Research Update: Kate Frankel, Caitlin Murphy, and the Student Literacy Mentors at The English High School

Co-created reading communities at The English High School contribute to literacy development, strengthen student-teacher relationships, and empower students. Here’s the inside story of this unique collaboration between students, teachers, and researchers.

The ninth-graders walked into Ms. Caitlin Murphy’s classroom to find it transformed. A group of eleventh- and twelfth-graders — co-teachers in a literacy mentoring class Ms. Murphy and Dr. Kate Frankel, a researcher and faculty member from Boston University, had launched the year before — had spent the prior afternoon redesigning the space. They had grouped the desks, covered them with tablecloths, and set each with a small vase of flowers and a pile of books. They welcomed their guests in, showed them to their seats, and gave them the go-ahead to dig in.  

As the ninth-graders rotated from table to table, reading, writing, and talking with one another about the books, the mentors paid attention. When a guest seemed bored or disengaged with the book they’d been sampling, a mentor would rush over with something new for them to try. When a guest took special interest in a book and tried to sneak it along with them to the next table, the mentors took note. 

The mentor’s goal was not just to get more ninth-graders genuinely interested in spending time with a book, but to create a space where they, their mentees, and the teacher could step away from their typical classroom roles and responsibilities. Books would be self-selected rather than assigned. Additions to the library would reflect student requests and feedback. And Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel would sit right alongside the students, sharing in the reading and reflection as peers.  

In design and practice, these “book tastings” embody ideas about collaboration and classroom positioning that Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel have spent the past three years studying. By using those ideas to build reading communities at The English High School, Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel have created a site-based research project that has contributed to individual participants’ literacy development, sparked English-Language Arts curricular change, and strengthened student-teacher relationships, empowering students to actively rethink and reshape what is possible in their own academic experience.    

We recently sat down with Ms. Murphy, Dr. Frankel, and Elianna Pena, a recent graduate of The English High School who participated in the community as a mentor, to talk about the history, impact, and future of this social change-making project.

Part I: How the Project Began

Caitlin Murphy and Kate Frankel first got to know each other through a four-course literacy certificate program BU Wheelock (then BU School of Education) offered to teachers at The English. Dr. Frankel taught those courses, which focused on expanding practicing teachers’ knowledge and understanding of literacy instruction across disciplines. 

The coursework encouraged teachers, including Ms. Murphy, to think about how they could better support students to spend more time reading on their own. How could they create a space, they wondered, where students felt motivated to read independently?  

One possible approach was based on an existing model for student support at The English, a small pilot program where juniors and seniors with strong mathematics skills mentored and tutored students who had yet to pass the state exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). 

“We noticed students being receptive to peer-to-peer teaching in ways that were different from teacher-student lessons,” says Ms. Murphy about the math mentoring program. Together with Dr. Frankel, she adapted that peer-mentoring model to support students to build their reading skills. By fall of 2016, they were ready to test it out. 

Year one of the project began with a full semester of training for the mentors. Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel introduced the mentors to some of the research that had helped inspire their own thinking about the project, and gave them time to plan how they would run their mentee groups. They formed a strong cohort and connected with the tenth-graders who joined them. But by the start of year two, the project leaders and student mentors agreed there was still room for improvement. 

First, they expanded their call for new mentors to include more eleventh-graders to work alongside the twelfth graders. Mentors would now have to apply for their role, a process that included a written application and an in-person meeting. This new group of mentors wouldn’t have the same semester-long planning session–Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel wanted to use the whole academic year and give more mentees opportunities to take part in the community they were building. 

“It was very important that the mentors had a say in what goes on. We know how it feels when someone who isn’t us tells us what to do. We wanted [the mentees] to feel comfortable and to be able to say, ‘No, I don’t want to read this book.’”

To make up for that lost planning time, the new cohort of mentors would participate in training and reflection sessions outside of the normal school day. Thanks to a grant from the Boston University Consortium, the mentors would now receive a stipend for their contributions. And, thanks to a change in Ms. Murphy’s role at The English from lead teacher to assistant headmaster, they’d also be given a lot more say over how the year’s sessions would unfold. Elianna Pena remembers that when Ms. Murphy “got busy with headmaster stuff, she trusted us to lead the classroom.” 

“We would structure the sessions,” says Ms. Pena, who goes by Ellie. “It was very important that the mentors had a say in what goes on. We know how it feels when someone who isn’t us tells us what to do. We wanted [the mentees] to feel comfortable and to be able to say, ‘No, I don’t want to read this book.’”

In addition to running the sessions, the mentors shaped much of the project’s behind-the-scenes structure, including the idea behind the book tastings that introduced each new group of mentees to the project. They used observations and their own understandings of mentees’ strengths and personalities to arrange the pairings between mentors and mentees and create mentee groups. “They would observe who was sitting where and who was talking to whom,” says Ms. Murphy. “They could get a read on students that was better than my own, and had a sense of which students might connect best with them as individuals.” 

The new mentor cohort also did a better job of representing the variety of students who attended The English. Many were students who Ms. Murphy described as having strong academic identities and who loved to read. But the group also included many students who had strong leadership qualities which had not yet come out in the classroom setting. That diversity gave more mentees a chance to connect with a mentor, Ms. Murphy explains. “For some mentors, their own history of being a reluctant reader was something that hooked the other kids in. They could see themselves there.”

New mentors brought new ideas to the community and made it possible for every ninth-grader at The English to participate in the project as mentees that year. And, the project leaders had access to funding from the BU Consortium, a BU Faculty Catalyst Award, and a Donors Choose campaign that let them bring more new books into the classroom in response to student interest. “Whenever a mentor told us that we didn’t have enough graphic novels, or didn’t have the third book in a trilogy, we could respond,” says Dr. Frankel. 

“Because what you read was completely your choice, there was something for everyone,” says Ms. Murphy. “There was no censorship here, and there are no banned books within BPS. The result was that most students ended up surprised to find that having forty-five minutes to quietly read about someone else’s life was often the best part of their day.”

Part II: The Project’s Impact on Students

Ellie Pena, who mentored ninth-graders at The English throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, noticed a shift in her mentees’ reading habits as year two of the project developed. Some of her mentees got caught reading their books in other classes; a few would try and take them home after reading sessions. (The mentors eventually developed a sign-out agreement that allowed mentees to take their books home for extended periods.)  

“You see the difference,” she says. “Kids come back. They would find a sense of achievement, ‘I finished one book, now I want to read another.’ They’d come to the mentor and brag about how many they’d finish.”

Ellie used her position as a mentor to connect with her mentees. “I was mentoring a kid who I knew didn’t like reading during ELA (English Language Arts) classes. I told him I didn’t like to read either, but that I did like this certain book.” Leaving it at that, she later noticed that her mentee had picked up the title she’d mentioned. “We wanted to feel like we were also in the position of the mentees,” she explains. The relationship could start over a book, but then grow beyond the classroom. “I would think, if I picked this book up, they might like it, too. We have similar things going on in our lives. You would build a connection and maybe next time you saw them in the hall you would say hello, give them a chance to talk about how things were going. We could see ourselves in the mentees. It became more of a friendship.”

The mentors recognized that their own experiences and identities, when presented honestly, made them more compelling and effective as tutors than any special affection for reading. “Each mentor was chosen for a reason,” she says. “We connected with this world of reading for our own reasons […] You don’t have to love to read or love to be in school in order to have something important to share.” 

In Ellie’s view, the encouragement mentors gave to their mentees went beyond literacy. Though they were connecting as peers, mentees also recognized the special experience their mentors held as juniors and seniors at The English. “Kids would come to us and seek out advice, or even present us with ideas,” she says. A bigger message–one that encouraged mentees to engage with their academic experience as active, insightful individuals–was coming through.  

During the fall of year two, the mentors had a month off from facilitating sessions with mentees. They used that time to discuss new approaches for mentoring, and, of course, read. Spending time with each other in a classroom where they had been positioned as co-teachers encouraged them to examine their experiences in other classrooms, where they had been strictly students. 

“We would come up with ideas out of nowhere,” says Ellie. “We were trying to address tough issues or complaints about classes. Maybe we didn’t enjoy something we did in another class. We’d remember that we decided how to do it differently as mentors.”  

“I would argue with my ELA teacher and point out how we did things differently in the mentor classes,” she continues. “If she said ‘no, that’s now how we do it in my classroom,’ I’d tell her that the research says we should actually do it our way.” 

The freedom to choose their own reading material was especially missed in other classes. “If a teacher is giving me a typical book, I expect it,” says Ellie. “I could just ask a senior who did it last year what they wrote about it.” 

“Each mentor was chosen for a reason,” she says. “We connected with this world of reading for our own reasons […] You don’t have to love to read or love to be in school in order to have something important to share.” 

“But when you do something that’s unexpected it brings in more interest. You pick your own book and it gives you the opportunity to show how well you can read it and write about it.”   

One change the mentors advocated for within the mentoring class, with support from Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel, was to update an assignment which asked students to create a written report or in-class presentation about a recently read book. “The mentors said it was a sort of boring assignment,” says Ms. Murphy. “So they added the option of doing a creative response instead.” 

“The first time we tried it the completion rate was significantly higher and the quality was great. We had students writing multiple pages of alternate endings where they captured mood, tone, and voice. Some of these kids hadn’t been turning in regular essays, but they did this effectively and on their own.” 

That year and into the following academic year, ELA teachers at The English made curricular changes that gave more students the opportunity to engage in study based on their own choices and interests. Students could now select to participate in ELA classes with a specialized focus, like feminism or ethics. For her final project in one of those classes, Ellie chose to study her grandmother. She created a multimedia presentation including photos culled from research, audio, and her own writing. “I had to be a journalist,” she remembers. “It was hard, but I enjoyed it.” 

Part III: Teacher Learning

The confidence Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel’s literacy mentors had gained from their participation in the project, and which had led them to push for changes in other classrooms, found counterbalance in their new understanding of what it meant to lead a classroom. 

“Had it not been for this program, I wouldn’t have that different perspective on teachers and what they do,” Ellie says. She would wonder why they would make certain curricular and disciplinary choices, especially regarding technology. While a teacher could see a student focusing on their phone and assume they were disregarding the lesson, and take the phone away temporarily, Ellie points out that because they have a different relationship with technology than students, a teacher might not see the full depth of such behavior. “If they did, we would have more conversations,” she says. “They’d probably ask what’s going on, or if there’s an emergency, rather than taking it away.” 

One of her teachers during senior year was known to be particularly strict with phones. But, says Ellie, she was also a smart, insightful, and sometimes even silly person once you got to know her. Throughout the year, Ellie had felt empowered to engage her teachers in conversation that could lead to greater understanding and collaboration. “I took control of myself and my school work, how I operated in the classroom and outside of it,” she says. “I could vocalize what worked for me and what didn’t.” 

So, Ellie had a conversation with her teacher. She explained the power that smartphones had in the hands of a student, showing her how quickly and easily information could be accessed or work could be done, and giving her a subtle reminder about how younger generations experience the world–their social lives, educational experience, and political selves–in ways that might be vastly different from her own. 

“She listened,” says Ellie. “She became more understanding, open to the idea that this thing is more powerful and important to us in ways she might not be able to understand.” 

The mentors were not the only members of the project who enjoyed an expanded perspective on the other people participating in their education. Ellie points out that Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel’s choice to sit alongside the students and participate in the reading and discussion as a peer held significant meaning. “My friend and I were in a competition reading The Hate U Give,” she remembers. “When Ms. Murphy got into it, it’s something students noticed. It’s like, the principal of the school it sitting with us. It builds trust, because that’s not the regular classroom setup.” 

“The point is for readers to enjoy the book,” she says. “Reading widely opened my eyes to the idea that we could have new canons. Some of the well done YA novels can give adults access to the lived experience of students of today.”

Before the project began, Ms. Murphy says she didn’t read much YA. But while engaging with those texts alongside her students, she began to see how important they can be to educators. She began to think about how these texts compared to what her high schoolers were typically tasked with reading. 

“You think that whatever you read in high school—’the canon’—are the best books ever,” Ms. Murphy says. “And, yes, some of the YA books out there can be silly, but many are rich and have the same themes present as those old books, but are more relatable.” 

“We’re asking kids to read [To Kill a Mockingbird] and they have zero context for that. The canon is important for a number of reasons, but it’s worth everyone looking at the YA novels of today.” She cites the general understanding that in order to access certain important ideas–justice, empathy, and kindness, to use Harper Lee’s novel as an example–students have to read specific, agreed-upon books. But, she argues, “there is no one book that owns that.”

“The point is for readers to enjoy the book,” she says. “Reading widely opened my eyes to the idea that we could have new canons. Some of the well done YA novels can give adults access to the lived experience of students of today.” Ms. Murphy encouraged her staff to read some of the books students had led her to, believing strongly that reading these texts alongside her students had increased her empathy for them, helping her better frame their experiences and connect with them in support of their classroom experience. 

Within the context of this reading community they built, Ms. Murphy, Dr. Frankel, and their students were connecting in new ways with each other, with the literature they were enjoying. If those books could be a window into someone else’s experience, being a part of their co-taught, collaboratively-imagined classroom could give the mentors, mentees, teachers, and researchers the opportunity to see their own experience of high school literacy education differently. And, what they saw could then be used as a foundation for both student learning and professional growth. 

Part IV: Collaborative Research

Reflecting on her collaboration with students and faculty at The English, Dr. Kate Frankel draws a comparison between this experience and her prior research, which she describes as being more traditional. “Often times, in the field of literacy, we do the research and then say, “Here are best practices’ or ‘Here’s how you should teach.’ And, sometimes that can be really valuable.” 

“But, we don’t ask students enough: ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we observed, but how is it working for you in your space, and for you and your peers?’ Sometimes things shift when you ask those questions. I don’t believe you can make meaningful change from a research or practice perspective without having students involved.” 

She recalls speaking with Dr. Susan Fields, a former BU Wheelock doctoral student who participated in the first year of the project, about the model they were building. “I said to her, ‘I don’t know that I can ever envision doing research again that isn’t in partnership with teachers or students.’” She feels that actively including the knowledge held by student and teacher partners when planning a research program and setting goals can help researchers move beyond their own settled perspectives. 

Designing this project with the central participation of youth and educators made it necessary for Dr. Frankel and her team to critically examine the knowledge they brought to the project. By adjusting their position as researchers within the intellectual and physical space of the project, they gained access to the significantly valuable perspectives and knowledge participating students and teachers could share.  

“There was a commitment to this space,” Dr. Frankel says of the project’s setting at The English. “When I was in this space, I read, because we had discussed [as a group] that my responsibilities as a researcher went beyond being in the back of the room taking notes. That was a real shift as a researcher.”  

It was a shift the mentors noticed, too. Ellie Pena had plenty of experience with “strangers” visiting and silently watching her in class before. “We’d feel like we have to act a certain way,” she says of prior outside partners who took a more traditional approach to classroom observation. “They either hover when they research or they sit in a corner and stare. I used to change my behavior on purpose and not talk when they were there. But Dr. Frankel would come sit right next to us.”  

“There was a commitment to this space,” Dr. Frankel says of the project’s setting at The English. “When I was in this space, I read, because we had discussed [as a group] that my responsibilities as a researcher went beyond being in the back of the room taking notes. That was a real shift as a researcher.”  

Dr. Frankel and her team augmented their classroom time with Ms. Murphy and the student mentors with regular after-school debrief sessions, giving mentors another opportunity to share what they were noticing as the project moved forward. Those sessions became a space where feedback from mentors could be applied both to the research work at hand and toward program improvement and refinement at The English. 

“The debrief space was where we all came together,” says Dr. Frankel. “Researchers often talk about working ‘with’ participants, but in one of the articles we published about this work, we talked about all of us as participants.”    

That works both ways, according to Ellie, who sees herself as part of the project as both a participant and a researcher. “Without us, this program wouldn’t have all of the information that we brought to it. We helped write the questions and were the ones connecting with the mentees.” 

Part V: Reflection & What’s Next 

This year, Ms. Murphy reports that they hosted a new version of the literacy mentoring class at The English High School, which did not include mentors. “It didn’t work perfectly,” says Ms. Murphy. To Ms. Murphy and Dr. Frankel, this outcome indicates that a major constant carried over from last year — giving the mentees a choice in what to read — made less of a positive impact without the presence of full-time mentors. 

Ms. Murphy says that she is now looking for ways to reinstate the class in its prior configuration. “Students were asking about it,” she says. “It’s a good introduction to the school, too. The mentoring that happens there can go beyond reading and be about life at the school itself.” 

Putting more students in positions where they feel empowered to ask questions and be advocates for their own education is essential to students in urban schools, Ms. Murphy adds. “Kids in suburban schools, or their parents, might feel more entitled to ask these questions. Our students might not get the same chance to see themselves as directors of their own learning, but this project gave them that chance.”

“There is a real social justice component to this,” she continues. “They need to have these advocacy skills now and when they go out into the world. It can just be a talking point that kids have agency and voice, but you really have to ask them and take them seriously. A lot of kids will say really incredibly thoughtful things if you are willing to listen.” 

That dedication to real listening frames the work Ms. Murphy is doing as headmaster at The English. She believes strongly that all of her students have an interest in engaging with the world and with each other, and that being open to having a real conversation with them about that curiosity is essential to unlocking their potential. “Every kid wants to think about these things that matter, like why they are on earth,” she says. “We don’t take that seriously enough.”

Now working toward a degree in criminal justice as a college freshman, Ellie Pena cites her time as a mentor as an important step toward realizing her academic and leadership potential. She also echoes Ms. Murphy’s understanding of self-advocacy as necessary for herself and her peers. “It’s tough being a student in this generation,” she shares. “There is a lot to prove, a lot of people asking us to do this or do that. Having a little choice and a little say goes a long way.”

By Jonathan Lazzara