New Visions Rolls Out A New Kind of Literacy Instruction

Were the benefits of the Industrial Revolution worth the costs to society? Students in Sara Ballute's and Tim Lent's 10th grade social studies classes at the High School for Service and Learning in Brooklyn spent five weeks tackling this question. Using a new strategy for teaching writing, the teachers helped their students create essays with the detailed, evidenced, well-written claims that are hallmarks of successful writing in college.

"My students have never been so receptive and so engaged in a lesson before," said Ms. Ballute. "I've tried to go back to the traditional way of teaching, but my students don't want it."

Ballute and Lent are among dozens of teachers throughout New Visions' network who are implementing teaching methods aligned with the Common Core State Standards as part of a pilot literacy program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The program uses an adaptable framework for teaching high school students to be better readers and writers in order to prepare them for the rigors of college-level writing.

According to the common core standards, which New York State has mandated for 2012-2013, students in the 9th and 10th grades should be able to cite textual evidence, identify the central idea or theme of a text, and compare the approaches of different authors, among other skills.

With these mandates in mind, New Visions joined forces with the Literary Design Collaborative (LDC), a teacher-led initiative of literacy experts who are developing a framework, flexible enough to be adopted by social studies, science, or even mathematics teachers.

"As a Social Studies teacher, I had never had formal training in how to teach essay writing," said Ballute. "But LDC has given me the framework to incorporate the literacy and writing skills that enhance the way students learn it. Gone are the days that a history teacher just teaches history."

Over the course of Ballute's LDC module, the 108 students worked with 23 different sources on the Industrial Revolution, using the module's step by step process of reading, annotating, outlining, drafting, and finally editing.

Students were also assigned mini-tasks in class that resulted in intermediate work products that helped them with their drafts. For instance, Cornell notes, a two-column note taking system that pair themes from the readings with specific textual evidence, helped students keep track of citations from the text for later use in their essays.

"My kids now want to use Cornell notes for every class," Ballute says. "Now, a few other teachers are considering using it in their classes."

For Jaci Urbani, a doctoral researcher from the University of California at Berkeley who observed the lessons, "the mini tasks that scaffolded the writing process were essential to the success of the module. The students had to be able to prove the basis for their arguments in group discussions first, which helps them to become better writers, critical thinkers and expert observers, ready for college and careers."

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