Reading Up

My downtown Los Angeles public high school English students averaged an increase of 53 Lexile points this year. That’s good.

I like good. It’s friendly and approachable, unlike its nemesis, perfect. And since on this last day of the 2016–17 school year, I have already cleaned out not only my closets but also my desk drawers for the first time in two years, let me go ahead and share four specific things that might have made a positive difference.

  1. Establishing a positive environment. Students frequently cite our open-yet-structured community circle discussions as making them feel their voices matter in our class. That’s really good. They also write, in our end-of-year surveys, that our tradition of starting each class period with three compliments or pieces of good news made our classroom environment feel safe and positive. Having student-made posters in the room literally declaring it to be a safe space also helped many students compartmentalize concerns about their own and their families’ safety despite the current administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
Student-made safe-space poster

Music also made the cut. “I came in here every day for a year and never heard the same song twice,” observed one not otherwise ostentatiously attentive senior, whose Lexile score increased 100 points. I’m sure I must have played “Planet Rock” more than once, and probably “Fergalicious” too, but yeah, between getting some Lana Del Rey in before class for the pop-music lovers of 2day and cueing up Gary Burton or Milt Jackson whenever things got spooky-quiet, we certainly had ourselves a melodious year.

2. Let students go first. I am not a big one on lecturing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an agenda. There is all sorts of pedagogy I want to imbue. However, before I unleash my wiley ways, I like to let my students talk about what they want to discuss and clarify after they’ve gone to the trouble of quietly reading and annotating a text for seven minutes.

This is a move I stole from the single most influential piece of writing about teaching I have ever come across — the essay by Alexis Wiggins about trailing students for two days and being astonished, not in a good way, about a) the sheer physical discomfort at having to sit at a desk without getting up for so long and b) how much misunderstanding could be spared by teachers asking students what they want to clarify and talk about before tucking into whatever it is we think is so imperative.

3. Games without frontiers. One of the most effective things we did this year was build inference-makers. The idea for this came from a teacher meeting early in the year where my fellow teachers expressed concern over students not making inferences. That percolated until earlier this spring, when one morning it struck me that you could easily build an inference maker using two pieces of paper and some tape. The first paper you make into a cone; the second, into a tube. Tape the cone to the tube, and then every time you come across an interesting fact in the text, you write it on a scrap of paper, crumple it into a little ball, and either drop it into the tube or take a three-point shot. Then, from the collected facts, you make an inference. Kobe!

This activity worked so well, what with its incorporation of tape (I swear to you that any lesson incorporating tape or glue or any sticky substance will literally stick in students’ minds) and mini-basketball — it worked so well that we followed it up with an inference decoder ring. Finally the students designed their own inference makers, such as this ravenous-for-learning example:

4. Interstate Cultural Exchange. One more thing we did that made a big difference for many 12th graders was establish the Los Angeles Museum of Ohio, whose saga is chronicled here: Briefly, the LAMOO gave our students a chance to discuss socio-economics with their peers at a small rural high school in Ohio. It also helped that along with regularly Skyping with those kids, we also took meetings with historians and authors. It helped further that we had hundreds of visitors to the museum we created and curated, and the students acted as docents, teaching the topic of how Ohio is a swing state that went Republican in 2016 and why.

We’re moving on next year to Wisconsin… and then Michigan, Iowa, Florida, Pennsylvania. We’re also going to explore the global refugee crisis combining interactive technology and in-depth reading. The plan is for this to contribute in a positive way to greater understanding and empathy in our country and the world. And our Lexile scores might go up more, although they’ll never be perfect.