An Ala. High School Makes Literacy a Schoolwide Job

By Catherine Gewertz — October 30, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 10 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misidentified a math teacher at Buckhorn High School. The teacher’s name is Carrie Bates.

The sheep’s-brain dissections are going rather well. Scalpels in hand, high school students are slicing away at the preserved organs and buzzing about what they find. It’s obvious that this lesson has riveted their interest. What’s not so obvious is that it has been as much about literacy as about science.

In preparing for her class in human anatomy and physiology to perform the dissections, Karen Stewart had the students read articles on the brain’s structure and use computer-presentation software to share what they learned. She used “guided notetaking” strategies, explicitly teaching the teenagers how to read the materials and take notes on key scientific concepts. She reinforced those ideas with more articles chosen to grab their interest, such as one on how chocolate affects the brain.

The class also watched and discussed a recent episode of the hit television show “Grey’s Anatomy,” about a patient with an injury to one side of the brain. The students’ work is graded not just on their grasp of the science, but also on the quality of their research and writing about it.

Ms. Stewart isn’t the only teacher who weaves literacy instruction into classes here at Buckhorn High School. It pops up on every corridor. A teacher of Spanish shows his students a self-portrait of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and asks what cues it conveys about her culture. A physical education teacher brings his class to the school library to study body mass. And a mathematics teacher burrows into the Latin roots of that discipline’s vocabulary to help students see their related meanings, and uses “concept maps”—visual depictions of ideas—to help them grasp an idea’s steps or parts.

Illustrations drawn by students at Buckhorn High School document key players and events in the Enlightenment.

Literacy is shot through everything at this 1,350-student Alabama school in a former cotton field 10 miles south of the Tennessee state line. It’s been an obsession for a decade, ever since school leaders tested their students and found that one-third of the entering freshmen were reading at or below the 7th grade level, many at the 4th or 5th grade level.

“Those numbers completely changed my professional life,” said Sarah Fanning, who oversees curriculum and instruction at Buckhorn High. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Each of those numbers had a face, and that face went to bed with me at night.”

‘Relentless From the Beginning’

The Buckhorn staff immersed itself in figuring out how to improve student learning by boosting literacy skills in all subjects, something few high schools do now, and even fewer were doing then. That work has made the school a national model. Hosting visitors and making presentations—including at a White House conference in 2006—have become routine parts of its staff members’ schedules.

Adolescent-literacy work such as that at Buckhorn High is taking on a rising profile nationally, as educators search for ways to improve student achievement. Increasingly, scholars urge teachers to abandon the “inoculation” model of literacy, which holds that K-3 students “learn to read,” and older students “read to learn.” Older students are in dire need of sophisticated reading and writing instruction tailored to each discipline, those scholars say, and without it, they risk being unable to access more-complex material. The Carnegie Corporation of New York recently released a report urging that adolescent literacy become a national priority. (“Literacy Woes Put in Focus,” Sept. 23, 2009.)

Selected literacy resources at Buckhorn High School:

Professional Reading
Reading Reminders, Jim Burke
Deeper Reading, Kelly Gallagher
Content Area Reading, Richard R. Vacca and Jo Anne L. Vacca
I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, Cris Tovani
Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Cris Tovani

Wordless Picture Books
Anno’s Journey, Mitsumasa Anno
Free Fall, David Wiesner
Tuesday, David Wiesner
Freight Train, Donald Crews
Zoom, Istvan Banyai

Content-Area Picture Books and Graphic Novels
Chester Comix series, Bentley Boyd
Just Plain Fancy, Patricia Polacco
Harlem, Walter Dean Myers
The Greedy Triangle, Marilyn Burns

High-Interest, Easy-to-Understand Books for Adolescents
A Child Called “It,” Dave Pelzer
Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos
Crank, Ellen Hopkins
Burned, Ellen Hopkins
The “Twilight Saga” collection, Stephenie Meyer
The “Soundings” and “Currents” series, Orca Publishing
The Bluford High series, Townsend Press

Source: Buckhorn High School

“We’ve seen a lot of focus on early literacy, but more recently people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, what about kids in the upper grades?’“ said Karen Wood, who focuses on adolescent literacy as a professor of literacy education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“The days are passing by rather rapidly of middle and high school teachers’ being able to say, ‘Either you get the content or you don’t.’ I think we are starting to see a greater acceptance of the need for this,” Ms. Wood said. “And it has to be a whole-school responsibility, not just something that’s put off on teachers.”

Sherrill W. Parris is the assistant state superintendent of education who oversees the 11-year-old Alabama Reading Initiative. Buckhorn High, she says, was on the leading edge of the state’s adolescent-literacy work by enlisting in the project in its second year, 1999. It was one of the few high schools to do so.

“They have been relentless from the beginning,” she said.

In Search of Expertise

When Buckhorn joined the reading initiative, its teachers and top administrators attended the state’s two-week summer workshop, and were inspired by its vision of literacy instruction across the content areas. But they quickly saw they would have little guidance in putting the vision into action.

“We called the state department of education and said, ‘Can you recommend some good books or programs?’ and they said, ‘No, but if you find some, call us,’” recalled Tommy Ledbetter, who has been Buckhorn’s principal for 28 years.

Ms. Fanning said the state paid for a reading coach that first year, but Buckhorn “didn’t know enough then to know how to use her.”

The state program’s fluctuating funding and focus, and a shortage of expertise in guiding middle and high schools, have meant that adolescent literacy has not received the consistent support in Alabama that originators of the initiative would have liked, Ms. Parris said.

On its own, Buckhorn’s staff scoured the field for expertise. Gradually, they assembled a list of authors such as Kelly Gallagher and Cris Tovani, whose theories and strategies seemed to click, and who became their shining stars. (“Kelly Gallagher is our Brad Pitt,” quipped Buckhorn English teacher Tracy Wilson.)

Higher Scores

Buckhorn High School has exceeded county and state averages on Alabama’s 10th grade writing test.


SOURCE: Alabama Department of Education

The staff cobbled together an approach that incorporates methods and materials used with younger children, such as art projects and wordless picture books, into high-school-level instruction. The idea is to use engaging activities and easy-to-access materials as door-openers to more complex subject matter.

The result is a high school that “looks more like an elementary school,” Mr. Ledbetter said, because teachers find that letting students sketch, cut out, or fold their ideas seems to work well.

Colorful student work lines the school’s walls and dangles from its ceilings. In one poster, a math student drew a picture of himself next to a streetlamp, and described his reasoning in deciding how to calculate its height. He included the calculation and the answer.

On a “word wall” in an English classroom, a student didn’t simply write the definition of the word “ostracize.” To show its meaning, he insisted that his teacher hang it several inches away from the wall, as if it had been rejected by the other words.

That teacher, Donna Taylor, said she was a skeptic when school leaders began emphasizing visual and artistic depictions of ideas a decade ago.

“It seemed kind of elementary,” said Ms. Taylor, who’s been teaching for 17 years. “I thought, hey, I’m a high school teacher—we need to be preparing [students] for college, doing serious, deep work, one step away from a bachelor’s degree. But once I saw how this visual stuff helps the kids learn, I was on board.”

Avoiding ‘Assumicide’

Will Culpepper is just such a student. “It’s hard for me to understand something when I write it down or read it, but if I do a picture or hands-on stuff with it, I can get it better,” said the 16-year-old junior.

John Vandiver, a junior, takes notes during a history class.

Teachers use a variety of strategies to build comprehension. Recognizing that many students are intimidated by vast gray stretches on textbook pages, English teacher Tracy Wilson uses shorter articles or excerpts to teach the same content. That builds students’ knowledge and confidence to tackle the full versions, she says.

Taking a cue from math teachers, she uses “talk-alouds,” stopping frequently as the class reads a fiction passage to discuss what is happening. Instead of only writing definitions of vocabulary words, her students often make “foldables,” colorful projects with sections that open to show a word’s meaning, context, origin, and use.

Math teacher Carrie Bates asks students to explain their problem-solving reasoning, in class and in homework. When a student struggles, she finds that simple picture books, like The Greedy Triangle by Marilyn Burns, can work wonders to get a concept across. Then she can build more-complex understanding onto that.

Buckhorn teachers try to avoid committing what Kelly Gallagher calls “assumicide”: assuming students have the skills to access the content. They explicitly teach those skills.

Ms. Wilson walks her students through ways to get clues about meaning from context, helping them deduce from the sentence “the phlox is blooming in the garden,” for instance, that phlox is a flower.

Career and technical education teacher Connie Mask helps her students get the most from their textbooks, acquainting them with the table of contents and the index, and explaining the significance of photographs and captions. “This was stuff I just thought students knew how to do,” she said.

Each week, the teachers work on specific literacy strategies. One week, it’s using graphic organizers or Venn diagrams to help students understand content. Another week, it’s building students’ retelling and summarizing skills or practicing guided-reading techniques.

A good chunk of teachers’ weekly professional development focuses on such strategies as well. And in an ongoing “book group,” they tackle tomes by literacy experts. Teachers also spend a lot of time scrutinizing data from state and school tests to see how their instruction needs adjusting.

Social studies teacher Jenny Barrett says she didn’t used to think her job description included teaching literacy skills. But now she sees that she has to help her students learn how to spot places in the textbook to mark with Post-its, understand the common roots of words like “oligarchy” and “monarchy,” and draw pictures of ideas when that helps them understand. She also has learned strategies like breaking text into “chunks” to help students parse the meanings.

Librarian’s Key Role

School librarian Wendy Stephens has played a key role in Buckhorn’s literacy work, revamping the library’s holdings in support of both students and teachers. She helped Ms. Barrett expand the list of materials she uses, such as picture books and comic books, for instance, and works closely with her on a project in which students research aspects of Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat, such as globalization or outsourcing, and make videos about them.

Ms. Stephens has built up collections that typically are popular with boys, such as manga, or Japanese cartoon, magazines, books by Edgar Allan Poe, and a series of books by Dave Pelzer recounting his abuse as a child. For girls, she makes sure to stock the “Twilight Saga” by Stephenie Meyer, and works by Maya Angelou and Ellen Hopkins.

She added wordless picture books, which many teachers use to help students construct storylines in various subjects, and content-area comic books.

Expanding the library’s pop fiction collection required a shift in attitude, Ms. Stephens said.

“I had to put aside my own bias,” she said recently in the school’s large, airy library. “Sure, I thought everyone should be reading Hemingway. But I just want to increase their fluency.”

It seems to be working. The number of books checked out of the library has soared from fewer than 200 a month when Ms. Stephens took over in 2003 to more than 1,600. About a dozen students come in early for a book group, and she has set up computer-based videoconferences for students with favorite authors.

Measuring the impact of the literacy work at Buckhorn High isn’t easy, since the school no longer uses the standardized test it used in 1998. It does outpace the 19,000-student Madison County district and the state in the proportion of students who score proficient on the reading portion of the state graduation exam, but only by a small margin. (Ninety-eight to 100 percent of Buckhorn’s students have been passing in recent years; statewide, the percentage is in the mid- to high 90s.)

The school’s proficiency scores on the state’s 10th grade writing test are significantly better than district or state averages.

Ms. Fanning points in particular to the fact that one-quarter or more of Buckhorn’s freshmen enter as “struggling readers”—two or more grade levels behind—but nearly every student passes the graduation exam by 12th grade.

“We think we are really making a difference here,” she said.

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Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as A High School Takes on Literacy


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