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At their last meeting in 2014, the Joint District 65/202 School Board Committee discussed progress being made in implementing disciplinary literacy, which the Districts agreed to implement to achieve the Joint Literacy Goal. They also touched on how disciplinary literacy relates to addressing the achievement gap.

The Joint Literacy Goal, adopted in January 2014, provides that Districts 65 and 202 “will ensure that all students are proficient readers and college and career ready by the time they reach the 12th grade.” The goal has a 12-year horizon, and contemplates that the Districts will partner with early childhood providers and other organizations to achieve the goal.

Defining Disciplinary Literacy

The Boards decided when they adopted the Joint Literacy Goal that they would accomplish it by implementing “disciplinary literacy.”

Previously, teachers taught their students to use the same general strategies to read a text, whether it was a novel, a history book or a math textbook. 

In disciplinary literacy, a math teacher will be expected to teach students how to read, write, question and think like a mathematician. A history teacher will be expected to teach students how to read, write, question and think like an historian. And the same applies when they are teaching a science, a literature or another course.

Scott Bramley, District 202 associate principal for instruction and literacy,  explained, “Teachers are not just dispensing content, and they’re not just dispensing skills relative to their content area, but they’re teaching critical thinking skills in relation to their world – how a mathematician, or an historian, or an engineer would engage in discourse in the greater world.”

The Districts have formed a Joint Disciplinary Literacy Committee, composed of Peter Bavis, District 202’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, John Price, District 65’s assistant superintendent of schools, Mr. Bramley and other curriculum leaders and department heads from each District, to develop a common definition of disciplinary literacy and to spell out expectations for students and teachers.

At the Joint School Board Committee meeting, Mr.  Price said the curriculum leaders from both Districts developed a “working draft” of a definition of disciplinary literacy. One key aspect of the definition is that students be taught to “investigate, reason, read, write, talk and problem solve in the specific ways that practitioners of the discipline [e.g., literacy, mathematics, history, science, etc.] do.” See sidebar for the full definition.

Some of the key expectations for students are that they develop academic language in the core content areas; that they read in a critical stance (e.g., what is the author’s intent, what is not being stated); and that they think critically and problem solve with a variety of strategies.

District 65 Board member Claudia Garrison asked what teaching would look like under a disciplinary literacy model.

“Teaching would be more facilitative learning and generating really strong, higher order of questioning that’s really prompting students to investigate and look at a problem where there’s not a simple answer, but where there has to be some complexity,” said Mr. Bramley. He added that students will be expected to “really dig in and discuss and problem solve using the language of the discipline, using the skills and tools and strategies, whether it be social studies, science or mathematics.”

 Mr. Bramley and Mr. Price said the Districts’ curriculum leaders are continuing to look at the definition of disciplinary literacy and to develop examples of what instruction in a classroom should look like.

Mr. Bramley, said they were used the book “Content Matters, A Disciplinary Literacy Approach to Improving Student Learning” (2009), as the framework to develop the draft definition and added that it “contains descriptors of what a disciplinary classroom looks like when disciplinary framework is being provided.” He said they are using the descriptors as a starting point. 

“We started to brainstorm what this would look like for students, what this would look like for instruction and educators,” said Mr. Price. He said they thought the best way to do this was to visit classrooms at ETHS and at one District 65 middle school and “really come to an agreement about what do we mean when we say disciplinary literacy, what would that look like in the classroom and what does that look like in 10th grade and then 9th grade, 8th, 7th and 6th, so we’re making progress together.

“We’re looking for the best examples that we can find across the high school and some middle schools – what evidence are we seeing of these principles, the framework in place.

“We’re still committed to working toward sharing student samples,” continued Mr. Price,” but we really felt like as a group the place to start was to visit classrooms.”

Addressing Achievement Gaps

Ms. Garrison asked how disciplinary literacy will help address the achievement gap in reading, how it would prepare students pre-K through fifth grades for the rigors expected in sixth grade.

“The theory,” Mr. Bramely said, “would be that students [in the earlier grades] are reading more authentically and have more exposure to being asked to make inferences and read between the lines and think and generate ideas and create the stronger habits in every classroom, studying every discipline.”

This exposure, practice and continued development, Mr. Bramley said, will enhance a student’s achievement increase a student’s ownership of their own learning.

Mr. Price added that the disciplinary literacy model “really starts with building strong frameworks for students.”

He said while the collaboration with ETHS has focused on grades six through nine, District 65 was working to build a strong literacy foundation in pre-K through second grade, which is explicitly part of the disciplinary literacy approach.

He said Demetra Disotuar, District 65’s curriculum coordinator of literacy, is focusing on creating an instructional framework this year for pre-K through second grade and “We’re setting goals to make sure that all students are ready for third-grade reading at grade level.”

For students not reading at grade level by third grade, Mr. Price said, “then we need to engage in Response to Intervention, additional time, additional tasks, different tasks, both inside and outside the classroom to accelerate that student’s learning.”

He said one issue was that the easiest time to provide extra support to middle school students was to pull them out of social studies or science classes. He said, though, this creates a problem because it does not prepare these students with the content knowledge they need in social studies and science to succeed in high school. One way administrators are thinking of working around that is to offer technology in an after-school program for these students.

“There aren’t any easy answers,” said Mr. Price, “But that’s what we’re going to have to grapple with.”

Richard Rykhus said he wanted to challenge District 65 to think about outside-the-classroom, non-instructional interventions for some students. “We’ve talked about the homelessness rate, whether they have nutrition or medical or vision issues,” he said.

Jonathan Baum said the Joint Literacy Goal looks back from 12th grade to 10th to 5th to kindergarten. “I think it’s a start to say to program kids in middle school for what they’ll be facing in high school, but we have to keep taking it back. What do we have to be doing in 2nd grade so they’re where they should be in 5th grade, so they’re where they should be in 9th grade? We have to take it all the way back.”

Mr. Price said, “I agree.” He added, “We’ve got enough work to do if we just take on 6-10 here in the first years. He added that District 65 is focusing on the pre-k and would love it if the high school would join in that effort.

Paul Goren, superintendent of District 65, said, “We have to be intentional at the K-2, the earliest grades, and we can learn from Scott and colleagues at the upper grades of high school of what the expectations are and we can backmap that. That’s part of the collaboration in place.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of several articles on disciplinary literacy, states in his blog “Shanahan on Literacy,” “Disciplinary literacy strategies are different in that instead of trying to build general reading comprehension, they involve students in thinking about the text in a disciplinary-specific way. For example, a history student might be trained in the kinds of clues that will reveal an author’s perspective. That will help the student to evaluate historical accounts, but it won’t be of great use in the reading of a math or science text.”

Some other disciplinary literacy strategies include “trying to connect the graphics and the prose in science to figure out how a process works; or judging the veracity of multiple documents in history; or determining which protagonist an author is most sympathetic to in literature,” says Dr. Shanahan, adding, these strategies “tend to be more purposeful and intellectually engaging than turning headers into questions or summarizing the author’s message.

“Disciplinary strategies aren’t generally helpful in reading, but they can be very helpful in the kind of reading that they’re aimed at. We are just starting to get studies showing that all readers may benefit from these more particular strategies.

“I think that may be because for low readers these methods still engage them in ways that get them to pay attention and think about the information. With better readers, disciplinary strategies pay off because they engage them in a more sophisticated analysis of the ideas.”

Working Joint Definition of Disciplinary Literacy

This is the working definition of disciplinary literacy developed by curriculum leaders from both Districts 65 and 202:

“Disciplinary Literacy is an instructional framework that seeks to prepare students to authentically participate in academic disciplines. Teachers can develop the habits of mind in a given academic discipline by fostering in students the ability to investigate, reason, read, write, talk, and problem solve in the specific way that practitioners of the discipline do. Disciplinary literacy seeks to integrate general reading and communication strategies in the development of these habits of mind as students build discipline-specific content knowledge and skills through their education, PreK-12.”