read and infer challenging texts within every content," she said. "Knowing how to attack a text like a historian would, and comparing multiple sources, for example, is a skill that our social studies teachers are now responsible for teaching."

Furthermore, Vance said, math teachers like AnnMarie Varlotta last week used "The Lorax" in lessons. In Varlotta's class, sixth- and seventh-grade students focused on the story's "truffula trees," and used different mathematical means to calculate the percentage of trees cut down and the deforestation rate. Eighth-graders created algebraic equations to predict how fast the truffula trees could grow back once re-planted. In technology education, teacher Lexi Couch read Dr. Seuss' "The Sneetches" and had her students design a "star-on/star-off machine."

Outside of the structures of the classroom and disciplinary literacy, "The Sneetches" made another appearance at Dunloggin on Read Across America Day: board members Ellen Giles and Sandra French read "The Sneetches" to the school's eighth-graders. Giles said they selected that story for its themes of inclusion and acceptance.

"Middle school is hard," Giles said. "You're struggling to come into your own and you're not necessarily sure of who you are or where you want to be. You want to be like everyone else and unique at the same time. In the end, we're all the same, and that's what this book is about. ... It's an important lesson in middle school."

Changes to the changes

While the changes to the middle school program of studies has had its benefits — like aligning the schedule across all 19 middle schools, increasing the focus on disciplinary literacy and increasing physical education in many schools to every-other-day year-round, said Evans and Bill Ryan, executive director of School Improvement and School Administration, not all transitions have been smooth. For example, Ryan said, with an every-other-day schedule for related arts, it's harder for students to make up missed work.

Earlier this year, Anne-Marie Lanz, a world language teacher at Burleigh Manor Middle School, spoke to that concern, among others, during a public forum at the Jan. 24 board meeting. Simply put, she said, the new program does not work, at least for the world language program.

"The school system is not providing an environment that benefits our students, at least not for the sixth- and seventh-grade students enrolled in world languages," she said.

Under the new program, sixth- and seventh-grade students take a world language every other day the entire year, while eighth-graders have world language every day the entire year. It's a strain on teachers as well as students, she said.

"The eighth-graders are doing fine," Lanz said. "They have the daily instruction that lets them immerse themselves in a language ... When you have 170-250 kids taking world language, that's a schedule that does not make sense. Teachers are working days and nights, sometimes literally, to make it work."

She had encouraged the board and school system to implement daily world language classes for interested middle school students. Evans and Ryan said next year, sixth-grade world language classes would only be available at Murray Hill and Mount View middle schools to support the world language pilot at those elementary feeder schools. However, world language classes in seventh grade will return to a full-year, every-day course, as it had been. Eighth grade will also remain as a full-year, every-day course.

Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association, spoke in favor of this change, and said that while the union "doesn't love" the idea of world language lacking in sixth grade, members believe every-day instruction is an improvement. Work load for related arts teachers, however, is still a concern, even with some classes like technology education, art and family and consumer sciences returning to a quarterly model with daily instruction.

"You have dramatically increased the number of students (a teacher sees with the every-other-day schedule)," Lemle told the board Feb. 28. "We suggest whatever courses that can be, be run as quarter or semester course, so students can receive daily instruction instead of every-other-day. That makes the most sense."

Superintendent Renee Foose said the school system was continuing to look at school schedules, and would try to find a balance with world languages, in order to be world-class.

"This has to be something that's dynamic; schedules can't be static," she said. "There's some growing pains, but we want to make sure at the end of the end of the day we're providing the best education to all 51,000 of our students, and that we're maximizing and being respectful of our teachers and their time and challenges."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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SchoolsMiddle SchoolsDr. SeussRenee Foose
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