Jackson Central-Merry (JCM) Academy for Medical Technology, located in Jackson, TN, is an inner city, high-poverty (95%), and high-minority (93%) high school of approximately 800 students. Since being restructured four years ago, principal Eric Jones and the staff of JCM have created a safe, orderly, and inviting school environment that supports learning, encourages regular attendance, and promotes positive student behavior. A consistent focus on literacy has enabled JCM to increase student state test scores, improve the graduation rate from 54% to 91%, and produce a significant increase in ACT scores.
The leadership team at JCM understands that real, long-term, systemic and sustainable school improvement begins in the classroom with the mindsets and practices of the teachers. Like every school implementing the Common Core State Standards, JCM is a work in progress. However, JCM has been able to do what few other schools have even attempted to accomplish—change classroom practices by building the collective capacity of the teaching staff using a defined set of instructional practices school wide. Not only do JCM teachers teach bell-to-bell, but they also ensure that reading, writing, and discussion using higher-order thinking and real-world application are an integral part of every lesson each day. Finally, JCM understands that the key to the school’s success is implementation with fidelity.
By Dr. Teresa Littrell McDaniel, Assistant Principal, Jackson (TN) Central-Merry Academy
The onset of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards has raised the awareness of educators regarding the rigor of instruction in many classrooms and the depth at which teachers engage students in rigorous curriculum. I have spent most of my career in Title I, low socioeconomic status schools labeled as “low-performing/target” for failing to meet AYP where, despite the best efforts of No Child Left Behind, the majority of students enter high school significantly below grade level in basic reading and math skills.
In many ways, less than adequately prepared teachers could “hide” in these schools since students are often not expected to achieve at the same level of “good standing” high schools. However, international tests like NAEP and PISA suggest that American students are less prepared than their international peers for college and career.
Perhaps more importantly, business and industry leaders unabashedly proclaim that the “business as usual” status of American schools is not producing a hirable workforce in the global economy. Policymakers seem to be suggesting that we can just identify and fire the bad teachers and hire new ones. But those of us in high-poverty schools recognize that the unique challenges of teaching this demographic does not foster an environment where teachers are lining up at our door applying for open positions. We must increase the capacity of the faculty we have through professional development to improve instruction by raising expectations for our students, our teachers, and most importantly, ourselves. This school year at Jackson (TN) Central-Merry (JCM) we have focused on increasing rigor through a schoolwide focus on literacy and increasing faculty capacity through professional development.
With the pervasive availability of technology, no longer are learning institutions the dwelling places of higher learning and knowledge. Libraries and book stores have reluctantly relinquished their near monopoly on the availability of the printed word. In addition to the professional literacy level requirement, social networking has ushered in literacy-based socialization. Never before in history has literacy been more important to the acquisition of meaningful employment and the pursuit of happiness in both professional and personal relationships. Literacy is indeed the gateway skill. And yet, last year I observed an English class in which students never wrote a single word. In 90 minutes, the only assignments given required students to simply circle the letter to the answer. After observing multiple classes, I realized that it was possible for a student to sit through four 90-minute blocks and never actually read anything or write a complete sentence…in high school (pause for collective gasp).
We set the lofty goal of improving student literacy skills in our high school by focusing on increasing the level of rigor for instruction. With a faculty of dedicated teachers and a literacy council of like-minded colleagues, we have embarked on a journey that is taking us DEEPER into classroom instruction, DEEPER into how and why the student brain functions in the classroom, and DEEPER into the aspects of leadership required to shift a culture and change a school. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview for educational leaders who want to implement a schoolwide instructional model to help teachers create and organize their lessons with a literacy focus designed to improve reading comprehension skills for students at all levels. We call our schoolwide instructional model DEEPER, but I would caution that DEEPER is not a one-size-fits-all pattern for instructional reform or school improvement but it rather a framework that contains the basic tenets for rigorous literacy-based instruction in all content areas.
Mike Schmoker (2011) said that the best way to create “consistent implementation of sound curriculum” (p. 65) is for every school to create a general lesson template. Tenets from Schmoker’s Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, a book-study selection, provided the foundation for our literacy initiative and lesson template, DEEPER.
Perhaps the most important aspect of our plan to increase rigor and improve instruction is our expectation that teachers make the most of available learning time by teaching bell-to-bell, and that reading and writing will occur with every student, every class, every block, every day. We have emphasized that in order to improve reading skills, our students must spend the majority of the school day reading and writing (enter a sarcastic “duh”). We designed an instructional model that facilitates bell-to-bell instruction, promotes literacy activities in every classroom, and provides opportunities for metacognition and assessment. The acronym DEEPER represents the deeper understanding required with the new Common Core State Standards and structures the lesson with the following components:
- Do Now: Each class begins with a brief lesson, often referred to as “bell work,” which teachers post before class begins. Students are expected to enter the classroom and immediately begin working on their “Do Now” activity with no direction from the teacher.
- Essential question: Every lesson must have an essential question posted that invokes deep thought based on the lesson’s instruction and requires demonstration of skill/objective mastery to answer. The essential question must require higher-order thinking to answer. The essential question is different from a guiding question. A guiding question might ask a student to identify the extended metaphor in the poem, “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. A DEEPER essential question would ask, “Use quotes from the poem to explain your answer to the following. How does the extended staircase metaphor contrast between the ‘crystal stair’ and the life the mother describes? What message is the author conveying to the reader with the shift in focus from the mother’s staircase to the son’s staircase in the last lines?”
- Engage: Teachers must engage students for the acquisition of knowledge. A DEEPER lesson accesses a student’s “web of neurons” with creating meaningful learning activities that establish connections to existing neurological pathways (Pillars, 2011). DEEPER lessons include direct instruction that focuses on the learning objective with interactive lectures, authentic literacy activities, and frequent checks for understanding (Schmoker, 2011).
- Practice: After the application of knowledge, students must facilitate objective mastery through the application of knowledge. Practice can be guided, group, or independent and include activities that provide opportunities for students to use the acquired knowledge in a practical application with teacher guidance. During student practice, teachers collect data and adjust instruction as needed.
- Evaluate: A DEEPER lesson includes an assessment that provides evidence of student mastery of the skill or objective to the teacher.
- Reflect Now: A DEEPER lesson must include a lesson summary and closure. During the last 7 to 10 minutes of the lesson, students answer the essential question in written form.
Reading: Every Student, Every Class, Every Day!
As we anticipate the implementation of the Common Core, we have increased rigor by requiring reading and writing instruction for every student in every class, every day, and trained faculty members to identify texts with appropriate Lexile (quantitative measures) levels for their classes. The initiative includes the following evidence-based instructional strategies:
- A “close reading” activity in every class, every day. Our close reading design includes identifying challenging academic vocabulary, linking the text to prior knowledge, and relating the text to the course content. Students highlight, underline, and answer questions as they reread the text. As part of the pre-conference for observations, I require teachers to identify the Lexile level of their close reading activity, and we are communicating with students about Lexiles more frequently.
- Interactive lectures enable students to participate in learning and respond to guided questions so that they are able to identify relevant information in lectures. For example, in the past teachers would “give notes” by putting a PowerPoint on the screen and ask students to “take notes” or basically copy the information on their paper. In an interactive lecture, students use the Cornell method of note-taking. Teachers give guiding questions, which students record on the left side of their paper and record the answers on the right side of their paper as they listen. Also, as students generate additional questions, they record these questions in their notes as well.
- Academic vocabulary is emphasized in all content areas to teach root words, prefixes, and suffixes, and design teachable moments to reinforce vocabulary building skills. Each classroom has a word wall with vocabulary words for the unit of study.
- At least one essential question is created using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Costa’s higher-level thinking and questioning strategies to guide each lesson. Students are required to process the information from the lesson at a higher level, not simply recall facts from the lesson. Each lesson ends with a reflective writing activity in which students are asked to answer the essential question for the lesson.
Professional development: Professional development has shifted from relying on visiting experts to providing sessions developed and facilitated by our literacy council and instructional leaders. Mel Riddile, the associate director of high school services at NASSP, consulted with the literacy council to lay the foundation for collaborative professional development with a literacy focus.
Faculty book studies: Carol Dweck’s (2006) book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006, Random House) provided the framework for addressing faculty and staff members’ fixed mindsets and for taking steps toward establishing growth mindsets. Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson (2009, ASCD) and Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner by Jackie Acree Walsh and Beth Dankert Sattes (2004, Corwin) provided instructional strategies for addressing Common Core standards. And Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit has helped us address the organizational habits that we need to foster to ensure teacher implementation of the instructional model.
Engagement: We emphasize the importance of asking quality questions that require students to think beyond recall. The “cold calling” strategy, for example, increases engagement because the teacher asks everyone a question, allows time for all students to think and formulate an answer, then calls on one student to give the answer. Teachers are encouraged to occasionally have another student summarize the answer in his own words to help keep students engaged. Other strategies for engagement include real-world problem solving activities and research projects that require students to identify relevant information and make real-world applications.
Cross-curricular writing: The “do now” and “reflect now” components of the DEEPER instructional model require all students to write at the beginning and the end of every class in every block. In addition, teachers are required to include written responses to questions, note-taking, quick writing, and extended writing as part of their daily lesson. Basically, we tell teachers that when we drop in for an observation, we want to see students with pieces of paper on their desks and a pen in their hands, or a computer on their desks and typing fingers.
Our vision is that on any given day, a visitor to a JCM classroom will hear meaningful class discussions that require students to articulate thoughts and communicate effectively; will see active, fluent teaching that limits the amount of teacher talk and portrays teachers as thinking managers; and will observe highly engaged students who are prepared to compete in a global economy. And we know that we are on the right track to realizing this vision and producing students who are college and career ready, and teachers who are truly making a difference and changing school culture. We do not profess to have all the answers, but at JCM, we are all now asking the essential questions, and perhaps the skill of asking questions is more important than the ability to answer questions.
Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit. New York, NY: Random House.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.
Pillars, W. (2011). “Teachers as Brain-Changers: Neuroscience and Learning” Education Week.
Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.