George Lucas Educational Foundation
College Readiness

6 Strategies to Make Your Students College Ready

Trinidad Garza Early College High School uses six key instructional strategies to prepare students for higher education.

June 14, 2016


Video: Trinidad Garza Instructional Coach, Donna Engelhart, explains the history of the Common Instructional Framework. (00:34)

Students are more engaged in their learning when they have ownership over it, and they take ownership when they're given the opportunity to discover the answers themselves. This is the premise that the Common Instructional Framework (PDF) -- created by Jobs for the Future -- is built on: When you let students take charge of their learning, they succeed.

Trinidad Garza Early College High School uses the six strategies from the Common Instructional Framework: collaborative group work, literacy groups, scaffolding, writing to learn, questioning, and classroom talk.

"This framework was designed specifically for Early College high schools -- which serve low-income and minority students -- as a way to quickly raise the students' proficiency and college readiness," explains Donna Engelhart, a Trinidad Garza instructional coach.

Compared to a 41% high school graduation rate in their zip code, 100% of Trinidad Garza students graduate. Trinidad Garza's students -- about 87% Hispanic, 13% black, 84% free/reduced lunch, and 27% English-language learners -- are exceeding national and local expectations.

How It's Done

Provide an Instructional Framework for Every Teacher

Video: Trinidad Garza World History teacher, Jeannie Adams, describes how the Common Instructional Framework acts as a guide for planning lessons. (00:24)

Trinidad Garza uses all six instructional strategies in every classroom and in both core and elective curriculum. If you walk through the classrooms, you'll see collaborative groups in chemistry, Spanish, and English. You'll witness writing to learn in science, literacy groups in math, and questioning in world history.

"What the Common Instructional Framework has done for teachers is given them a framework so that they can strategize with other teachers about content, interventions, and student success," explains Dr. Janice Lombardi, Trinidad Garza's principal. 

Provide a Common Language for Student Learning

The Common Instructional Framework gives both teachers and students recurrent tools, expectations, and a common language across all classes. "Students become familiar with the rules of engagement in small groups,” says Lombardi. “They become familiar with the expectations of writing to learn. They know that it's OK to not know something immediately and to ask questions.” By having every teacher model these strategies, students internalize them over time, building a toolkit of innate skills that they can call upon throughout their high school, college, and post-collegiate lives.

These Strategies Work Together

These strategies often overlap. "For example, collaborative group work combines several strategies: writing to learn, classroom talk, questioning, and it may combine literacy groups," explains Engelhart. The scaffolding at Trinidad Garza often includes writing to learn, classroom talk, and collaborative group work. Some of these strategies can be used by themselves -- like writing to learn -- but most of them build upon each other.

Scaffolding: Building on Prior Knowledge

Scaffolding builds upon what students already know -- either academic knowledge or something from their life -- using their base knowledge as a reference point to help them understand a new concept or skill.

In a Trinidad Garza English classroom, students were having difficulties grasping how to write a persuasive essay, recalls Engelhart. Their teacher told them, "Pretend that you're talking to your parents, and you're trying to convince them into allowing you to do something you're not allowed to do. What would you say?"

First, the students talked among each other about what they would say. "My goodness, the class went wild; they loved that," remembers Englehart. Next, each student wrote down points of evidence that they would share with their parents to support their argument.

Most teenagers argue with their parents. Knowing this, their teacher drew on an experience common to her students that utilized the same skills she wanted them to practice -- providing evidence to support an argument.

"There you have it," she told them. "You have done exactly the process I'm going to ask you to do. I'm going to ask you to do it for a different question, but now you understand the process."

"That was beautiful scaffolding, calling upon something that's an everyday part of their life and using that to translate what we need to do academically," says Englehart.

With practice, students begin to self-scaffold by consciously calling upon their prior knowledge and experiences.

Writing to Learn: Developing Critical Thinking Skills

Video: Trinidad Garza Principal, Dr. Janice Lombardi, makes clear the difference between low-and high-stakes writing. (00:33)

Writing to learn is a low-stakes, low-pressure tool for learning. It's essentially a way for students to put their thoughts down on paper. "It's a form of reflection, and we believe that reflection is one of the highest-order thinking skills," explains Lombardi.

Interactive notebooks are one tool that Trinidad Garza uses across all subjects as part of their writing-to-learn strategy. An interactive notebook is like a student-created textbook. It has two columns: One side is content in academic language given to students by their teachers, and the other side is a translation of that text or concept in a student's own words -- or sometimes shown through a student-created image.

Students also receive specific writing prompts in their interactive notebooks. They may write an expository, narrative, or creative piece, or an analysis from the perspective of a well-known individual (Joan of Arc, for example) on a particular topic in social studies, says Engelhart. In math, after learning a new concept, math teacher Travis Smith has his students write math tweets. Math tweets are one- to two-sentence summaries -- inspired by Twitter's 140 character tweets -- of a just-learned concept.

"If they are learning about series or sequencing, for instance, 'The difference between a sequence and a series is that sequences use commas and series use pluses,” says Smith. “So, 'A sequence is a sum of a series.' That's a math tweet."

"We're teaching them that writing is a tool,” continues Englehart. “It's a useful way to help them study and to consolidate their learning and their thinking." It also helps students develop their self-scaffolding skills. She has heard many teachers across campus ask their students, "'Where will you look if you can't recall what we just learned? What have you done? Show me the page. Let's go back and look at that.' They're scaffolding back by using the interactive notebook."

Video: Trinidad Garza Instructional Coach, Donna Engelhart, shares how writing to learn has increased their literacy scores. (00:26)

Questioning: Deepening Content Knowledge

Questioning is getting students to come up with their own higher-level questions around a topic or concept. It fosters their critical thinking skills and deepens their understanding of the content.

In a Trinidad Garza social studies class, Engelhart recalls how a teacher introduced her students to robber barons -- unethical American businessmen in the late 19th century, and later big businesses throughout the 1930s and 70s: "I want you to read this information about the robber barons, and then write down two questions: one about a fact that you don't understand and what you need to know about it, and a thinking question: How? Why? When? What?"

When the questions come from students instead of the teachers, it deepens their thinking about what they're learning. "Questioning helps students to start thinking themselves about higher-level questioning: Why did this happen? What was going on in the U.S. that allowed that to happen? What's the outcome of the whole decade impacted by robber barons?" asks Engelhart.

Classroom Talk: Empowering Student Voice

Classroom talk empowers student voice and helps students to articulate their thoughts. It can be between two students, a group of students, or the whole class. It can revolve around a class reading or solving a math problem. "Classroom talk is the process in which students engage with each other to problem solve, answer questions, do research or paired reading, or any kind of thing that gets them talking between themselves," explains Engelhart.

It also promotes active listening, she continues. "What we’re creating here is not just talkers but we’re also creating listeners." Asking students to talk to their shoulder partner is one exercise to promote active listening. After the first person talks, ask the shoulder partner -- the listener -- to explain what the talker just said. "I want the listener to be able to translate what his partner said, because he's doing active listening and thinking it through himself."

Group Work: Fostering Collaboration

In collaborative group work, each student has a role, and it often results in a group product, says Englehart. "When you create roles for your students, they have to be meaningful. Timekeeper, recorder, equipment manager, those are not useful roles. We need to engage every student in a high level of responsibility so that everybody takes ownership of the final product.”

Roles such as questioner and researcher -- unlike timekeeper -- have specific tasks, are vital to the group, and are dependent on each other for the group to succeed. Over time, students internalize these roles and jump into quality group work without direction.

Literacy Groups

Video: Trinidad Garza World History teacher, Jeannie Adams, explains the process of working in literacy groups. (00:32)

Literacy groups are a form of collaborative group work. Like group work, everyone in a literacy group has a specific role to carry out. Two things specific to literacy groups are that they revolve around discussing and annotating texts -- from textbook essays to scholarly articles. Annotation helps students understand and distinguish varying perspectives from a single text, which helped Heather Wellman's world geography class when her students were deconstructing the social, political, environmental, and economic points of view of an article about another country.

"Today in class, we did jigsaw reading, where each student with their specific role took part in annotating one article, and then they were in charge of reporting back," explains Wellman. “One person read with the eyes of an economist, and others read with the eyes of a socialist, politician, and environmentalist. And so that way they were able to share back and then synthesize that information succinctly.”

Classroom Successes

Over 80% of Trinidad Garza students are the first generation among their family to go to college, and, according to Principal Lombardi, "about 87% come from low-socioeconomic homes. One hundred percent of our students pass the state assessments in every subject tested. We accept the challenge of scaffolding our students from their known to the unknown," she states.

School Snapshot

Trinidad Garza Early College High School

Grades 9-12 | Dallas, TX
419 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
$11766 District$10177 State
Free / Reduced Lunch
87% Hispanic
11% Black
1% White
1% Multiracial
Demographic data is from the 2014-2015 academic year. Fiscal data is from the 2015-2016 academic year.

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