Black kids excel at St. Paul’s Washington Middle School


‘Disciplinary literacy’ method gets students more engaged

Fifty-four percent of African American students at Washington Technology Magnet Middle School did better in reading than their peers in the state, based on the results of the MCA-II tests in 2006. In math, 57 percent of Washington’s African American students did better than their peers in the same testing period.

Washington Middle School has a student population of 600 seventh and eighth graders, 25 percent of whom are African Americans; the majority is Asian American. Principal Mike McCollor attributes the high performance of these students in part to the “disciplinary literacy” teaching approach implemented at Washington Middle three years ago.

McCollor explained that the disciplinary literacy approach was introduced in 2002 by the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Researchers at the university looked at approximately 10,000 classrooms nationwide that had measurable achievement gains.

By analyzing what those successful teachers were doing right, they identified five principles of learning — and that’s what disciplinary literacy is based on.

“By using this disciplinary literacy approach, we treat middle-school students as practitioners,” said McCollor. He used the analogy of learning to play a musical instrument.

“When you are learning how to play an instrument in music, for example, you are a musician. You don’t just study the instrument, and look at it, and answer questions about it, and figure out how notes go. You put the instrument in your hands, and there you go — you are a practitioner.

“You still have to have the instruction, but you learn as you go. So it is with disciplinary literacy — it is more of an apprenticeship model.”

One of the big differences about this approach, observed McCollor, is that students are encouraged to participate. The student who would normally interrupt the classroom with inappropriate comments is challenged to contribute opinions in an acceptable manner. For many students, especially those with a tendency to be more vocal, talking in class has become a fun way for them to share their learning with each other.

By using this approach, the educator focuses on what the student is learning instead of looking solely at what the teacher is teaching. In classrooms where the teacher has attended level-three training, the students are four times more likely to perform at a higher level.

All teachers at Washington Middle School are trained in the disciplinary literacy approach, starting at level one, and the master teachers go all the way to level three. “The number-one result we see is that kids are more engaged,” McCollor reported, “and the overall results show that the amount of growth is phenomenal. So, that’s why we keep moving teachers in that direction.

“Kids are learning faster,” said McCollor. “Last year we were the only high-poverty middle school in the state that made Adequate Yearly Progress.”

Washington Middle, located on Marion Street in St. Paul, has a strong commitment to technology, providing students with hands-on computer experience through classroom instruction and special projects. The school also has an outstanding music program. The building has undergone some recent renovation and that gave it an open, clean and progressive atmosphere.

For more information about Washington Middle, visit

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