The rest of Oxford High School was quiet. Almost all of the activity on the hilly campus churns from construction crews on the school's south side. The "beep-beep-beep" of heavy machinery rings consistently through the library's walls and provides an accompaniment to the silence of teachers learning to teach.
Last week, the school's teachers gathered for a common rite of summer: professional development training in which they work on the techniques that will make them more effective teachers in the fall. They've been studying the Alabama Reading Initiative's Project for Adolescent Literacy and the idea of strategic teaching.
Oxford will be the second school system in the state to implement the program through all classes in all grades.
In doing so, it has drawn the attention of state education officials throughout the region. Come September and October, representatives from as many as seven other states will visit to observe, especially at the high school level, which is traditionally the poor relation of literacy programs.
"The point of adolescent literacy is that if they can't read, they can't understand what they're supposed to be learning — your content," said Karen Carr, one of the state's regional literacy coaches presenting last week's session on strategic teaching. "Whether it's P.E., science, language arts — they've got to be able to read and understand before they can move on."
An emphasis on literacy
The Project for Adolescent Literacy started in 2007 as a pilot program for fourth through ninth grades in 14 schools, including Oxford Middle School. The focus on adolescent literacy came about because teachers noted that the Alabama Reading Initiative was initially contained to elementary grades and they were seeing struggling readers as far up as high school. Expanding it to 12th grade is the final step in reducing the number of students reading below the expected norms for their grade level or age.
It is designed to marry the content of classes — history, math, choir, biology — with an emphasis on improving literacy in every class, no matter its subject.
By applying the Alabama Reading Initiative throughout the curriculum, state education officials hope students will improve their reading at the same time teachers learn to present course content in ways that reach more students and ensure more students understand what is being taught.
That's where last week's workshop on strategic teaching came into play. It reflected the belief that schools are going to have to be more flexible in how and what they teach, said Oxford Superintendent Jeff Goodwin.
"How many of you remember, with fondness, that teacher who got up there and talked, non-stop, for 90 minutes?" Goodwin asked his teachers. "Raise your hands. How many?"
Not many hands went up.
"Well, this is getting away from that model and engaging students in a different way."
Traditional block scheduling, in which every class has the same amount of time, isn't effective in addressing the reality that some classes take and need more time than others, and that all students don't learn at the same level, Goodwin says. In another pilot program, some systems have applied for waivers so that advanced students can take an assessment test on the first day of class and, if they score high enough, move on to the next level in that subject.
Oxford's Strategic Teaching approach is just another form of teaching flexibility, Carr said.
"Strategic teaching is about making sure every student knows every day what the outcome of that lesson is supposed to bring," she said. "It's about using these strategies to make sure your students are learning and understanding.
"And, really, isn't that what we all want to achieve?"
Components of change
Strategic Teaching breaks each day into a series of goals and agenda items — all of which are written on the board for students to see. That way, Carr said, they know exactly what they're supposed to be learning and accomplishing in class as the class goes along.
It also involves breaking down lesson components into smaller chunks, with frequent discussion along the way between students, the teacher and, in many cases, smaller groups of students, to see that the message is getting through. Most of its emphasis centers on getting students to make notes and ask themselves questions as they are reading — and then ending with questions they still need to have answered. Other techniques include breaking the class into small groups and having students interview each other about the lesson.
"You're going along every step of the way, making sure they have an understanding, making sure they are paying attention," said Keitha Segrest, also a regional representative and literacy coach, during one demonstration. "It just goes to show you that a student may not like your content, but if you are keeping them engaged, they'll work through it with you."
Segrest acknowledged that many teachers might be anxious about one more trend in teaching. As with any change, there's always some skepticism that a new strategy won't work, has been tried before, will take too much time and will simply produce more paperwork, more meetings and less time in front of students.
"I can feel the anxiety," she said. "I can see you thinking, 'This is just another thing on my plate.'"
Some of the teachers commented among themselves about those concerns. A few said they already used some of the techniques — they just didn't have a name for them.
Khristie Goodwin, assessment coordinator for the Oxford City Schools, said the success from Oxford Middle School shows these strategies and techniques can be effective. She said that once the high school teachers put them in place, students will quickly catch on. Not only do they learn more effectively, but they also report they're more interested in their classes.
"That reduces your dropout rate, and it reduces you discipline problems," she said.
During the year, Carr and Segrest will be following up with teachers to see how the program is working. The third day of the training session was spent showing teachers how to take lesson plans and break them into components that fit the Strategic Teaching model.
"Once they go through this and see how it works, they'll be convinced," Segrest said. "They can mold it, flex it, make it what it needs to be so that every day, every student knows that expected outcome."