Hammond Middle School’s librarians are so familiar with their students’ reading tastes that they frequently suggest books for them to read. "We’ll say, ‘Here, you’ll love this, and they always seem to,’" said Hammond Librarian Elaine Brand.
The Hammond librarians’ familiarity with their 1, 168 students’ reading tastes is just one of many tools Hammond Middle School uses to improve its students’ reading.
"We have a big insistence on reading across the content areas," said Hammond Principal Kris Clark.
When they arrive at Hammond and participate in its reading programs, "suddenly kids start having conversations around literature," Clark said.
Brand admires the school’s reading initiatives. "I think our administration is very supportive of our program," she said. "They want to create a generation of readers."
Alexandria’s schools have a different focus on reading in middle schools than it does in elementary schools, said Jodie Peters, reading peer coach and head of Hammond’s Reading Department. Elementary schools focus on teaching kids to read. Middle schools focus on teaching kids to learn through reading.
Not all of the middle school students are ready to move on to this next level, Peters said.
Hammond Middle School has several programs to improve its students’ reading, whatever their level.
Perhaps chief among these, it sets aside 40 minutes a day for each student to read. In this "Accelerated Reader" program, students generally choose books from the school’s library. When they complete them, they take computerized tests on the books. The tests indicate the students’ strengths and weaknesses in comprehending the books.
Sometimes students want to read a book for which the school does not have a test. In this case they will recruit a teacher to also read the book, Clark said.
Hammond has had the Accelerated Reader program for seven or eight years, Clark said. Over the years it has found that some of the students are not fully ready for independent reading. These students are given reading tests. On the basis of these tests the students leave the AR classes some of the time. During these periods they join classes focusing on improving the particular reading deficit they have, Clark said.
As a reading peer coach, Peters oversees reading testing, keeps abreast of reading research and encourages the use of reading in all the school’s classes.
"We often say all teachers are teachers of reading," Peters said.
Hammond teachers feel a lot of pressure to raise their students’ test scores, she said. Peters takes this as a challenge for her to show teachers what incorporating reading into their teaching would look like. The school expects its teachers to teach content reading strategies for their subject areas, Clark said.
Teachers are encouraged to introduce students to readings, said Alexandria City Public Schools Curriculum Specialist for Reading Ann Anderson. The teacher may tell the students what the reading will be about. Alternately, the teacher might ask the students what they think they may learn. Generally, the teacher will explain graphs in reading material.
In these and other ways, students are primed to focus on and understand the reading they are about to do, Anderson said.
Some classes are taught to students with mixed reading abilities, Peters said. In these situations teachers will try to explain the more difficult passages. The school also sometimes uses books and magazines that have alternate versions with similar content but simpler reading material.
The school has many programs to help out struggling readers, Clark said. Hammond has four reading specialists. If a student is reading more than a grade below where they should be, they take a special reading course with one of these specialists, Anderson said.
Like all the city’s schools, Hammond provides a recommended summer reading list to its students at the end of the school year. "We don’t have as much participation as we would hope," Peters said. Those students who do not do summer reading loose some of their reading ability.
One of the ways the school emphasizes reading is through maintaining a strong library, Clark said. The school has 11,000 books in its library, far larger than many middle school libraries. It spends about $10,000 each year on acquiring books.
The librarians pick their books based on student interest, Brand said. For elective reading, students generally like to read contemporary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, she said.
"We have an ability to find something for reluctant readers," Brand said. "We never take ‘no’ for an answer."
George Washington Middle School has most of these same practices, programs and resources, Anderson said.
One thing Hammond has that George Washington does not have is a boys reading club.
In the United States, girls read better than boys do. The gap generally widens in middle schools, Peters said.
To combat this widening, the school founded Club BILI, Boys In Literacy Initiative. At the start of the school year the school surveys boys about what topics they are interested in, Clark said. Then the club’s teacher advisors break the year into roughly six week periods. In each of these periods the boys read about one of the topics they are most interested in.
Boys join the group voluntarily and may participate in some topics and not in others over the course of the school year, Clark said.
At the groups meetings every other week after school, the boys normally discuss the books. Authors also occasionally visit the club. The club also takes field trips to related sites in the area.
At least one parent is happy with Hammond’s literacy program. "My daughter has improved immensely (in reading) since going to Hammond," said Amy Seaton. The girl’s reading has improved at least two grade levels, Seaton said.
Seaton said her daughter speaks with a Caribbean accent. The school’s library would be improved by having books-on-tape versions that students could listen to while they read books, Seaton said. This would improve students’ pronunciation.