by Dr. Chery Wagonlander, Principal, and Amy Cox, English Teacher and GAPS Coordinator,
Mott Middle Early College High School, at Mott Community College, Flint MI.
Since transitioning to an early college, reflective practice has surfaced a greater need to accelerate the development of student college readiness. Where is the tipping point at which students lack college readiness? When do students really need to be college ready? In order to address these questions MMEC has re-envisioned the way in which it delivers core content and has pushed Dr. David Conley’s concepts into higher gear with the development of a new English II curriculum that was piloted two years ago and refined last year. The new course, co-created by Amy Cox and Katie Carr, MMEC English Teachers, seamlessly integrates Conley’s Key Cognitive Strategies into the ELA core content standards both transparently and deliberately.
It was important to introduce Conley to second year students in a relevant, transparent and meaningful way, rather than just plopping in isolated bits. One example is an assignment called Querencia. Students read a text called Querencia from the book Writing Toward Home in which a writer discusses her place of power. Querencia comes from the Spanish verb “querer,” which means, “to want”. This is both an academic exercise in descriptive writing, but also one that translates into college readiness. Students write two paragraphs. One paragraph describes a place where they feel a sense of power, a place where they can go to regain strength, to recover. The second paragraph describes their ideal place to write, to think, to be a scholar. One underlying objective of this assignment is to provide students with an opportunity for reflection, for meta-cognition. At the beginning of the year, their place of power is described in concrete terms, with sensory detail (in part because that is the nature of the assignment, but also in part because developmentally students are very concrete thinkers). Yet, by the end of the year, students realize that with the possession of knowledge comes power and that they now have become empowered. The place of power now resides within the self. Knowledge is power; Querencia is inside them.
Traditional vocabulary lessons are a vital part of the curriculum. The lessons are geared toward transparently and deliberately teaching college readiness vocabulary. What is the difference between a learning community, peer learning, and mastery learning? What do the words rigor, grit, resilient, collaborate, critical, analyze, assess, confer, bias, media, literacy, and dialogue really mean? This new curriculum values excellence and quality as its standard of learning, but uses mastery learning as a guiding principle. So, students who “bomb” a vocabulary test are allowed to re-take it on the following Tuesday after school to demonstrate mastery, replacing their old score with the new one.
Reflection or meta-cognition is a key cognitive strategy that is deliberately taught in the English II curriculum. From the very beginning of the year, students are constantly asked to reflect on their academic behavior and on their thinking strategies. Students write formal academic reflection essays at the beginning of the year, sometime mid year and at the end of the year. In addition, students are graded for their jottings in their daily planners. The weekly grading of students’ daily planners reinforces many positive academic behaviors that are inherent in successful scholars. The goal is to provide students with the opportunity to create positive habits involving deliberate reflection and planning. Students even write a poem about meta-cognition. Eventually, students learn that meta-cognition is not only for improving academic performance or making changes, but that meta-cognition can be used pro-actively as well to make wise, thoughtful decisions. The deliberate teaching of such a skill is an empowering tool for any scholar.
The English II curriculum balances the best of mastery learning and the middle college philosophies with the rigor of college readiness and the core content standards. As students take notes on ELA concepts, they do so using MLA outline formatting. As students copy definitions from their college readiness vocabulary lists, they do so using the hanging indent format for each entry as they would in an MLA Works Cited page. Rather than fearing the writing process of their first major research project, students work collaboratively to brainstorm ideas on a topic, organize ideas, develop questions, answer questions through research, sort evidence, develop theses, outlines and rough drafts. In other words, students collaborate on their first major research project from pre-writing to publishing in order to first gain confidence in using the process. The philosophy is that mastery follows confidence.
A culminating project of English II is the Introductory Portfolio in which students demonstrate their ability to be precise and accurate, as well as demonstrate the four major indicators of college readiness: contextual awareness, academic skills and behaviors, key cognitive strategies, and key content knowledge.
Dealing with what is considered an “at risk” population, the burden is on the teacher to make transparent the need to the student to become one with college readiness. Students want to learn, to improve. Students do care. Students have amazing dreams. As reflective practitioners, we can not worry about the lack of skill sets or progress a student has made prior to coming to us, we have only to greet the passion of the students in front of us and use that existing internal motivator as a guide to unlock the scholar within. Fish really can learn to ride bicycles.
Much of this college ready work began with our college counterparts. The early college English department teachers worked with the college English department faculty to discuss where MMEC students needed to be academically to succeed in English 101, the first level composition course, as well as other three-credit college courses. We have called this somewhat collaborative work Partners in Learning. In English II, we have organized panel discussions for our students and their parents, bringing in faculty from the college to discuss what it means to be college ready. Likewise, our Math department has developed its curriculum with the college end in mind. They have worked for a few years now with the college Math faculty. One part of the GAPS experience is to take a Math Module Test that was developed with the college. The idea is that our students need to seamlessly integrate into college Math and we have to know where we need them to be in order to do that. So, we work together so that when our students reach the second semester of Algebra II, they can take the college Math placement test and qualify to be placed into the next level college Math course.
With this re-design effort, MMEC has not lost the intense focus on creating and maintaining a culture of care and scholarship. The care is the affective component of every middle college and the scholarship is the Core Curriculum/David Conley-infused, college readiness piece that guides early colleges toward their mission.
Over the last five years, MMEC has worked purposefully to develop a college readiness curriculum that is vertically aligned with higher education expectations and requirements and developmental in nature. As a result, MMEC has written curricula for three levels of early college seminars that are required of all MMEC high school students. In addition, every MMEC employee is challenged to reflect on and verbalize how his or her “work” is different because MMEC has embedded MMEC college readiness practices and goals across the curriculum.