Coherence in the Face of Complexity: Secondary Leaders' Sensemaking in Building Disciplinary Literacy Programs

Gillespie, Michael, Administration and Supervision - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Eddy Spicer, David, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

National and international measures of literacy suggest that reading and writing remain significant areas of concern for American students at the secondary level (Fleischman et al., 2010; NAEP, n.d.-c; NAEP, n.d.-a). Studies of literacy as a broad concept suggest that an intentional focus on literacy can positively impact a wide range of students (Frey et al., 2017; Faggella-Luby et al., 2012; Cummins, 2011). Despite this, generalized literacy programs often struggle to take hold at the secondary level, leading to an absence of literacy instruction after elementary school. Literature suggests several possible reasons for this, whether it be teachers who are unclear on the role that literacy might play within their content area (Cantrell et al., 2008; Siebert & Draper, 2008) or uncertain of how to implement literacy within their classrooms (Mac Mahon, 2014).

In response to content area literacy approaches, which argue that generic literacy skills can be used across all disciplines, several studies (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Moje, 2015) propose a disciplinary literacy framework, which operates on the idea that different academic disciplines require different forms of literacy, ones that students learn from direct instruction from a content expert. Other studies have worked to identify the presences of these literacies within different disciplines (Spires et al., 2018) and the impact of discipline-specific literacy instruction on students (Reisman, 2012; De La Paz et al., 2017).

Despite promising findings within the classroom, leadership studies on literacy argue that the integration of literacy in secondary schools is a complicated endeavor, because of the complexity of literacy as a program (Ippolito & Fisher, 2019), the demands on leaders (Bean et al., 2015; Lochmiller & Acker-Hocevar, 2016; Wilder, 2014), and the multifaceted nature of secondary schools (O’Brien et al., 1995). As such, complexity represents another dimension of the problem of practice of integrating literacy in large middle and high schools at the secondary level.

Because of this, this study attempted to understand what steps leaders might take to help build a program around disciplinary literacy in a way that is comprehensible to others within a school. To do so, the study proposed a conceptual framework that integrated concepts from instructional coherence – an area of study that attempts to understand how leaders build cohesive programs (Newmann et al., 2001) – and sensemaking, a body of theory and research that looks at how leaders make sense of ambiguous change and design their organizations to help manage that complexity (Weick, 1995). In support of this, the study focused on research questions around leaders’ experiences with and understanding of disciplinary literacy, steps they took to implement disciplinary literacy within their building, factors that enabled or constrained this work, and the role that sensemaking played in this process. The design of the study extended from these questions and this conceptual framework, implementing a case study at a large, comprehensive high school based upon semi-structured interviews with school leaders, as well as documents created over a five-year period focused on disciplinary literacy as a major instructional element. Analysis utilized this conceptual framework to develop findings in the areas of disciplinary literacy, coherence, and sensemaking.

Major themes from the study suggest that school leaders benefit from developing nuanced understandings of disciplinary literacy and the practices that support it, including the recognition that differentiated processes help build teacher buy-in. Despite this differentiation, the study suggests that leaders also need to develop common schoolwide understanding (such as a common vision) and integrate literacy into existing structures (such as professional development and school improvement plans). Finally, the study suggests that leaders must use sensemaking to navigate this process, including the introduction of new initiatives that might hold the potential to slow the momentum of literacy.

Based on these themes, this study proposes the following seven recommendations for school leaders:

● form a representative cross-disciplinary literacy team

● build common understanding of disciplinary literacy within the team

● set common schoolwide vision and expectations

● work strategically to integrate literacy into school structures

● use existing structures and relationships as accelerants

● create resources that balance commonality and difference

● connect literacy to past, current, and future initiatives

EDD (Doctor of Education)
secondary literacy, disciplinary literacy, coherence, sensemaking
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
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