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Kenwood Academy High School students annotate, or “talk to,” a political cartoon as they work to uncover its meaning. [Photo by Marc Monaghan]

Photo by Marc Monaghan

Kenwood Academy High School students annotate, or “talk to,” a political cartoon as they work to uncover its meaning. [Photo by Marc Monaghan]

Wells High School freshman reading teacher Jillian Connolly is one of a minority of teachers in CPS high schools with a reading specialist endorsement. Even so, Connolly says she wasn’t fully prepared to work with teen readers.
She knew how to teach strategies for reading and writing. But most high school students face deeper challenges—the social-emotional aspects of learning from other students, how to be persistent when reading frustrating texts, and developing content knowledge in tandem with reading skills. They also need to show how they came to conclusions about what a text says.

“The difference is in metacognition and showing what you think as a reader,” Connolly says.

Through Reading Apprenticeship, a project of the research organization WestEd, Connolly has learned strategies designed to meet these challenges.

Several studies have found that the program has a positive impact on high school student motivation, grade-point averages, and reading comprehension scores—in one case, scores that were 33 percent higher than expected if students were not involved in the program. (The studies were funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the Stuart Foundation and the Los Angeles Education Partnership).

Why is it effective? Experts believe it’s because students use persistence and problem-solving to help them learn difficult material. 

In Chicago, the program is funded by a $300,000 grant from the Searle Funds at the Chicago Community Trust. Currently, it includes 45 teachers at four schools: Wells, Kenwood, Hancock and Von Steuben. It will soon expand, perhaps to as many as 135 teachers at 13 schools.

Reading Apprenticeship is one of several interventions whose approaches are being incorporated into Project READI, a federal project to develop a new curriculum for adolescent literacy.

On an April morning, Connolly is working with students on book reviews and guides them to look up reviews from the New York Times as models for their own—called “mentor texts,” because the goal is for students to learn from them as if they were teachers.

Connolly reads the first paragraph from a review of the young adult historical novel “The Book Thief.”

“Marcus Zusak has not really written ‘Harry Potter and the Holocaust.’ It just feels that way,” Connolly reads. She points out that the review mentions the author and notes the contrast with what students wrote. “Some of you started your reviews with, ‘In my book,’ and then the book’s title,” Connolly says.

Next, she leads the class in dissecting the sentence.

“Is there a book called ‘Harry Potter and the Holocaust?’” she asks. She takes the class back to the clause “has not really written,” to point out that the answer is no. Beside the sentence, she writes, “Comparison to H.P. / J.K.R. author,” for the series by J. K. Rowling.

Connolly moves on to the next paragraph, which starts, “It is loaded with librarian appeal.” She puts a box around the word “appeal,” which students may not know. “If it has librarian appeal, what does that mean?”

“Something a librarian might like,” one student says. Connolly paraphrases: “It appeals to librarians, teachers, and others who like books.”

She points out that one young man, Eddy, thought the book was boring. “But when your teacher gave it to you, did she think it was the best book ever?”

“Yeah,” Eddy replies. The point of the sentence has been brought home: The writer’s use of “librarian appeal” is actually a thinly veiled slam to show that other readers might not like the book.

The review continues, stating that the book “bestows a self-congratulatory glow on anyone willing to grapple with it.” Connolly pats herself on the back.

Once the class has finished, Connolly notes key points from the Times review that should be a template for students: They must summarize the book, make a recommendation about it, and mention the author.

Connolly’s class is an exercise in important reading strategies, including annotating material and analyzing models so they know what is expected in their own work.

Network for College Success Co-Director Mary Ann Pitcher explains that the goal is to get students engaged in reading longer, higher-level material and in analyzing their thought processes. (The network is a project at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration that helps high school principals use school improvement strategies that will help students get ready for college.)

“You start by modeling. You help students understand, ‘Where did you get stuck?’ ” Pitcher says. Students learn to view reading, she adds, “not as a magical thing that [just] happens, but as something you work through.”

At Kenwood Academy High School, Principal Greg Jones says Reading Apprenticeship freshmen exceeded the school’s year-end goal for test score gains—by January. “If we keep this pace, it will break national records,” Jones says. He praises the program for building fluency as well as the more critical skill of comprehension.

“Kids can read. But can they clearly articulate and make sense of what they’ve read?” Jones says.

Kenwood’s Human Geography teacher, Nedaa Alwawi, says Reading Apprenticeship helped her to overcome feeling underprepared to teach her students how to read and understand class material.

Just a few days after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, Alwawi’s class is working on the topic “What is Terrorism?” An editorial cartoon is projected onto the whiteboard at the front of her class.

The cartoon shows two terrorists with bombs and guns. One is American and the other, sporting a button that reads “Al-Qaida,” is telling him “Howdy, Brother!”

Alwawi hands out copies of the cartoon to students and asks them to note their observations and information they can use to answer her questions, such as why the Al-Qaida figure is saying “Howdy.”

Asia Gilmore, 14, labels the American: “This man is like an American who hates almost everyone and everything.”

About the other man, she writes: “I can tell that he is Muslim by the way he dresses, but I am confused about what he is saying.”

Another student writes: “The Al-Qaida man wants to shake the other man’s hand, but he is resistant.”

Alwawi’s class is using the strategy “Talking to the Text.” They write down questions and comments and, in effect, have a “conversation on paper” with the material. Then, they share their written observations with the group and write notes on the whiteboard next to the cartoon.

Dissecting the various explanations, Alwawi hones in on one for discussion: “This man says ‘Howdy, Brother’ because he’s like a partner in crime… They’re both terrorists.”

Next, the group tackles an article with the title ‘What is Terrorism?’ Alwawi begins with a strategy called “Think-aloud,” in which she explains her thinking out loud to the class while writing model notes.

She reads the first sentence. “Terrorism has come to signify race and religion even though everyone is careful not to say so.”

On the overhead projector, she draws a box around the word “signify,” to indicate that she believes the sentence hinges on it and she will want to look it up. She writes “100%” at the end of the sentence to show that she agrees.

Students analyze the rest of the article in groups, and write their own notes line by line. In a section on school shootings, Asia Gilmore puts a box around the word “ammunition.” “And what is Columbine?” she asks, about a reference to the 1999 Colorado school shooting.

Gilmore explains that the notes help to pinpoint information and make it easier to review material.

During a discussion, students use “sentence frames” to help them understand academic language. Some of the sentences they use: “After listening to (name) I agree with…” and “In addition to what (name) said, I’d like to add…”

At Wells, several students in Connolly’s class say they learned to annotate text before high school. But continually emphasizing the practice “helps me understand better, keep all the thoughts I have up in my head and answer questions,” says Mercedes Harris.

Christopher Arroyo, who came to Wells from Burr Elementary, says Connolly’s teaching has helped him improve his grades: Last year, he got A’s, B’s and D’s, but this year it is A’s, B’s and C’s. Connolly gives the class more guidance, too. Arroyo says his 8th-grade teacher “put us in the material and made us decide what to do. I had trouble turning my work in. It was hard to focus.”

Connolly’s school-wide literacy specialist position has just one more year left, but the school plans to keep expanding Reading Apprenticeship.

Like other CPS initiatives, Reading Apprenticeship will have an impact if the district sticks with it long enough, she notes.

“Right when you feel it’s making way and you feel confident in it, it changes,” Connolly says. But she has hope: “The impact it’s made on the teachers—that’s not going to change.”

Tell us what you think. Leave a comment below, or email rharris@catalyst-chicago.org.