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Reaching for Excellence

By Alina O'Donnell
 | Nov 16, 2017

Reaching for Excellence2015–2016 was the most challenging year of Julie Stover’s career.

Pennsylvania had just rolled out the overhauled PA Core Standards and a new, more rigorous Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) that contained critical thinking and open-ended questions as well as more nonfiction reading. PSSA scores weigh heavily on School Performance Profile—the “report card” used to evaluate students, teachers, and students. Low test scores set up schools for possible state intervention.

“Being teachers, we already pressure ourselves. We hope to have every child reach his or her potential. But we felt a new and different push to raise ‘rigor’ and move full speed ahead. We saw more test practice, data walls, and higher teacher accountability,” says Stover, a reading specialist at East York Elementary.

When the scores came back, the teachers at East York Elementary breathed a sigh of relief. They hadn’t just done well, they had performed in the top 5% of Title I schools in the state.

Their celebration was short lived.

“Some of us gave a weak cheer. Then we began to wonder. We were successful, but at what cost?” says Stover. “How could we justify the cost of the accomplishment when students were excited to stop learning? The children couldn’t wait to get away from books. We wanted them running toward them.”

Data talk

On the basis of its test results, East York Elementary was identified as a High Progress School, recognizing its progress in closing achievement gaps in PSSA scores among all students and historically underperforming students. Under this designation, schools are eligible and encouraged to apply for Innovation Grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which must be used to implement new learning structures and processes that support individual needs.

Stover was responsible for managing the application process, which required her to substantiate PSSA data and to provide a detailed plan of how East York Elementary would use the grant money, if successfully awarded.

As she scoured the school’s PSSA data, she noticed that the fifth grade had shown the most improvement from the previous year. Aside from their age, the only common denominator among these students was their shared participation in the Notice and Note close-reading strategies. Authored by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst, Notice and Note provides students with six “signposts” that signal readers to pause and reflect at “aha moments,” and other significant moments in the text. The tool kit also includes anchor questions to help facilitate discussion.

Wendy Ross, a fifth-grade teacher, says she introduced the strategy to give students a stronger sense of ownership over their reading routine.

“I think I was frustrated; my students didn’t seem to be enjoying reading. I felt like they didn’t have any power, not just in choice but in how they approached the text,” says Ross. “This strategy passed that power back to them—now, they’re in charge of finding meaning in their reading.”

After observing Ross’s success, Stover and writing teacher Amy Mason helped her deliver the Notice and Note strategies to the rest of the fifth-grade class. They too noticed improvements—not only in the students’ comprehension, but also in their attitude towards reading.

“It went beyond the quantifiable data. Kids were talking, the depth of their conversations was greater, and their writing was starting to tell more—there was detail and evidence,” says Stover.

Stover proposed that, if awarded an innovation grant, East York Elementary would use the funds to implement Notice and Note strategies throughout the school. Everyone was on board.

“We saw this small pocket of success in one classroom. We wanted to spread that success through the rest of the school,” says Denise Fuhrman, principal at East York Elementary.

Boosting staff morale

Of the 90 Innovation Grant applications, only 20 were funded. East York Elementary received one of the highest overall ratings and a grant.

Stover’s first step was to restore staff morale. After a year of rigorous exam preparation, she feared burnout for students and teachers alike.

Part of the problem, she knew, was the school’s outdated library. The staff sifted through Goodreads recommendations and ILA Choices selections to refresh their selection with a diverse range of titles that were highly engaging but also would enhance the Notice and Note reading routine.

“It brought the joy of reading back into teaching and revitalized the staff,” says Fuhrman.

Stover established weekly literacy team meetings where staff held book studies and discussions using the Notice and Note tool kit and designed posters, anchor charts, and bookmarks displaying signpost questions.

The grant even provided for a training session hosted by authors Beers and Probst. Afterward, the teachers delivered mock lessons for the authors to troubleshoot.

“This gave them the confidence and the physical support to say ‘We can actually do this,’” says Stover.

A newfound love of reading

Though the district has yet to receive its PSSA scores, Stover is confident that they will mirror the performance she sees in the classroom. She says the students have become more incisive thinkers, articulate speakers, and effective writers.

“It teaches them to respectfully discuss things with one another. They may not agree with each other, but now, they can go back and look at the evidence and prove their point with facts,” says Stover.

Mason noticed that students are more willing to share their ideas.

“They have a voice and they feel confident in sharing what they found,” says Mason.

Above all, the teachers were thrilled to see students’ newfound excitement towards reading. In an end-of-the-year survey, more than 80% of students said they gained a joy of reading.

“When Common Core first came about, we all felt overwhelmed. We felt like we were plodding along. We’re no longer plodding along—we’re dancing through books,” says Ross.

Alina O’Donnell is the editor of ILA’s blog, Literacy Daily.

This piece originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Literacy Today, ILA's member magazine.

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