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Teacher Research Transforms a School in Oakland

Teachers in what was once one of the lowest performing elementary schools in Oakland have transformed their school through a combination of teacher research and innovative instructional strategies.

Teacher action research has a long history in the Oakland schools. The Mills Teacher Scholars program, under the guidance of Mills College professor Anna Richert, has been supporting teacher researchers here for more than a decade. We visited the scholars at New Highland Academy last spring and saw how they were investigating strategies for teaching their students to think critically about what they are reading. I also posted an interview with Anna Richert. Last week I saw another presentation from this team. This is not just good teacher inquiry. This is work that is transforming their school in remarkable ways.

The following information is drawn from a presentation by Aija Simmons and Channon Neal-de-Stanton, and a paper by Ms. Simmons, entitled Reading Spaces: The Student, the Author, the Text; An Inquiry into Reading Comprehension. Ms. Simmons and her New Highland Academy colleagues will be among the 40 teacher scholars sharing their Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work on the evening of June 5th at Mills College.

New Highland Academy is a Title 1 school in a working class neighborhood in East Oakland. More than 90% of the students receive free or reduced price lunches, and the school has many English learners. This school has benefited from additional funding from a program called the Quality Education Investment Act, a 2006 law, sponsored by the California Teachers Association, which has provided low income schools with funds to support lower class sizes and professional development. These teachers found that in looking at their student achievement data that while the students were learning to decode reasonably well, their reading comprehension was weak.

In her talk with teachers, Ms. Simmons encouraged us not to focus on the specific reading strategies they were sharing. 

"The Answers" are what we all problematize. Because what "the answer" is for me in this moment might not be the answer two years from now. So the good thing about inquiry is that I'm constantly understanding that there's a new question, this is a new group of students, it might work better than the last thing but I'm continuing to probe myself, so that I'm pushing myself to deeper understandings about how my students learn, and I'm coming back to the question. I have had several inquiry projects that I've looked at over the course of multiple years, but I use them as professional developments. People have the same question that you have, and as you come together, and you begin to think more and share your ideas of inquiry, and get more tools, we're moving ourselves forward.


One of the things Anna Richert, who is a Mills professor, always says to us is, "You're not trying to prove anything to anybody. You're trying to get smarter about how your students are learning your content." So that's the purpose of analyzing our data. It's not to be able to say "This is the answer to how you teach kids to read." It is to say "This worked better for my students in this moment, these are the movements they made, this is how it affected all of my practice, this is how it's affected my grade level, and this is how it's affected my school; the new knowledge about how our students understand.

In spite of her warning, I think it is useful to take a close look at what Ms. Simmons and her colleagues have arrived at through their inquiry, and the results they have achieved.

As most researchers do, Ms. Simmons began a question:

How will teaching students comprehension strategies and coding text their reading comprehension? How will trying this strategy change my teaching of reading? Embedded in my inquiry questions are assumptions I have about skills it takes be strong readers. The learning goals I have for my students are that they would be active readers who are analyzing, thinking, and clarifying texts as they read them. They would be able to ask and answer questions that require recall, inference, and synthesis of ideas. They would also be able to engage in meaningful and critical conversations about a text. The precursor to all these skills of course is, understanding the text.

As this inquiry and students learning progressed, I looked for several indicators of success. I asked are students making valid predictions, asking questions while reading, noticing and thinking about parts of the text they don't understand. Are students able to show that they are making meaning of text as active readers and able to share what they understand through discussion and writing? Are students answering recall, inference, and analysis style questions about a text?

Ms. Simmons and her teaching and research partner Ms. Neal-de-Stanton, developed a novel strategy for their students.

The Big Five

My grade level partner and I chose 5 main strategies to focus on: stopping at unknown words and trying to think of a synonym, using text features to help understand important parts of a text, predicting, analyzing figurative language, and summarizing while reading and at the end. We developed symbols that reflected each of these strategies and used the symbols to help students to read and use strategies. We created an anthology of pre-coded texts for the students. Using that anthology we discussed the strategies and symbols and taught students when we used them in the text and why. We moved on to reading text together and coding as we went. Finally we expected students to read and discuss together using the codes they knew to make notes on the text or to discuss texts together. The following table shows the strategies and the symbols we used to represent them.



As the learning progressed I looked for several indicators of success. I asked are students making valid predictions, asking questions while reading, noticing and thinking about parts of the text they don't understand. Are students able to show that they are making meaning of text as active readers and able to share what they understand through discussion and writing? Are students answering recall, inference, and analysis style questions about a text?

In order to gather data, Ms. Simmons gave students surveys, to understand their reaction to the strategies. She also had several meetings with students where she discussed how they were learning, and she also listened to students reading and asking one another clarifying questions.

Here is the first of four fascinating findings she made. 

1. Helping students to make their thinking while reading public enables them to have conversations and construct meaning together. It also enables the teacher to give more targeted and strategic reading lessons.


In the group I facilitated, listening to the students discuss the books really helped me to figure out where students were cognitively as we were reading. I learned which students were still reading and thinking word by word because they really latched onto the vocabulary strategy. I could tell which students were thinking ahead and trying to figure the story out because they would repeatedly make predictions. In this group I noticed that many of the students really like to go back through the chapters and summarize them to review what happened, to share with people who missed days, and to make sure we were on target as we moved forward through the text. One student wrote on a survey that they really like using the summary strategy because "after reading I can go back and just read the summaries." Another student decided that when we finished the book we should use our strategies to make mini versions of the book, which we did. I was really excited to see students taking so much ownership about were the lessons would go and what they wanted to do with the text to take it further. These things seemed to be a direct result students taking ownership over the strategies they felt comfortable with.

I also noticed throughout the course of the year that students were latching on to reading identities. Students felt like they were great predictors, summarizers, or really strong at learning vocabulary through reading. It reminded me of the roles students take on during a reciprocal teaching session; however I had not assigned any student to a specific role. Students were learning their own reading practices. (Appendix C) One student who got really engaged in predicting started creating her own subsets of prediction symbols. She added a code for initial predictions, another for predictions that were more questions than predictions, and another for confirmed predictions or predictions that were discounted. Eventually she also started using the story features to identify what she was summarizing. She would use the summary symbol and identify the problem or the solution in her summaries.

Another one of my focal students went from turning in long paragraphs where he was copying from the book into using strategies to say targeted things about the text. Even though he chose very simple texts and he used the exact same strategies for every book he was demonstrating growth in thinking about ways he could talk about a text. By the end of the year he concluded that using strategies was helping him become a better reader. He also had made the determination through trying many different strategies that he preferred numbering a text as important things happened over summarizing.

Every time I sat down to discuss the data with my colleagues or to analyze the data on my on my reading instruction was shaped by what I saw. The pacing guide for my reading instruction was no longer moving through the stories in an anthology, or following along with a mandated pacing guide. My students were shaping the pace and skills I was teaching. We were exploring many different genres and reading many different types of texts. Patterns of skills were emerging and not only were my students growing as readers I was becoming a better teacher every day. I was amazed at how creative I was able to become giving reading instruction. I started spending weekends at book stores reading about how to address certain reading problems and tailoring lessons to fit my students' needs. In somewhat of honest confession, this was the first year my reading workshop never ran out of steam. I gave consistent targeted reading intervention 4 days a week for the entire school year because knew things were constantly emerging out of the data.

Her other findings were as follows:

2. Readers transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn may need explicit instruction on how to recognize when they don't understand something in the text, even though they could fluently read the words.

3. Students tend to confuse their interest in a text as a reader with the intention of the author. Therefore comprehension must be addressed on at least two levels. a. Personal interest of the reader. b. Intention of the author.

4. Just teaching clarifying strategies is not enough. Students need to be taught to use the genre as a frame to guide their use of clarifying strategies.

Each of these findings is richly explained and supported with classroom data in the paper referenced above, which can be downloaded here.

Ms. Simmons explained how becoming a teacher researcher had given her a greater sense of authority in her classroom:

Our inquiry has transformed our entire school, and the way our entire school is teaching reading. So we now have a school-wide - everybody agreed upon it, it was teacher-centered, and now as a school students are seeing the same reading strategies from K to 5, because of the results of our inquiry.

One of the things that makes this powerful and different as a teacher is the sense that teachers have a professional voice; we know a little bit about what we're doing in our classrooms with our kids. So we're not just going saying "I don't like this program, I don't want to do it." We're going in saying "the data is showing me that this aspect is not working for my kids." We're saying "by looking at this strategically and really answering my question, here it is." And we can say "here's my student work. Here's how I know it's not working. When I tried it this way, here's my student work. Here's how I know that this is working. And who's going to look at those two pieces of data and say, "no you have to do it that way." When you go in with the evidence, that you know why one is working for your kids as opposed to another, it gives you a lot more power behind what you're saying.

While we do not want to make test score data the driving force in our instruction, it does give us a useful check on some of the skills being targeted here. Taking a look at the school's state testing data reveals a good trend. New Highland was one of Oakland's lowest performing schools when it got was revamped in 2006. In 2008, 23% of the fourth graders, and only two percent of the fifth graders at this school scored proficient or advanced in English-Language Arts. The following year, the students who had been working with these strategies hit the fourth and fifth grades, and the scores improved dramatically. The latest results from 2011 show that 45% of the fourth graders and 47% of the fifth graders are proficient or advanced in ELA.

These teachers have, with solid support from their principal Liz Ozol, taken charge of their reading curriculum. They have come up with strategies that make decoding text an interactive process, where students can actively debate the meanings of what they are reading. These strategies have not been implemented blindly - the teachers have been actively looking at student responses every step of the way. That is what the inquiry process is all about. This is work that has been developing over several years, made possible by steady support and guidance from the Mills Teacher Scholars program.

When high level administrators or turnaround experts see statistics as we see at New Highland in 2008, we often get as a response the mandate to fire the ineffective teachers responsible, or at the least, the imposition of a scripted curriculum. But in 2008, New Highland had been using the scripted Open Court curriculum for more than seven years. The scripted approach had not addressed the comprehension issues these teachers confronted. It was these teachers, who systematically observed their students, analyzed where they were struggling, and came up with original strategies to help them make solid gains.

The Oakland school district has this year supported the expansion of the Mills Teacher Scholars, from one school last year to four schools in 2012. This is a great start.

But how about this for a next step. How about drawing on the expertise these teachers have demonstrated in teaching their students to understand what they have read? This technique would be an excellent opportunity for broader inquiry across the District, because many students have similar issues with comprehension. And at New Highland Academy we have at least two accomplished teacher researchers capable of providing their peers with guidance, and modeling active inquiry into our teaching practice. If you want to see the power of teacher inquiry and leadership, take a close look here. 

What do you think? Have you experienced anything like this?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he now lead...