How a Cross-Curricular Literacy Plan Transformed a School
Improved test scores reflected richer classroom conversations, deeper critical thinking, and a more rigorous approach to teaching and learning.
By Ava Javid
In 2009, I moved to New York City and started my career teaching high school Living Environment and IB Biology. Like every school, mine faced its own challenges when it came to performing up to expectations, whether they be Common Core or city standards such as the New York City Quality Review. Every school in the city is required to participate in these reviews, which assess 10 components within three quality categories: Instructional Core, School Culture, and Systems for Improvement.
When I transitioned out of the classroom and into an instructional support and professional development provider role as a school success manager with ThinkCERCA more than two years ago, one of the first schools I started working with was Joseph B. Cavallaro.
Disappointing Scores Inspire Action
A couple of years ago, the New York school IS 281-The Joseph B. Cavallaro Intermediate School was given a “developing” rating in the Quality Review’s Instructional Core and was scored as “fair” in the 2015-16 School Quality Snapshot. After receiving the second-worst rating on the “Rigorous Instruction” category, it was clear that the school needed to re-align its curriculum.
School leaders began by asking the tough question: What was the underlying cause of these low results? One of the answers was that they needed to help all students build their literacy skills across the curriculum. They then began working on a solution, which consisted of:
- Creating an instructional framework to support all students in building literacy skills;
- Integrating writing from text sources into the curricula across all grades and content areas;
- Implementing a literacy platform to supplement informational texts; and
- Using writing prompts and essential questions to support classroom conversation.
The Difference a Year Makes
Only a year later, IS 281 saw a significant, positive change in how students learn and retain information. The school saw growth not only in writing but also in the academic discussion and focused, accountable talk that covered learning goals and social rules with their English language learners. The Quality Review’s Instructional Core indicator 2.2 went from “developing” to “proficient.” With this, the school also saw their Rigorous Instruction rating go up from “fair” to “good” in their 2016-17 School Quality Snapshot.
Maria Delfini, an assistant principal at the school, first saw the positive effects of a more rigorous instruction in the classroom. “The amount of discussion and accountable talk that the students are doing is just phenomenal,” she said. “What a literacy platform does is it allows the school’s integration of the instructional shift into the teachers’ practice.” Based on the improved scores on the Principal Performance Review, Delfini added, “the amount of rigor that the students are doing in the classroom has definitely improved.”
The school’s results on the Quality Review also reflected a positive increase in performance and a growth of more than 50 percent, including significant growth from students’ beginning-of-the-year to mid-year evaluations.
Once the New York City Quality Review was complete, the school received positive feedback on productive student conversations. “Students in this class shared their thinking openly with their peers and took notes when they heard new evidence,” according to their reviewer. “During the whole class, students responded freely to each other without the need for teacher prompting.”
Cross-Curricular Improvements for Students and Teachers
“Children are building academic vocabulary in a way that’s interdisciplinary,” said Delfini. “They’re able to retain information because they’ve already learned it in another class. We’re seeing very positive results in all curriculum areas.”
The use of writing prompts and essential questions to discuss texts provides a course for students to balance informational reading and literary works. “Along with that,” Delfini said, “some of these kids are moving one or more levels in the Writing Modality on the NYSESLAT exam from where they were when they arrived at our school. We are definitely seeing a tremendous amount of growth academically and socially with the students.”
Teachers have grown in their own way, too, by developing a common language across all content areas. One of the signs of effective school leadership is using communication and resources to work toward goals, and educators at Joseph B. Cavallaro are doing just that. At the same time, they’re building curricula that are engaging and rigorous, but still accessible and coherent for a variety of learners. There is still a long way to go, Delfini mentioned, but she and her teachers now have the building blocks to provide students with necessary critical thinking and literacy skills to use—and continue strengthening—in every content area.
Ava Javid is a school success manager at ThinkCERCA and a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. Previously, she was an NYC DOE science teacher. Follow her on Twitter @ava_javid.