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Reading in the Crawl Space: A Study of an Urban School’s Literacy-Focused Community of Practice


by Chantal Francois — 2013

Background/Context: The pressure to understand “what works” to advance adolescents’ reading development has increased as the Common Core State Standards’ call for youth to grapple with a range of complex texts. While we have learned more about promising reading programs and interventions for adolescent students in schools, few programs have had a demonstrable impact on middle and high school students’ reading achievement. As a result, categorical reading underperformance among youth persists in schools nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010), and is worse in urban schools (Neild & Balfanz, 2006). Instead of examining the effects of a reading program in isolation, we may need to turn our attention to understand how those programs are lived and enacted within the contexts of their school cultures.

Purpose and Research Questions: This study depicts one urban school’s efforts to support its middle and high school students in reading. Two research questions guided this study: 1. What are the current practices designed to provide a sociocultural context conducive to growth in reading skills at Grant Street Secondary School? 2. How do various organizational members (i.e., students and staff) perceive and experience these practices at Grant Street Secondary School? Though a range of factors influenced students’ reading at the school, this paper provides an in-depth portrayal of another instructional component — independent reading — that emerged in my analysis as vital to the way students and staff oriented themselves around literacy.

Research Design: Because the theoretical frame for this study assumes that literacy is social and situated, my research design reflected an effort to describe interactions related to reading, the domains where reading activity circulated, and perceptions of those interactions. As such, I drew upon three sources of qualitative data: interviews from staff and students, ethnographic observational data, and documents. These three sources of qualitative data enabled me to describe the literacy activities at the school and locate them in the larger school organizational and cultural processes.

Conclusions and Recommendations: This study suggests that students may benefit from daily, sustained time for independent reading time that is instructional. This study also suggests that coordinated efforts across school staff may ensure youth’s positive interactions with texts. This study also holds implications for school-based research focused on disciplinary literacy. Ultimately, this research reconceptualizes our understanding of effective instructional practices for adolescents, emphasizing a multidimensional approach that highlights the role of reading as a social activity.

INTRODUCTION


The pressure to understand “what works” to advance adolescents’ reading development has increased over the past 20 years, and this pressure is now compounded by the Common Core State Standards’ call for youth to grapple with a range of complex fiction and informational texts. While we have learned more about reading programs and interventions for adolescent students in schools (Deshler, Palincsar, Biancarosa, & Nair, 2007; Slavin, Cheung, Groff, & Lake, 2008), few programs have had a demonstrable and lasting impact on urban middle and high school students’ reading achievement. Meanwhile, categorical reading underperformance among youth persists in schools nationwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010), and the situation is acutely worse in urban schools (Neild & Balfanz, 2006). To better understand how reading instruction might positively impact urban adolescents’ reading achievement, more research is needed that illustrates how reading programs are lived and enacted within the contexts of their school cultures instead of only examining the effects of such programs in isolation.


This study depicts one urban school’s efforts to support its middle and high school students in reading. At Grant Street Secondary School, a range of organizational and sociocultural factors contextualized everyday literacy activities associated with reading. While my findings highlight the important role of workshop reading instruction, rigorous discussions about texts, and a coordinated professional culture for reading, here I provide an in-depth portrayal of one instructional component — independent reading — that emerged in my analysis as vital to the way students and staff oriented themselves around literacy. Many caution against the viable impact of independent reading as an effective instructional approach (Garan & DeVoogd, 2008; National Reading Panel, 2000). However, findings from this study suggest that the school’s engagement in independent reading may have been an important factor in students’ positive reading growth and stable levels of reading motivation. I attribute the school’s success in part to how independent reading resembled a literacy-focused community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) that simultaneously attended to the domains of reading, the community of readers, and the practice of reading.


This study features students’ and staff members’ actions in relationship with one another, and one important outcome of Grant Street’s literacy-focused community of practice was the crawl space that teachers designed to support students as readers. Just like a house’s crawl space is a protected environment through which one can access pipes and other areas that are difficult to reach otherwise, Grant Street staff created a safe and protected space for students in reading that enabled them to attain a sense of community, individual agency, and reading development. Civil rights activist and Algebra Project founder Bob Moses (2005) used this metaphor to illustrate how, after the passing of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, grassroots civil rights organizations in the 1950s could freely organize in a larger political and social world that protected them from the threat of imprisonment or violence. Through this metaphor, Moses depicts an ideal dynamic between top-down policies and bottom-up activity; both sides worked on voting rights to obtain the larger goal of civil rights instead of undermining the other’s efforts. He extended the metaphor to his efforts to bring advanced math instruction to students of color in impoverished areas to explain the crawl space through which these students could access the larger goal of liberation. My analysis suggests that a crawl space existed at Grant Street whereby students had enough breathing room to affirm themselves as readers in a community: they chose the books they wanted to read, formed relationships with each other and with adults about books, and apprenticed one another to read. This crawl space was influenced by the school’s literacy-focused community of practice.


I situate this study in sociocultural perspectives on literacy and the communities of practice literature. These theories framed a qualitative research design that relied heavily on ethnographic observations and interviews. Drawing on collected data, I describe Grant Street’s domains for reading, the community of readers, and how students’ practice toward becoming Grant Street readers contributed to the reading crawl space. Finally, I discuss implications for practice, policy, and further research.


THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK


SOCIOCULTURAL PERSPECTIVES ON LITERACY


I situate this study in two related theoretical frameworks: sociocultural perspectives on literacy and communities of practice. Sociocultural perspectives on reading and writing challenge traditional notions of literacy as an individual, decontextualized activity comprised of discrete skills. Instead, studies that employ the sociocultural lens recognize the skills involved in literacy, but go further to illustrate how reading and writing are practices that are mediated by and developed through one’s interaction with the surrounding environment (Gee, 1990; Heath, 1983; Li, 2009; Lewis, Encisco, & Moje, 2007; Scribner & Cole, 1981; Street, 1984). The sociocultural perspective on literacy facilitates researchers’ attempts to examine how people interact with reading in the various social and cultural systems in which they negotiate their daily lives, including school settings. Additionally, the sociocultural perspective directs researchers’ attention to everyday reading activities and the contexts in which they are embedded.


Sociocultural perspectives on reading research have increased our awareness of the ways in which youth perform literacy events on their own, fuse it with their identity, and develop a sense of agency through their literacy practices (Bartlett, 2007; Guzetti & Gamboa, 2004; Moje, 2000). In light of these findings, researchers argue that part of the reason for rampant reading underperformance among young people is that schools — institutions that often hold traditional notions for what it means to be literate — fail to design curriculum that incorporates students who are in and beyond the classroom (Alvermann, 2001; Heath, 2003; Luttrell & Parker, 2001). This phenomenon is exacerbated in schools that serve urban Black and Latina/o students, where the school culture and students’ own cultures are often at odds with one another (Compton-Lilly, 2007; Purcell-Gates, 1995; Tatum, 2005).


Sociocultural perspectives on reading and writing have contributed to researchers’ understanding of literacy as a complex and contextualized practice. However, as sociocultural theorists continue to navigate and shed new light on literacy’s complexity, practical knowledge about reading and writing seems to become more elusive. At the same time, NAEP data indicate that the majority of American adolescents travel through their middle and high school years reading below grade level (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2010). More sociocultural research is needed to illustrate the daily interactions within school cultures that strive to disrupt nationwide trends by supporting youths’ literacy growth.


COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE


One interpretation of the sociocultural perspective on literacy is the idea of communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Wenger (1998) defines communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (p. 45). Twenty years later after Lave and Wenger coined the idea of a community of practice, this interpretation of sociocultural perspectives continues to resonate with contemporary school activity (Lewis, Encisco, & Moje, 2007). Inherent in communities of practice are mutual commitments toward the same interests, explicit and implicit opportunities for apprenticeship, a shared repertoire of resources, relationships around practice, and identity development through engagement with the community. Educational researchers have applied the lens of communities of practice to understand how teachers participate in professional networks in their schools. Their research suggests that when teachers participate in communities of practice, the work of developing classroom instruction becomes a shared task, and thus educators position themselves to improve their own practice (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999; Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001). While researchers have elucidated how teachers engage in communities of practice, rarely do studies extend the theory to include students who interact with their teachers around school activity.


Though the communities-of-practice literature rarely frames empirical reading studies, we can nonetheless apply the theory to sociocultural literacy practices in schools. Wenger (1998) outlines three elements of communities of practice: domain, community, and practice. Domain: In communities of practice, participants share a common interest in a particular task. In applying the idea of domain to a literacy-focused community of practice in schools, we might imagine students and adults sharing a commitment to reading. Community: To stress the idea of common interest, Wenger states that members in a community of practice learn together and build relationships. In turn, they develop a sense of belonging associated with the task at hand. Thus we might imagine that in schools, a community of readers builds relationships around books and reading and collaborate to develop their reading. Practice: Wenger cautions that a common interest alone does not make a community of practice; rather, communities of practice require a focus on improving at the given task. Thus, members of a literacy-focused community of practice might share ideas, habits, language, strategies, and stories about to how to become better readers. It also allows space for new members to become enculturated in the community’s reading practices.


Lave and Wenger (1991) submit that the emergence of communities of practice in schools is not automatic simply because schools’ purported goal is to develop students’ learning. Rather, applying communities of practice theory in schools requires conceiving of learning as a shared practice among all members rather than as an object, defined only by teachers, that students must attain. Wenger (2002) writes that in communities of practice, often “there is very little observable teaching; the more basic phenomenon is learning. The practice of the community creates the potential ‘curriculum’ in the broadest sense” (p. 92). This line of thinking disabuses us of traditional notions of teacher as “expert” and student as “novice.” Even though teachers may be masterful in their reading and can instruct students to become better readers, they may also spend the time engaged in the very practices that they want students to acquire. As practice — not just teaching — becomes the focus of the work, students too can become masterful in reading tasks and apprentice less-skilled students in reading. This line of thinking sheds light on the role of the crawl space in school activity, underscoring the importance of teachers and students working in collaboration with one another to achieve a shared goal. Furthermore, as practice becomes the curriculum, this shift moves the units of analysis beyond just classroom instruction to encompass the everyday activities that shape, and are shaped by, the larger systems within the school.


Together, sociocultural studies on literacy and the specific notion of communities of practice provide an opportunity to explore how school staff and students interact with each other around literacy events. Informed by these contributions to our understanding of literacy learning and development, I developed two research questions:


1.

What are the current practices designed to provide a sociocultural context conducive to growth in reading skills at Grant Street?

2.

How do various organizational members (i.e. students and staff) perceive and experience these practices at Grant Street?


RESEARCH METHODOLOGY


Because the theoretical frame for this study assumes that literacy is social and situated, my research design reflected an effort to describe interactions related to reading, the domains where reading activity circulated, and perceptions of those interactions. As such, I drew upon three sources of data: interviews from staff and students, ethnographic observational data, and documents. These three sources of qualitative data enabled me to describe the literacy activities at the school and locate them in the larger school organizational and cultural processes.


GRANT STREET SECONDARY SCHOOL AS A “CULTURE OF READING”


Key events in Grant Street’s history make it an ideal site for this research. As part of the urban small schools movement in the 1990s, educators, guided by social justice principles, founded Grant Street to be a haven for any student in the city regardless of academic proficiency. Students who came to Grant Street sought a blend of academic rigor, social support, and a real chance of going to college (Chajet, 2006). Despite these unique features, up until the early 2000s the majority of Grant Street students read below grade level like many adolescent students across the country. In particular, most Grant Street middle school students scored at the lowest levels of their reading state test.1


Yet between 2001 and 2004, Grant Street experienced dramatic changes to its reading and writing curriculum. During that year, Humanities teachers committed to 30 minutes of independent reading in their classes each day and created small libraries in their classrooms. For about two years, most of the school’s professional development was internal: school staff participated in book clubs where they read professional texts in common, met in teams to discuss student work, curriculum planning, and best practices, and they attended annual conferences such as the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English. The summer of 2003 precipitated the largest shift in literacy instruction: in the prior year, several teachers and Jack, the school principal, attended the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s (TCRWP) professional development programs. After that summer, Humanities and English2 teachers incorporated reading workshop, independent reading, and writing workshop into their classes. The school’s partnership with TCRWP, internal professional development, changing individual and collective expectations, and accountability for increased instruction all impacted how teachers changed their responsibilities around ensuring student progress in reading.


Numerous organizational routines and factors precipitated these instructional changes. The most prominent finding was how Jack influenced literacy instruction by constantly monitoring classroom practice, and giving regular feedback to teachers. Furthermore, he became a literacy practitioner who maintained a library in his office for his students, attended professional development institutes on reading with his teachers, and personally assessed individual students’ reading development. Professional development sessions were also a key organizational routine to changing literacy instruction. Staff met weekly in grade, discipline, and whole-school configurations. These spaces enabled staff members to reflect on evaluate instructional practices and student outcomes, share best practices, voice complaints, and contemplate a shared vision for literacy pedagogy. Furthermore, staff recalled that changes in literacy instruction were both individually driven and collectively negotiated, enabling sometimes gradual, sometimes sweeping, changes to instructional approaches in reading and writing (Francois, 2012). Thus, Grant Street’s history and makes it an ideal site for this study.


Not only does Grant Street’s past make it a site worthy of exploration for literacy, but its current achievement record and its reading climate do as well. In other research related to this project (Francois, 2011a) I discuss students’ reading growth on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test (GMRT), an external standardized reading assessment, during the same year I collected research the current study. Results from the GMRT indicate that on average, Grant Street students’ reading growth in one year was two to three times that of their peers nationwide (see Appendix A). These data suggest an improvement from the school’s lagging performance in reading several years prior. Moreover, I found that Grant Street students’ average reading motivation remained relatively stable at every grade level, even though national trends indicate that reading motivation in adolescents dramatically declines as they age (Francois, 2011b; see Appendix B). Moreover, teachers and visitors often described Grant Street’s “culture of reading,” another trait that made the school unique against the nationwide backdrop of adolescent underperformance in literacy.


Though some may caution against a single-site design study, Yin (2009) provides numerous rationales for single-site designs, two of which are applicable to this study. One rationale for conducting a single-site study is when the site is revelatory, one that “exists when an investigator has an opportunity to observe and analyze a phenomenon previously inaccessible to social science inquiry” (Yin, 2009, p. 48). Furthermore, Yin suggests that when the case is a unique one — exhibiting something that occurs infrequently — it is useful for the investigator to deeply explore and document the activities of a single site. While research has already frequently documented the reading life of schools and classrooms, rarely do these investigations privilege young people’s voices and daily school experiences to portray how urban middle and high schools may positively influence their reading practices.


BEING A GRANT STREET RESEARCHER AND TEACHER


I taught at Grant Street Secondary School for most of my teaching career and returned to teach one section of 11th-grade English when I began research for this study. My previous experience there as a teacher who was involved in the instructional changes described in the previous section gave me the idea to focus my research attention on this site. As a full-time doctoral student, I looked forward to returning to the K-12 landscape. Yet unlike most teachers at Grant Street, I did not hold all responsibilities of a full-time teacher that year — teaching several sections of students, teaching an advisory class and other electives, or even having the emotional commitment that comes with being a full-time teacher. On mornings when I taught my section of 11th-grade English that year, I typically spent the rest of the day in other parts of the building observing literacy activity or interviewing staff and students. I believe my former experience as a full-time teacher, my lasting relationships with several staff members there, and my part-time status, facilitated full access to literacy activity throughout the building and intimately describe the school’s reading culture.


Investigations conducted at a site that is familiar to the research carry validity challenges. While it is true that studies are inherently subjective, I took certain steps to mitigate reliability and validity threats. First, I interviewed various school members in attempt to generate a holistic understanding of participants’ experiences at the school from multiple perspectives. Seidman (2006) suggests that this approach allows the interviewer to connect and to check one person’s experiences and comments against others’. Second, the multiple forms of data collection described above reduced the risk of privileging one source over another by allowing me to confirm my interpretations and hypotheses about the school culture across all interviews, documents, and field notes (Maxwell, 2005). Finally, to gain further evidence of my own conclusions, I used what Maxwell describes as “respondent validation” (p. 111), whereby I shared findings with and sought feedback from Grant Street students and staff members. Opening my analytic interpretations to scrutiny enabled me to constantly monitor my theory generation about events at Grant Street.


PARTICIPANTS


School Demographics


Table 1 presents demographic data for the student body and for the interview sample. During the 2009-2010 school year, 560 students attended Grant Street in Grades 6 to 12; in addition to 5 school leaders (the principal, head guidance counselor, school dean, the literacy coach, and two assistant principals), 46 teachers and adults in other professional roles (guidance counselors, social workers, college counselors, paraprofessionals, et cetera) who constituted the Grant Street community and encompass my observation sample. These figures define Grant Street as a small school, a characteristic that may have facilitated, but did not guarantee, a literacy-focused community of practice among students and staff.


Table 1. Demographics for Grant Street Student Body (n =560) and Student Interview Sample (n =23)

 

Student Demographics

Interview Sample

Variable

Number

Percent

Number

Percent

Male

274

48.9

11

47.8

Race

    

    Latina/o

329

59.0

7

30.4

    Black

152

27.0

13

56.5

    White

31

6.0

1

4.3

    Asian

42

8.0

2

8.6

Native American

6

1.0

0

0.0

Economically Disadvantaged

460

82.0

19

82.6

Grade

    

    Sixth

68

12.1

2

13.0

    Seventh

69

12.3

5

21.7

    Eighth

72

12.8

4

17.4

    Ninth

100

17.8

3

13.0

    10th

86

15.4

4

17.4

    11th

81

14.5

3

13.0

    12th

84

15.0

2

4.3

English Language Learners

40

7.1

2

4.3

Special Education Students

157

28.0

4

17.4

Gates-MacGinitie Fall Score

    

    Above Grade Level

64

        19.7

3

15.0

    At Grade Level

23

 7.0

5

25.0

    Below Grade Level

237

        73.1

12

60.0

Note. The Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test was administered to 324 Grant Street students in the fall, 57.8% of the total student body. Of the 23 interview participants, Gates-MacGinitie data are incomplete for 3 students.


Student Interview Participants


I interviewed 23 students, mostly in one-on-one settings, and less frequently in small groups. I asked English and Humanities teachers to recommend students who they perceived to be high- and low-achieving students in reading, based on anecdotal, achievement, and formative data. The student sample was heterogeneous in other characteristics; it varied in gender, age, grade level, ethnicity, special education status, and English language learner status (see Table 2). The student interview sample is not meant to be representative of the entire student body, however the diversity of students’ responses shed light on the nuances associated with the school’s practices related to literacy.


Table 2. Demographic Makeup for Student Interview Sample (n =23)


Grade

Name

Gender

Race/ Ethnicity

Economically Disadvantaged

Special Education

English Language Learner

Gates-MacGinitie Fall Grade Level

6th

Luis

Male

Latino

Yes

No

No

5.2

6th

Melinda

Male

Black

Yes

No

No

NA

6th

Tommy

Male

Latino

Yes

No

Yes

5.6

7th

Denise

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

NA

7th

Deondre

Female

Black

No

No

No

5.8

7th

Leo

Male

Latino

No

Yes

No

3.8

7th

Sharon

Female

Latino

Yes

No

No

NA

7th

Tanesha

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

NA

8th

Asia

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

8.4

8th

Monaya

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

5.9

8th

Wesley

Male

Asian

Yes

No

No

8.6

8th

Zara

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

9.2

9th

Amanda

Female

Black

Yes

Yes

No

6

9th

Lubna

Female

Asian

Yes

No

No

9.2

9th

Martin

Male

Latino

Yes

No

No

4.6

10th

Clarence

Male

Black

Yes

Yes

No

7.5

10th

Jason

Male

White

No

No

No

Post H.S.

10th

Latressa

Female

Black

No

No

No

7

10th

Stephen

Male

Black

Yes

No

No

10.3

11th

Brianna

Female

Black

Yes

No

No

12.5

11th

Mario

Male

Black

Yes

Yes

No

11.5

11th

Tiffany

Female

Latino

Yes

No

No

8.1

12th

Yronelis

Female

Latino

Yes

No

No

6.6

Note. Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test scores are in grade- and month-level equivalents. For example, a student whose score is a 10.3 has an achievement level estimated to be equivalent to an average student who has been in Grade 10 for three months (MacGinitie, MacGinitie, Maria, Dreyer, & Hughes, 2007). NA means that student data were incomplete for the day of the test.


Staff Interview Participants


While I observed numerous staff members in different school settings, I focused my staff interview sample on those who would have insight into the school’s literacy pedagogy, from both organizational and instructional perspectives. This purposeful sample (Seidman, 2006) included 9 staff members: 4 high school English teachers, 2 middle school Humanities teachers, the literacy coach, the librarian, and the principal. Table 3 presents additional information about this sample. This sample only accounts for a small fraction of the entire staff population and thus cannot be viewed as generalizable. However, the sample’s perceptions of the school’s literacy-focused community of practice offered deep insight into the patterns that arose in my observations.


Table 3. Demographic Makeup of Staff Interview Sample (n =9)

Staff Member

Gender

Ethnicity

Age

Current Position

Years at Grant Street

Alicia

Female

White

Mid-30s

11th grade English teacher

8

Ivy

Female

White

Mid-30s

12th grade English teacher

4

Jack

Male

White

Early 40s

Principal

13

Jacqueline

Female

Black

Early 30s

10th grade English teacher

1

Keena

Female

Black

Early 30s

7th grade Humanities teacher

8

Luz

Female

Latina

Mid-30s

6th grade Humanities teacher

2

Sarah

Female

White

Mid-40s

School librarian

10

Theresa

Female

White

Early 40s

10th grade English teacher

9

Veronica

Female

White

Early 40s

Literacy coach

9


DATA COLLECTION


Observations


I conducted ethnographic fieldwork at Grant Street during one year in various school settings, to capture the “recurring patterns” (Erickson, 1986) embedded in interactions around reading. Furthermore, I wanted to understand those patterns in the context of the school culture. Guided by these goals of inquiry, I visited all Humanities and English classes between one and three times during the year for observations lasting between 20 minutes to one hour. While I was able to observe 11th-grade students in the other three English sections, I chose not to observe the students in my section because teaching was my primary responsibility with this group. I also observed a few other content-area classes in each grade to get an understanding of school-wide approaches to classroom practice. However, this study focuses primarily on a disciplinary approach to studying school literacy practice. That is, I limited most observations and interviews to English and Humanities classes in all grades instead of also studying content area practices. I made this decision because I wanted to deeply portray the literacy practices within a single discipline — the one that most likely anchored the school’s reading instruction — instead of providing a cursory portrayal of all literacy practices associated with math, science, and social studies classes. This decision builds upon Yin’s (2009) advice to researchers to deeply explore a single site when phenomena that exist within it are understudied. However, this choice should not imply that literacy practices were not occurring in content area classes across the school.


I observed professional meetings in different configurations (whole staff, grade level, content area, and curriculum planning sessions). Additionally, I observed students and staff in the hallways, the principal’s office, and in the school library. I also shadowed the principal, the school literacy coach, and a few teachers for half days to understand how the different components of their work intersected with supporting students’ literacy development. As a whole, the range of observations enabled me to capture the interplay among personal, classroom, and organizational activity.


INTERVIEWS


Students


The semi-structured interview protocol that I employed asked students to discuss their experiences as Grant Street students and to describe school and class activities that hindered or promoted their reading development and their motivation to read. Some of the interview questions were influenced by the Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile (Pitcher et al., 2007). I also adapted questions from Nasir’s (2002) study that sought to understand youths’ mathematics and racial identities as sources of insight about students’ identities as readers at Grant Street. Nasir’s approach helped me to develop a protocol framed by an inclusive view of identity that articulates how different aspects of youths’ selves — academic identity, racial and ethnic identity, and youth identity — inform one another rather than compete against one another. Additionally, I asked students to describe their growth in reading at Grant Street since the time they entered the school3. While I did not interview students in the 11th-grade English class that I taught, I field-tested the protocol with them and revised it based on their feedback.


Staff


I interviewed each participant once and the interviews lasted between 45 and 60 minutes. Though I used a semi-structured protocol for all school staff, I developed unique protocols for the literacy coach, the librarian, and the principal because of their distinct roles and responsibilities. I employed a semi-structured protocol for all 6 of the Humanities and English teachers. In all interviews, I asked staff members to discuss what they viewed as major school activities that promoted or hindered students’ reading development. Moreover, I asked them to discuss perceptions of Grant Street students as readers.


Documents


Because artifacts reflect the goals of an institution’s culture (Schein, 1992), I also collected and examined a variety of documents germane to my research question. These included staff meeting agendas, class worksheets, emails among staff members, and hallway fliers. Of particular importance were students’ reading folders. These contained two self-reported items: the first was a daily log that includes the title of the book the student was currently reading and the number of pages the student read at home and at school. The second, a “Books I’ve Completed List,” was a summary of all the books the student had completed since the beginning of the academic year. This list followed individual students from year to year in an academic portfolio.

 

DATA ANALYSIS


The data analytic process enabled me to bring together the various sources of data with the goal of understanding the patterns that emerged in everyday literacy activities, participants’ perceptions of them, and an understanding of how they linked to overall school culture. First, I developed and defined topic codes that helped me sift through and sort the data strategically. In developing and defining the catalog of codes, I moved between the data and findings from prior research I had conducted at Grant Street (Francois, 2012). Next, I merged all interview and observational excerpts associated with a given code in one document. This process allowed me to generate, confirm, and question themes that came from the interviews and field notes (Richards, 2005). This catalog of codes also reflected literature on communities of practice and sociocultural perspectives on reading. For example, I developed codes such as “stories about the literacy community” and “one-on-one interaction with books.” Thus, I was able to link interview themes with patterns that permeated the field notes.


Following this process, I developed networks of codes, a step that enabled me to connect individual themes by grouping them together into larger ones, such as time and space and apprenticeship. After each step of the process, I wrote memos on hypotheses I generated from emerging patterns and themes. These memos helped me to synthesize the themes into assertions substantiated by field notes and interview data. Attending to both convergent and contradictory perspectives and activities during the analytic process was critical for someone who could be viewed as a Grant Street insider. Indeed, Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis (2002) state that listening to the “repetitive refrain” (p. 193) and simultaneously hearing the dissonance or “deviant voice” (p. 214) that emerge in the data is a critical step in qualitative research to ensure validity. In doing so, researchers hear contradiction not in ways that undermine emerging themes, but rather in ways that add complexity and integrity to the common narrative. Overall, these analytic steps enabled me to understand the ways in which Grant Street’s literacy pedagogy was revealed in three key elements of a community of practice — domain, community, and practice. Moreover, I observed how activities connected to these three domains created a crawl space where students had some agency over their reading.


FINDINGS: VIEWING THE ELEMENTS OF A SCHOOL-WIDE LITERACY-FOCUSED COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE


In all 20 sixth- through 10th-grade Humanities and English sections at Grant Street, students and teachers began their double-period classes with approximately 30 minutes of independent reading. In the single-period 11th- and 12th-grade English classes, students read for approximately one period a week. Teachers also expected students to read at home each night for up to one hour. These expectations translated to yearly ones: between 15 and 25% of students’ overall grade in English or Humanities included their progress in independent reading — via quantity and completion of books (students in Grades 6 to 10 were expected to read 35 books a year, and in 11th and 12th grade, teachers expected them to read 25 books), reading habits at home, engagement in class, and experimentation with genres and book difficulty. These details about independent reading provide a sketch of how staff and students enacted their commitment to reading every day. But my analysis indicates that the meaningfulness of independent reading was much deeper than these surface characteristics, embodied through constant interaction about books, shared language and resources, and opportunities for identity development through engagement with others.


Grant Street anchored its reading activity in independent reading, a reality that prioritized choice, reading silently in the company of others, and “losing oneself” in stories over any other reading activity in the school. Students read every day and they were surrounded by extensive libraries in classrooms, the library in the principal’s office, and the school library. Fliers of books decorated the hallways, and during any given class period, up to 25 students from throughout the building would visit the school library to choose books or to see if a new release they had reserved was ready to check out. Authors came to visit, to share their messages, sign books, and eat pizza with students. Every student in the interview sample asserted that independent reading, over any other activity at the school, contributed to their enjoyment and growth in reading. And in every classroom, students and adults participated in similar rituals, routines, and conversations during independent reading. Students came to recognize Grant Street as a reading school, largely because of its independent reading program. In fact, one student commented, “If I were to draw a symbol for Grant Street on a map, I would draw a book.” Teachers’ expectations about reading habits and reading quantity did not deter students from enjoying reading; in fact, their expectations gave students the opportunity to read in a crawl space as they chose the books that asserted who they were and wanted to become as readers. See Figure 1 for a visual representation of Grant Street’s reading crawl space.


Figure 1. The Grant Street Reading Crawl Space

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DOMAIN: TIME AND SPACE DEVOTED TO INDEPENDENT READING


Wenger’s (1998) definition of domain is synonymous with “commitment,” and the way in which the Grant Street staff organized time and space solidified a commitment to center students’ school experiences around reading. Also, it was an important first step in sustaining a literacy-focused community of practice.


INDEPENDENT READING.


Teacher Actions


Three key teacher actions during independent reading — book recommendations, reading, and conferences to monitor student progress in habits and reading strategies — permeated every classroom. In one seventh-grade classroom, for example, the teacher Keena sat with a student by the classroom library. The student had numerous choices in the library of over 500 titles, organized by genres such as school drama, realistic fiction, graphic novels, and sports nonfiction. She was looking over a book from the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Questioning) bin entitled Geography Club (Hartinger, 2007). The bin was in Keena’s lap as she offered these words in a whisper: “What I love about this book, it doesn’t matter if you like girls, or girls like girls, or boys like boys, et cetera, but if I love the characters, and they’re going through the same thing, I can still like the book.” Later, after her student chose Geography Club, Keena joined her students in the large square of desks in the middle of the room and picked up a copy of Gone (Grant, 2008), a dystopian young adult book that four other students in the classroom were also reading. She read for the remainder of independent reading.


In addition to recommending books, when they weren’t reading teachers also checked in with individual students to monitor their progress. In one sixth-grade class in October, the teacher Dawn sat in the back of a class with a student, Melanie. Dawn was using materials from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project to assess students’ fluency and comprehension proficiency, and asked Melanie to read a brief passage aloud and answer Dawn’s questions as Dawn took notes. Afterward, Dawn scanned Melanie’s reading log and began to ask her questions about her daily and nightly reading habits. Dawn noted that while the number of pages that Melanie read in class was consistent, Melanie’s at-home reading varied. Dawn added: “I know in real life readers read differently on different days, but …” And Melanie responded, “When I read at home it’s sometimes distracting. …” Dawn suggested, “What if you read during my skills class4 — I’ll put you on my list?” Melanie nodded and after a few minutes more of conversation, gathered her folder and book and returned to her seat. Dawn circulated the room now, crouching down to students as she scanned their reading records and whispered requests to retell the pages they had just read.


Student Actions


My observations also highlighted students’ most common actions during independent reading, reading books, and conferring with teachers. For the most part, they silently read a range of books except when they participated in conferences with their teachers. In one 10th-grade class I observed, students engaged with some young adult fiction such as Mob Princess: Count Your Blessings (Strasser, 2007) and Crazy in Love (Mackall, 2007). About three students read Perfect Chemistry (Elkeles, 2008), another young adult novel. A few students read nonfiction — Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago (Jones & Newman, 1998) and Changing Bodies, Changing Lives (Bell, 1998). Another read a Stephen King novel. As Theresa moved around the room, crouching down to whisper with individual students about their daily reading progress, Fiona, a student seated in the front, explained to me why she was rereading Push (Sapphire, 1997): “You know, Push is a pretty popular book these days. Did you know it’s coming out into a movie? Everybody’s reading it.”


Together, teachers and students engaged in a repertoire of activities during independent reading: reading the same books; recommending books; modeling reading; conferring with students; talking about books, reading interests, and reading habits; and collaborating to improve students’ reading habits and achievement. Staff members I interviewed indicated that they recognized that Grant Street’s commitment to reading was largely expressed by the time it devoted to independent reading. Jack, the principal, stated that these activities gave Grant Street the identity of a “reading school.” As such, he said, “the majority of the kids are reading every day; it’s a non-negotiable in their lives.”


When I interviewed students about reading at Grant Street, 70% of them appreciated the pure act of reading in school. Half of the students in the interview sample enjoyed having teachers recommend books that would interest them during independent reading. Furthermore, 31% of students appreciated the moments at the end of independent reading when they could talk about what they were reading with their peers. A small portion of the subsample, 18% discussed an important feature of reading at Grant Street, choice. Though relatively infrequent, these responses lent insight into why students may have appreciated independent reading. Stephen, a 10th-grader, stated, “when you give kids the power to pick their own book, they’ll read more. When somebody picks a book for you, it’s not of your interest. When you get to pick a book, you’re going to pick something you like.” Similarly, Wesley, an eighth-grade student, informed me that he enjoyed reading at Grant Street because he didn’t feel “forced” to read. Wesley and Stephen’s sentiments further illuminate the reading crawl space at Grant Street. Even in a school where expectations were high — to complete up to 40 books a year by reading everyday in school, each night, and on the weekends — students appreciated that they could exert some control over what they would read and how they would engage with the texts they chose.


Public Spaces for Reading


The school-wide expectation that students would read each day and at home each night meant that there had to be a constant and continual fresh supply of books. Thus, another vital part of Grant Street’s domain of reading included the spaces dedicated to literacy across the school. Tanesha, a student from the seventh-grade focus group, observed, “I enjoy how … mostly everything here is, like, reading. … You walk around the hallways and it’s always, like, pictures of books, like, coming out now. … Reading is a big thing at this school.” The presence of book posters in public spaces such as the hallways influenced students’ book choices. Amanda, a ninth-grade student, remarked, “sometimes I don’t know what to read and I will just look at the wall and, like, that is a recommendation and I read it.” Amanda and Tanesha’s comments suggest that the mere presence of books impacted their perceptions of and experiences with reading at the school.  


In interviews and observations, Jack, the school principal, emerged as a significant agent in supporting students’ free access to good books. He maintained his own student library in his office which included around 2,000 titles organized in bins by genre similar to the way they were arranged in teachers’ classrooms. Jack was one of the first Grant Street staff members to create such a library, and he did so because, “I wanted to symbolize to the school, and to the students, and to parents that this was the most important thing — that if the principal had a library in his office, you could spend your time to get books out.” Jack’s library fulfilled an explicit goal of creating another space at the school, beyond a classroom or the school library, where students could get books for independent reading. Implicitly, Jack’s library also transformed the principal’s office from a space for traditional purposes such as administrative or disciplinary actions to a space where literacy activities not only could occur, but also occurred frequently.


In addition to Jack’s library, the school library was an equally important space for Grant Street students, boasting 11,000 books and a circulation of 150 books a day. According to Sarah Parsons, the school librarian, these numbers were characteristic of a school twice as large as Grant Street. One reason for the active circulation rate was the quantity of books, but Sarah suggested that it was also because of the constant interaction about books that occurred in the library. Sarah reflected,  


I think the value of this room is the amount of casual conversation there is about books. … A kid from another grade who they don’t know [will say], ‘Don’t read that, that’s terrible.’ [Or,] ‘oh, you’re a big reader? Oh yeah, I read that, that’s great!’ And the younger kids see the older kids in here finding books. I don’t know how you create that in any other way other than to have them seeing older kids reading, picking stuff out and … saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been looking for this!’ or, ‘Sarah, you know that book I have on hold?’  I think the power of the younger ones seeing the older ones do that is pretty intense. There’s a lot of crossover in this room.


According to students and staff, schedules and ample room — truly only inanimate structural elements — did not make Grant Street a reading school. Rather, data suggest that these were the resources through which reading with others, conversations about books, and exposure to reading practice could occur. These literacy activities comprise the next important element of the Grant Street’s literacy-focused community of practice, community.


COMMUNITY: THE SOCIAL DIMENSIONS OF AN INDIVIDUAL ACT


Indeed, the sheer number of books was only as meaningful as the quality and frequency of interaction that students and staff had with those books. Students’ and staff’s interactions about books in and beyond the classroom rendered reading a social activity. In the hallways, library, and in classrooms I heard and participated in school members’ book recommendations. Pairs, small groups, and whole classes of students discussed memorable moments in the book, tracked characters’ development and contemplated connections between the current text and others students had read. It appeared that teachers institutionalized the way they related, with both knowledge and love, to students around books.



Institutionalized Knowledge and Love


Observations highlighted the “institutionalized” personal attention that staff gave to young adult literature, students as readers, and the activity of reading. The personal attention staff gave to reading reflected their knowledge of the books that students wanted to read. Grant Street staff read young adult literature — during the school day with students, and during their own time — which meant that they knew their libraries intimately, thereby putting them in a better position to recommend books to their students and engage in authentic conversations about those books. In fact, students stated that they knew that adults around them could recommend good books to them because adults knew students well — knew their interests and knew the books they would want to read. Not only did I regularly observe students receiving book recommendations from teachers, but 60% of the students I interviewed told me that teacher recommendations motivated them to read more. When I asked Martin, a ninth-grader, what he liked about reading at Grant Street, he told me, “You choose a book yourself. Instead of a teacher telling you what to read, they know my taste. Sometimes I don’t know so many titles, and they really help me.” The element of choice in the independent reading program further elucidates the reading crawl space at Grant Street: Students’ choices were at once their own and also informed by the kind of books available in the libraries and the recommendations teachers provided, all in service of attaining a sense of community and an opportunity to develop as readers.


Martin presents the fine line between teachers telling him what to read and recommending books based on their personal knowledge of Martin’s “tastes,” combined with their knowledge of books in general. Martin and other students appreciated the latter, and this approach was critical in helping teachers and students develop relationships around reading. Veronica, the school’s literacy coach commented,


One thing that was such a big difference for [Neena, a ninth-grade Humanities teacher] this year is her relationships with kids. So much of that came through her relationships around books, and reading books with kids, and reading just more herself, and recommending books to kids, and just having that relationship. And I think that that plays such a huge, huge role. Because it’s a way to get to know each other, to share your passions. It’s, ‘I know you, I know what you like, I’m going to help. You’re going to like this.’  It’s just a way for kids to feel known, and respected, and heard.


Veronica’s observation suggests an important part of Grant Street’s community of readers was for students to feel validated in their reading opportunities. In fact, she noted that in cases where teachers were not familiar with young adult literature, students experienced difficulty in choosing books and completing them. In general, beyond simply knowing that school adults expected students to read, students came to know that their teachers, librarian, and principal were readers as well. This dual identity on the part of staff members — as educators and as readers — legitimated the practice for students, enabled them to witness and take part in adults’ display of affection for reading, and allowed them to formally and informally engage in the shared practice of reading replete with common tools, experience, and interactions.


The practices that contributed to the community element of Grant Street’s literacy-focused community of practice reflected the staff’s larger mission to cultivate a school that supported students academically through close relationships. Keena, a seventh-grade Humanities teacher, commented that the staff viewed academic development as a vital aspect of Grant Street’s work, but she asserted that this work also came with a mutual effort to ensure that the school was a place where “you get attention, and love, and people respect you, and you’re not in this wild place where the teachers and other kids don’t know who you are.” The school’s advisory system facilitated the school’s sense of community. In each grade, between 5 and 8 staff members — teachers, along with guidance counselors, the librarian and the principal — were assigned to small groups of students in advisory classes. Advisory provided students a home base where students checked in briefly with a staff member each morning and afternoon. Twice weekly, advisors would teach students in an advisory class largely focused on social and emotional issues. Advisors also served as families’ primary contacts to the school, and they helped students manage their attendance, extracurricular activities, report card conferences, and the college application process. Advisory aimed to ensure that each student could become close to at least one school adult.


In addition to formal systems that made personal relationships with students possible, students also remarked on a general sense of belonging at Grant Street. The sense of belonging was evidenced in numerous practices throughout the school. Humanities and English teachers introduced themselves to their students at the beginning of the year by writing a personal letter, and asked students to write back. Teachers made their phone numbers available to students and students called staff members by their first name. Students remarked that they felt comfortable about coming to their teachers with problems because they knew that adults took a genuine and personal interest in them, and as described in my other research about Grant Street, teachers discussed their efforts to make the curriculum relevant to students’ lives (Francois, 2011a). In a focus group interview, three seventh-grade girls attested to their Humanities teacher’s ability to combine fun, love, and learning in the classroom. Further, at least four staff members evoked images of family when they described their relationships with students at Grant Street, calling themselves “aunts and uncles by marriage,” “surrogate parents,” or “big brothers” and “big sisters.” Most notably, the school’s sense of community was actualized in the institutionalized love that staff members devoted to reading and to their student readers. It appears that the school’s overall feel of community, and the school’s community of reading appeared to work symbiotically. The school’s larger community shaped the literacy-focused community of practice; in turn, the literacy-focused community of practice provided each student in the school with a way in — an entry point into membership with the larger community.


Recreating a World of Literacy


While daily independent reading was the most evident source of joint participation in reading, students and staff said that they appreciated the less frequent occasions when authors visited the school. During the 2009-2010 year four authors visited Grant Street including Wes Moore. He had recently published The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (2010). The book depicts Moore’s life in contrast with another Black man with the same name who lived in the same impoverished circumstances, but the two had very different outcomes. To promote the book club and the imminent visit, Jack, the principal, sent an email to staff members with a link to a New York Times article about the memoir. Following the email, he sent a handful of copies of the book to each Humanities and English teacher. During the weeks preceding his visit, fliers that showed the pictures of both Wes Moores, and a blurb of the book, covered the hallway walls.


On the day of Moore’s visit in the library, I sat next to Robert, an 11th-grade student whom I had often observed in his English class hunched over a book. Even during class discussions, or when students were making the transition from independent reading to whole-class activities, Robert continued to read, unaware of, and perhaps uninterested in, the happenings in the rest of the room. On this day, he entered the library with two copies of The Other Wes Moore, approached the author, and initiated a conversation with him as about 50 other students, Jack, and teachers entered and took their seats around the room. As Robert listened to Wes Moore address the group, he heard the author say, “I’m here to tell you that the importance of your choices cannot be understated … As great as you have it here [at Grant Street] … you are all needed” out in the world. Moore’s stories were at once suspenseful and harrowing, as his adolescent years almost always teetered between a life in prison and a life of mainstream success. His talk ended 30 minutes later, with him telling students that he “appreciated” them and appreciated being at Grant Street.  


Jack announced that there was pizza, and that he just ordered 10 more pies because “this place is packed! You’ll have a few moments to eat, talk to Wes, and then we’ll have a time to ask questions.” During the question and answer period, students asked questions about Moore’s military school experiences and his reactions to first learning about the other Wes Moore. Robert asked, “At what point did you want to write a book, and why?” Moore addressed each question and invited more for about 20 minutes. At the end of the session, Robert and other students rose to give Moore a standing ovation, and they lined up — along with a few teachers who had brought their own copies — to get books signed. When I asked Robert about his impression of the visit, he replied, “It made me think about my own life. A lot.”


The various literacy events described in this section illustrate what it means for students and staff to participate in a community of readers. Though author visits were relatively infrequent, students defined Grant Street as a reading school in part because the author visits provided students and staff an opportunity to build upon their knowledge of and love for the books they read in a shared space. Robert’s experience illuminates how students navigated Grant Street’s reading crawl space by participating in overlapping literacy events. Choosing to read The Other Wes Moore during independent reading, attending Wes Moore’s visit, and applying Moore’s message to his own life. In fact, Robert’s individual experience hints at the potential impact such events held for the 50 students in the room and for others who attended talks throughout the year: by attending an author visit, students became more intimate with the world of writing, humanized authors with whom they might not normally be in contact, and learned more about themselves in the process. In addition, teachers commented that events like author talks helped to bring the world of literacy into Grant Street and helped students understand what it meant to participate in that world. Jacqueline, a 10th-grade English teacher remarked that Grant Street “recreated” the literacy activities in which adults engage for students by inviting authors, posting bestseller and new release lists, and running book clubs. The structural features that comprised Grant Street’s reading domain facilitated a community of readers in that conversations with teachers enabled school members to build relationships around reading, and author talks enabled students to share their reading interests. Another outcome of this work was the formal and informal instances of apprenticing Grant Street readers.

PRACTICE: APPRENTICING IN A READING CRAWL SPACE


The Formal: Instruction and Discussion


In many ways, Grant Street’s independent reading program emerged as central to its entire reading approach through its work with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). Housed at Columbia University, it serves as a think tank and staff development organization that emphasizes a workshop model in reading and writing instruction for elementary and middle school students. Under the TCRWP instructional model, teachers incorporate a blend of modeling, guided practice, and independent practice in brief daily reading lessons to forefront reading habits and reading strategies on comprehension, interpretation, meaningful independent reading experiences, and interaction with other students. These activities serve TCRWP’s larger goal to apprentice students in the everyday tasks that independent readers and writers undertake.


At Grant Street, sixth- through ninth-grade Humanities classes used the TCRWP model to enhance and focus students’ experiences in independent reading. In these grades, teachers also supported students’ application of comprehension and analytic reading strategies on whole class texts. In the high school, teachers focused on literary analysis through discussion of shared texts, and during independent reading, focusing on reading habits. My analysis on the school’s vision for critical academic press and social support for literacy in other research related to this project (Francois, 2011a) reveals an emphasis on cultivating students’ ability for analytic thinking and discussion in the texts they read together as a whole class.


Before reaching out to TCRWP in 2004, Grant Street had made its own attempts to improve students’ reading achievement by incorporating independent reading in its Humanities and English classes. But without instruction on comprehension and reading habits, Jack, the principal, reflected that this change only yielded minimal change in students’ experiences with reading (Francois, 2012). Six years later, the school’s independent reading program, the explicit instruction on reading strategies, and the analytic discussions on literature all seemed to complement one another in important ways. Staff attested to the school’s increased knowledge about the practice of apprenticing students to become independent and sophisticated readers. In this way, the school’s efforts to build a cohesive instructional approach to reading reflected the “practice” element of communities of practice. Through instruction, teachers built a body of shared language, tools, information, and ideas about what good readers do, and worked to pass that information on to their students.


While instruction in reading enabled a shared set of understandings about reading instruction and learning, my interviews with staff and students prioritized the practice of independent reading above all other reading efforts at Grant Street. Moreover, independent reading was the most prominent feature of the school’s reading program in my observations. This finding itself highlights the way students and staff positioned the relationship between independent reading and instruction: they may have regarded instruction not as the object of students’ reading experiences, but instead used it as a lever in the reading crawl space to access the true goal of becoming lifelong, independent readers in a reading community.


The Informal: Book Clubs and Peer Modeling


Indeed, my analysis confirmed what Wenger (1998) asserts about the “practice” element of communities of practice — that learning about how to become a reader at Grant Street was at the core of the work, while instruction, though an integral component of the school’s reading culture, was a less prominent feature. During a visit in the winter to Keena’s seventh-grade Humanities class, I was struck by a group of girls during independent reading whose desks were covered with reading folders, books, sparkly pens, and star-shaped sticky notes. Keena told me that the girls used the sticky notes to set daily goals for reading a certain number of pages, and she suggested that I interview one of them, Sharon. As they filled out their reading records and settled into reading, I asked Sharon for an interview, but she told me that it might be best for her and her peers to participate in the interview together because of the reading activities they share.


Thus the interview became a focus group the following day and Sharon, Denise, and Tanesha shared with me that they run their own book clubs during independent reading:


Sharon:  We have, like, reading groups.

Tanesha: I think it started from Jack, Because of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Kinney, 2009). Everybody read that [because of the principal’s] book clubs.

Sharon: After that we all just went to the library one time, it was like, ‘Let’s get a book we can all read together,’ and then we found a book and it just kinda stuck.

Denise:  Like from now on, we always read a book together and if we don’t, it’s like, we encourage the other person to read this book.


They created their own book club because of the shared reading practices in which they had participated at the school. Over the course of the interview it became clear that the girls knew each other well. They knew about each other’s families, favorite foods, and especially their reading habits. In the process of building this book club — facilitated by writing goals on sticky notes, texting each other about the books at night, and talking about them during class — these young women built a literacy community that brought together friendship, reading, and routines within the context of a school that was dedicated to fostering a school-wide community of readers. In 7 other instances during the year, I observed similar iterations of student-created book clubs in different middle and high school classrooms: students read a book in common, checked in about pages read, and discussed reactions to events. That these book clubs were self-initiated resonates with the notion of the crawl space; students found their own way to make personal sense of the expectation that they would read every day in class.


While adults in the school enacted literacy practices for their students to emulate, veteran students were also recruited to expose younger students to the practice of being a Grant Street reader. In one sixth-grade classroom, Yronelis, a 12th-grader, sat at the front of the class with her book while most students read and Dawn, the teacher, conferred with others. Yronelis was one of Dawn’s interns, and received academic credit for assisting Dawn in her classroom. Yronelis’s position in the front of the room echoed a common practice for teachers during independent reading throughout the school. Teachers and students alike commented that this single classroom practice — teachers actually reading when students read — enabled students to become clear about their expectations as readers. In turn, students were more willing to emulate the behavior of whoever was in front of them. What is important to note here is that another student was modeling, exposing younger students reading in the company of others at Grant Street. And it was remarkable that Yronelis was the student who was modeling.


I had taught Yronelis in the eighth grade, and at the beginning of the year she held passionate disdain for all things related to reading. On her reading survey in the beginning of the year, I recall that she scribbled “I HATE READING” across the paper. During independent reading, she would approach the classroom library, would pick up the first text that met her hand, and would sit back down. Sometimes she opened the book, but often just threw it on her desk and put her head down. Over time, as I observed her from my own position at the front of the room, and as I conferred with her about book choices, I watched her gradually develop an affinity for reading. Four years later, she was able to apprentice students new to Grant Street in a practice that united the school community.


Later on the same day that I observed her reading in front of the 6th-grade class, I ran into Yronelis in the hallway between classes. I asked her, “I remember you used to hate reading, you would pick anything up off the shelves, remember?” And she replied, “Yeah. Now I read all the time,” and continued walking. Later in an interview she elaborated that she became a voracious reader because the people who knew her, namely Grant Street teachers and her best friend, recommended books to her that they knew she would like.


Yronelis’ actions and the seventh-grade girls’ book clubs are examples of how literacy-related apprenticeship functioned at Grant Street. The presence of student-initiated, spontaneous book clubs across the school reflects students’ ability and willingness to take on the practices that adults modeled. Under the guidance of teachers, students took control of the kind of social readers they wanted to be, bringing friendship and reading together. And Yronelis’ trajectory as a reader started with the process of apprenticeship: whereas once she was averse to reading, gradual participation in and exposure to reading practices influenced her own identity as a reader. Eventually, she became the person who could lead the practices that younger students would be expected to embody. These students’ actions reflect the school’s reading crawl space. Though traditional school settings often draw clear lines between “expert” and “novice,” Grant Street students’ ability to exert some control over the way they participated as readers blurred the lines of these terms and revealed the range of ways that students themselves actualized the reading community.


DISCUSSION: IMPLICATIONS FOR INVESTIGATING AND CULTIVATING THE READING CRAWL SPACE


Grant Street is a literacy-focused community of practice in which people, not places, create and sustain a literacy-rich context. Three key school elements confirm this finding. First, the domains for reading — namely, time and space — were made available in a way that prioritized meaningful independent reading experiences. Second, a community of readers transformed a traditionally individual negotiation between a reader and his or her text into a social enterprise. These shared practices included teachers’ knowledge about books and students as readers, frequent book conversations, and author visits. Third, through practice and apprenticeship, Grant Street readers revealed the way that adolescents experience a process of becoming readers, challenging traditional viewpoints that divide students into reductive categories of “reader” versus “nonreader.” These three elements gave way to a reading crawl space, whereby students made their own contributions to the reading community by modeling Grant Street reading habits to other students, encouraging reading among their friends, and building connections between their lives and their books. These findings raise important implications for teaching reading to adolescent students and for further inquiries into schools’ reading practices.


That independent reading was at the core of Grant Street’s reading instruction suggests that the joy of reading, sharing books with others, and connections to characters and their stories preceded — and were a potential gateway to — more traditional forms of secondary school literacy such as content area reading and achievement tests. One could imagine that the range of tasks associated with independent reading — choice, long-term involvement in stories, personal connections, and gravitation toward a range of genres like fantasy and graphic novels — are irrelevant to reading science texts or answering multiple-choice questions on standardized tests. Yet Grant Street students outpaced their peers nationwide in reading and were more motivated to read. These findings suggest that participation in independent reading may have been compatible with their ability to achieve in academic tasks.


Because this project’s scope was primarily limited to the school’s English and Humanities classes in, further research can investigate how students’ literacy practices in these classes informed or even challenged, students’ approaches to learning in the content areas. Researchers who advocate for disciplinary literacy awareness suggest that we cannot simply assume that proficient literary thinking in English can automatically support students’ achievement math, science, or social studies. Rather, we need to acknowledge and prepare students for the different discourses that these content areas establish (Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008). Still, as Moje argues, we can begin to ask how school cultures support or constrain students’ ability to bring together the different discourses inherent in each discipline. This line of research may bring us to a more comprehensive understanding of secondary school literacy.


This study also holds important implications for developing policy aimed at advancing adolescents’ reading achievement. If Grant Street’s reading culture appears to have some positive impact on students’ reading experiences and growth, and schools across the country struggle in their ability to provide students with successful reading instruction, it stands to reason that the education community would want to know how to scale up or replicate this school’s practices. A few findings may shed light on next steps for school practice. First, a key finding of this study is that students may benefit from daily, protected, sustained time to access high quality reading materials. This finding resonates with research that has found a positive impact between reading volume and reading achievement (Allington, 2001). Second, students may benefit from independent reading time that is instructional, where they extend what they learn from whole-class reading to their independent experiences with texts. Third, this study suggests that the work of providing students with positive reading experiences in schools does not rest on individual teachers alone. Rather, the librarian, literacy coach, and principal all played an integral role in supporting reading as a school-wide endeavor instead of making it the sole responsibility of an individual teacher. Here we see how Grant Street school staff outside of the classroom prioritized reading, modeled their enthusiasm and about books, and made their own spaces open to the students for reading.


However, a key, and less tangible, finding of this study is that these practices were also made possible because Grant Street staff seemed to humanize several elements of reading instruction — student and teacher relationships, a love of reading, student agency, knowledge of the books that kids wanted to read — this study challenges the notion that the core of replication efforts can be found in structural, systemic, instructional strategies, or programs alone. Truly, scholars have observed that replication efforts in urban settings that take this route rarely yield stable and permanent results (Elmore, 2004; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Studies that highlight positive school cultures for middle and high school students suggest that instructional or structural changes that are aligned with efforts to provide students with social support can have a positive impact on students’ school experiences (Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999; Payne, 2008). Indeed, Grant Street’s practices show that relationships matter for reading.


Furthermore, naming independent reading as the school’s core implies that other aspects of the school’s reading instruction sustained and buffered it, conveying the idea that a heavy focus on independent reading alone may not bring about reading success. Indeed, this paper presents only a sliver of the sum of organizational and sociocultural practices designed to support students’ reading development; data analysis also highlights the important role of Grant Street teachers’ shared vision to make the English curriculum critical, rigorous, and relevant. This vision played out in various ways: in the texts teachers chose and the lessons they designed; through the discussions they facilitated about books during class; their ability to bridge students’ personal experiences to challenging ideas and texts; and in their extra efforts to support the school’s most struggling readers. Indeed, in the early stages of Grant Street’s efforts to improve reading instruction, teachers had implemented a less involved independent reading program but had left virtually every other aspect of the Humanities and English curriculum intact. Unsurprisingly, this simple change had little effect on students’ reading experiences or outcomes (Author, 2009). Thus, an integrated and multidimensional approach to reading instruction may be an important path for schools to take.


This project provides scholarship and practice for a reconceptualized understanding of how an individual’s external environment affects his or her interaction with reading comprehension. It also serves as a counternarrative (Perry, 2003) to the many documentations of failure in urban schools serving Black and Latina/o students. These studies, intentionally or not, tend to focus on the deficits of these communities and their schools, leaving little opportunity to document school-wide instances of success and growth (Tuck, 2009). Thus, while this study shows that the work of developing a school culture responsive to students’ reading development is neither simple nor automatic, it also shows that it is attainable: school can and does positively impact students whom we might classify as struggling readers.


Notes


1. According to the state, students reading at the lowest levels score a “1” or “far below grade level” on the state-standardized English Language Arts test. Thirty percent of Grant Street middle school students scored at this level in 2001 (Steinberg, 2007).

2. Sixth- through ninth-grade students took Humanities each day and the class was a double period, about 100 minutes. Tenth-graders took English as a double period, and 11th- and 12th-graders took a single period of English, about 50 minutes.

3. Researchers assert that students’ performance of online and multimedia literacies expands and challenges traditional definitions of literacy (see Guzetti & Gamboa, 2005; Levin & Arafeh, 2002) and this expanded definition may help educators guide students to perform better with traditional literacy tasks (Black & Steinkuehler, 2009; Gee, 2003). While I agree with these arguments, my prior research at Grant Street (Author, 2009) shows that students in this setting articulated that reading print was still their primary form of literacy interaction. This finding informed the design of the current study in prioritizing print over other forms of literacy.

4. A small proportion of students in the middle grades take supplemental reading “skills” classes to further help them with basic comprehension and fluency. General education and special education teachers teach the classes.


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APPENDIX A


Mean Extended Scale Scores of Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test for Grant Street Students (n = 324) and the National Sample (n = 9900)

 

Grant Street Means (S.D.)

 

National Means (S.D.)

 

Grade

Fall

Spring

Difference

Fall

Spring

Difference

Sixth

498.06 (28.26)

505.67 (30.50)

7.61**

515 (35.8)

520 (37.6)

5

Seventh

511.50 (15.91)

527.08 (15.92)

15.58***

527 (35.1)

531 (35.2)

4

Eighth

526.28 (26.21)

541.63 (24.46)

15.35***

545 (37.1)

549 (37.9)

4

Ninth

537.29 (22.50)

553.31 (23.55)

  16.02***

553 (36.2)

555 (36.9)

2

11th

549.48 (25.43)

553.33 (20.76)

    3.85

557 (55.6)

559 (37.0)

2

12th

549.38 (28.56)

562.77 (25.43)

13.39***

562 (36.0)

566 (38.0)

4

Note. **p < .01. ***p < .001


APPENDIX B

Grant Street Adolescent Motivation to Read Profile Mean Scores and Standard Deviations by Grade Level (n = 329)

 

Reader Self Concept

Valuing Reading

Total Reading Motivation

Grade

Mean Score

Standard Deviation

Mean Score

Standard Deviation

Mean Score

Standard Deviation

Sixth

78.87

10.59

 65.40**

12.10

 73.32

9.67

Seventh

77.68

  9.10

 69.86**

  8.86

  73.57*

7.42

Ninth

79.96

  9.67

 69.84**

10.79

  74.88*

8.70

10th

77.73

    10.84

 65.00**

11.35

  71.39*

8.62

11th

81.19

      9.35

 72.40**

10.53

  76.67*

7.82

12th

81.70

  9.98

 70.11**

10.78

  75.93*

8.68

Note. *p < .05. **p < .01.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 5, 2013, p. 1-35
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16966, Date Accessed: 12/20/2014 1:33:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Chantal Francois
    Rutgers University
    E-mail Author
    CHANTAL FRANCOIS is an assistant profession in the Learning and Teaching Department in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University. Her research interests include adolescent literacy, sociocultural perspectives on literacy, reading and writing instruction, and urban school culture. Francois’s work has appeared in Harvard Educational Review and Education and Urban Society. She is the co-author of Catching Up on Conventions: Grammar Lessons for Middle School Writers.
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