Tracy Fischetti's high school students improved their reading level scores about three times as much as expected last year, according to the state’s 2013 test scores.
Of all the English teachers in Florida, she scored the highest on the state's Value Added Measure (VAM). Interestingly, Fischetti had no idea of her distinction until I emailed her in early March. "I am not sure how you would have gotten wind of my classroom chaos in California," she wrote. The metric isn't viewed positively in her district.
I'm sure many readers' jaws clench at the mention of VAM Scores. I'm going to sidestep that controversy for this post except to note that, inadequate as test scores are for assessing educational quality, they're not a bad starting point to discover promising practices. No matter what you think of VAM, Fischetti and her students have accomplished something impressive, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the time she took to share her approach with me.
There are three practices that Fischetti employs consistently that seem to account for a lot of her success.
1. Teach brain theory
Check out her class assignment page from last year. For the first nine weeks, Fischetti packs her assignments with lessons about how the brain works. She teaches her students how to learn before teaching them what to learn.
"At the beginning of the year, they find out if they're left-brained, right-brained or mid-brained* and then they learn about multiple intelligences," she says. "They do all kinds of surveys so they know how they learn best. And I try to make them even more aware of their entire learning process, so they can get stronger faster. Kids know what their Lexile scores are and what their weekly gains are." We've seen this kind of emphasis on metacognition in other great classrooms before.
2. Use edtech to personalize, but not quarantine
Fischetti’s students use Achieve3000, which delivers the same news articles to all students in the class, rewritten to each individual student’s reading Lexile level. This enables students to stay in their personal proximal zones of development while reading, but preserves her ability to integrate the content of the news articles into whole-class assignments and activities. (We've seen this exact approach yield amazing results elsewhere.)
Heavy integration with whole-class activities is key. Fischetti changes up how she uses the program to maintain student interest. Sometimes she projects an article at the class average Lexile level to work on together. Other times, the class divides up into groups based on Lexile levels and each group works on a different version of the same article. Still other times, the class will work on an article written at the level they will see on the state test, to keep the goal in view. Other times, they each work individually. She’ll also pull articles that work well with specific skills she’s covering in class, like context clues or compare and contrast.
There are plenty of classrooms that use Achieve3000 that don’t get stellar results. A heavy integration of the content into collective class activities, plus an emphasis on students tracking their own Lexile level reading growth seem to be ingredients in the successful implementation. As Fischetti puts it, "I don’t ever send them to the computers just to read and take a test. They know I am going to do something with it."
Incidentally, she’s started to experiment with Newsela, a younger and currently free service similar to Achieve3000. While she's hopeful that Newsela can solve her cost problems, a few drawbacks have kept her from embracing it fully, namely: the ability of students to manually change their own reading level; the strictness of the comprehension quizzes (miss two and fail), which is demoralizing for her students; and the fact that assignments in the student view don't match the assignment names in the teacher view, since article titles change with Lexile level. However, she does like that the articles are up-to-date and she uses it occasionally in whole-class exercises.
It's worth noting that both Fischetti and Megan Nichols, one of the other teachers who has used Achieve3000 to great effect, say their students' superior performance on the computer-based standardized tests may have something to do with familiarity of format--they’re used to reading non-fiction passages from a computer screen for comprehension.
3. Believe in your students
Fischetti's lessons on brain theory and emphasis on students tracking progress reflect an underlying confidence in their academic abilities. "I believe in my kids. I know they can do it. They're very underrated."
She makes sure her students share that belief. "We use all kinds of data to pump them up, to let them know that just because they don't think like everyone else, that doesn't undervalue them. They have just as much potential as any other student." Now she and her students have one more big data point to prove they can perform, even by traditional standards.
*Author’s note 5/25/14: A simplistic version of left brain vs right brain theory is considered invalid by cognitive scientists. See this meta-analysis and this article by Daniel Willingham, which provides some nuance to the issue (despite the lack of nuance in the title). Willingham also has an important critique of learning styles theory. My guess is Fischetti's lessons on brain theory help because they reassure struggling students that their difficulties are surmountable--see Carol Dweck's work.