Character, Literacy, and Language Development at Bayless Junior High

by Bob Efken

Doug and I have been at Bayless Junior High, a small school of 350 students in the Bayless School District, for fourteen years. We love that Bayless is the most culturally diverse district in Missouri, with over 50% of students speaking a primary language other than English. However, this is also our greatest challenge.

The school’s refugee and immigrant families from Bosnia, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and twenty other countries find their way to our community in search of the American Dream, and we consider it an honor to help them accomplish that dream. At Bayless Junior High, we realized ten years ago that our students struggled academically and linguistically. Bayless needed an instructional model that would benefit all students, but especially our growing English Learner population. We began to implement the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol or SIOP, which promotes learning the English language while engaging students in rigorous academic content. SIOP was a perfect fit for our unique school, and the accomplishments of our students have been nothing short of amazing.

When Doug took over as Principal of the Junior High, he had two essential goals.

First, Character Education, and more specifically the core values of “Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Kind,” should be embedded in everything we do, including our curriculum. Bayless Junior High had already earned its first National School of Character recognition prior to his becoming principal, so the roots of Character Education were firmly established. As the various departments worked to write curriculum to the new Missouri Learning Standards, we worked to embed Character Education in the documents as well. Our essential question was “how do we use our curriculum to help our students become better people?”

Second, he wanted literacy and vocabulary to be a building focus. This was more of a challenge, as it would require a cognitive shift from some of our educators and specific professional development for teachers new to the district. Our Junior High team began by working to establish literacy negotiables to be deliberately planned for, observed, evaluated, and implemented by all teachers. Our essential question here was “how do we get students to read, write, listen, and speak more?”

We knew we wanted our students to write frequently, more effectively, and for a variety of purposes. Our teachers decided that they would assign students monthly writing practices known as RACERs, which stands for Restate question, Answer question, Cite evidence, Explain answer, and Reread for improvement. These writings are typically based on current classroom content, are about an arguable character-based topic that requires students to take a stance on morality, ask students to use higher level thinking skills, and require the use of specific academic, process, and/or character vocabulary. Creating prompts provided the greatest challenge for our teachers, but the consistency our students experienced in practicing the same writing skills with the same expectations from class to class was beneficial. Our students write more frequently, more deeply, and at a higher quality now than they ever have before.

Many of our immigrant students come to Bayless with content knowledge, but are unable to express that knowledge in English. Therefore, our students need tons of practice actually using English. Our teachers create, post, read, and review both content and language objectives. These objectives often require students to hold respectful, responsible, and kind discussions on various content and character topics. Furthermore, our teachers post critical vocabulary terms near their content and language objectives to provide a visual of the new English terms they will be learn and use that day. Additionally, our students often need additional support in appropriately structuring their responses. We ask our teachers to scaffold student use of these terms and help make personal connections to new learning by providing sentence frames as appropriate and needed for student responses.

  • Content Objective Sample: I will be able to identify at least two differences between revolution and rotation as related to the Earth and the moon.

  • Language Objective Sample: I will be able to explain in writing the movement of the Earth and moon and hold a respectful discussion with my shoulder partner using the terms revolution and rotation.

  • Key vocabulary identified: revolution, rotation, respectful.

  • Sentence Frame Sample: “I know that the _____ revolves around the _____ because _______.”

Doug and I feel strongly that Bayless Junior High School’s unyielding focus on Character Education along with the dedicated mindset that all students will read, write, listen, and speak frequently each day, have aided in our students’ academic success. Our students, most of whom live in poverty, have leapfrogged several hundred schools in the state in English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science achievement on the Missouri state test. Our students consistently score higher than the larger, less culturally diverse, more affluent schools in our academic conference. Bayless has moved to among the state’s highest achieving districts, ranking #67 in 2013, #18 in 2014, and #14 in 2015. Furthermore, Bayless Junior High School’s Annual Performance Report score has jumped from 58% to 94% to 100% in the same time period. We believe that our dedicated focus on literacy and Character Education gives us a strong basis for moral, academic, and career success as our students pursue the American Dream.

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