According to the Literacy Project Foundation, 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level. Studies also show that illiteracy has a negative impact on society overall and that there is a direct correlation between literacy and poverty. For educators across the nation, these facts are not easy to swallow. How could half of all students fall through the cracks for so many years without the ability to read proficiently?
As many of you know, September is National Literacy Month. Every year it serves as a reminder to celebrate the importance of reading and how far we have come, but it also highlights just how much work still needs to be done.
As teachers, it is our job to ensure student success begins at an early age. There are so many factors, better yet, obstacles for us to help students overcome — a not so stable home life, poverty, learning differences, students who have yet to master the English language. You all know the list continues. However, the effective integration of technology can become your best friend, the great equalizer if you will, when positioned correctly and with the right amount of support.
Take math and English, for example. These two core curricular areas are typically viewed as polar opposites that have very little to do with one another. However, should that be the case? We didn’t think so. Collaboration is in our genes, so the two of us set out to engage our sixth-graders, or rather challenge them, to see how the two intersect, intertwine and go hand in hand when looked at through a different lens. And they did it, we did it, through a combination of creativity, dedication and technology, and the fruits were oh so sweet. We saw our students go from the middle of the pack to well exceeding our district’s required levels.
Math and English aren’t so different after all
The comprehension skills used in learning new vocabulary are very similar to memorizing times tables. When you really think about it, math and ELA aren’t so different at all. Both involve critical thinking, problem solving, rationalization and comprehension. In English, students are tasked with finding the right mix of words to make a sentence while in math, it’s finding the right combination of numbers to arrive at the correct answer. Additionally, students use ELA in math during problem solving exercises and when asked to provide the reasoning behind their thinking.
This approach brought students to the realization that two subjects that appear worlds apart aren’t so different after all, and skills learned in one are very much applicable to the other. Once the connection was made, learning became fun, and our cross-curricular approach second nature.
Both of us felt there was a better way to maximize the time we had with our students, especially those not realizing their true learning potential. This is where technology came into play, the supplementary curriculum we chose incorporates song, music, games and video in to each lesson, the creation of sentences, learning time tables, whatever the concept, students were enjoying, motivated to complete their work.
Making a cross-curricular, combined classroom work
The two of us had been collaborating for years. However, when we decided to make it official, we presented our idea to administration. Our leadership is extremely results oriented and data driven, when they saw data from our classes the year before with limited collaboration, they were onboard and supportive immediately and this new approach was very well received. To start the year, we asked each student to take lexile level assessments. Doing this created a benchmark for each class and student. To track improvement we assessed students in both areas of study every three months. This made progress tracking simple and allowed each student to see his or her own individual improvement.
When combining two complete opposite areas of study, curriculum becomes the bridge between two separate worlds, and in this case, one of the cornerstones to our collaboration. Additionally our sixth-grade classes were part of the “Learning to Go” program, where each student received a netbook with free wifi access, making it possible to continue learning beyond classroom walls.
Twice a week we bring all 72 students together for combined math and English instruction to further position math and English as parts of a full circle. Having a supplementary curriculum that addressed both math and ELA allowed us to look at students more holistically, if a student was struggling in one or both subjects, we could see where that student’s challenges so we can plan more 1-on-1 time with that student.
Our lesson content blurred the hard line between writing and math. Students justify their answers in math using ELA skills, and the English lessons tie in a few problem-solving skills that hold true to mathematics. Through team teaching, students gained the ability to apply concepts learned in one subject to the other. Additionally, the platform being used afforded the ability to further differentiate instruction and allow students to work at their own pace.
Our combined classrooms, 75 students in all, spent a total of 6500 hours on the program alone, much of which was spent outside of classroom.
Success is contagious and starts with motivation
We created an environment where success was cool, and where students wanted to learn as much as they could. It didn’t matter who was better at English or math, every student worked equally hard towards mastering both. Furthermore, we created an environment that other teachers at our campus wanted to emulate as they could see the difference in our students.
Every time a student would achieve a classroom goal we would print a certificate, spray paint it gold and tape it to the classroom windows for all to see. Soon the entire hallway was filled with flashy student achievements, proof of their hard work and motivation to do more.
Success became contagious in the hallways of Mann Middle School. The incentive programs motivated students and prizes involved each step of the way. By the end of 2014-15 all 75 students had reached a 100% completion rate. The implementation and collaboration was recognized through the district, and in return each student received a tablet with a case. We teachers were honored as well.
We hope you are able to take our out-of-the-box approach and make it your own. Although it might be a small accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, we know that 72 students will not fall through the cracks, they have the tools to read and succeed. This is something to celebrate!
Tom Muehleman is a sixth-grade math and science teacher. Syd Rammel is a sixth-grade English language arts and science teacher. Both teach at Mann Middle School in San Diego, where they use Learning Upgrade for the supplementary curriculum discussed in this blog post.
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