Growing pains

Common Core has teachers rethinking text, swapping strategies

6th graders at Kipp Infinity Middle School discuss a poem.
Sixth graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School discuss a poem. On Tuesday, educators visited the charter school to learn about how it is adjusting to the Common Core standards.

A song by rapper Jay-Z, a poem by Joyce Kilmer, and an essay by Elizabeth Alexander all got a close reading by sixth-graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School on Tuesday.

Students didn’t realize they were on the front lines of their school’s transition to new Common Core literacy standards in reading. But the visiting teachers and principals in the back of the classroom did, and they were paying close attention.

The teachers and principals were taking part in a “School Study Tour” organized by NYC Collaborates, a nonprofit that seeks to facilitate conversation and collaboration across charter-district lines. KIPP Infinity was the 13th school toured since the program piloted in June, and the first in a series of three this month that focus on the new standards.

Tuesday’s visit focused on close reading, a skill that the standards emphasize. Sayuri Stabrowski, KIPP Infinity’s dean of literacy, spoke to the visitors about techniques for teaching the skill, then ushered them into classrooms to see instruction about it in action.

Stabrowski walked visitors through two rounds of reading a poem, one Common Core-aligned and one not. The difference?  In the Common Core-aligned version of the lesson, she opened with specific questions about two characters’ points of view and the meaning of an object reference in the poem, then asked participants to back up their answers with specific lines from the text.

“Try telling kids you’re going to read like writers,” she suggested. “Why these words? Why is this sentence shorter and that sentence longer?”

Before teachers could adjust to the approach to reading that the Common Core standards demand, she said, “We had to change the way [they] thought about text. … Teachers needed to change their planning and get to know their texts really well.”

She also encouraged visitors to teach close reading in all classes, not just English. In college, she said, “Whatever the major, students will be asked to tackle complex texts.”

Principal Allison Willis Holley said the Common Core-aligned texts she and her colleagues now teach are harder than any their students have faced before. (Holley and Stabrowski both teach reading alongside their leadership responsibilities.)

And they are challenging for teachers, too, she said. With a focus on textual evidence under the new standards, Holley said, “there’s a real ‘right is right’ approach that I’ve never felt as an ELA teacher.” Under this new approach to close reading, she explained, questions often have a single right answer, as opposed to the range of interpretations students might give in response to more open-ended questions about the meaning of a poem or essay as a whole.

Visiting educators drew a wide range of lessons from Tuesday’s presentation and classroom visits. Some of the lessons reflected ongoing uncertainty about the impact of the new standards, a year into the city’s rollout.

Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.
Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.

School of the Future Principal Stacy Goldstein said she still has questions about the instructional approach modeled during the visit, in which teachers guide students by providing very specific questions and feedback.

“I’m interested to see how we could fold in more close reading,” she said. “But I also have concerns about the dependence it brings.” Goldstein said it’s important that schools train students to tackle texts on their own after receiving such close guidance early on.

But Earl Brathwaite, principal of I.S. 339 in the Bronx, had an entirely different takeaway. What stood out to him was “the way the students are taking the leadership role in the lesson,” he said.

“The teacher is prompting and coaching as compared to direct teaching,” Braithwaite said. “I like the part where the teacher has more of a coaching role and the student goes in depth with the content.”

Responding to a fellow visitor who noted that the approach means students will get the wrong answer sometimes, Braithwaite said, “And that means teachers giving up control. That’s hard.”

Other visitors said their morning at KIPP Infinity had given them ideas to take back to their schools and classrooms.

“I wouldn’t have thought close reading was something you did in math,” said Tyler Moore, who teaches fourth grade at Voice Charter School in Queens.

His colleague, Ellen Constal, who teaches fifth grade, said the visit gave her new ideas for the questions she’ll ask students to focus on when they read a new text. “Creating the questions is something we haven’t focused on a lot in our school,” she said. “The focus on questions could be really helpful to us.”

“The example texts and lesson samples — that is huge,” said Johanna Powell, the reading program coordinator at Inwood Academy for Leadership, a charter school. “What I find difficult is figuring out where to find examples of this kind of text, of how to format them and how to align them with the curriculum standards.” Stabrowski said finding texts is one of the hardest parts of adapting classes to the new standards.

“It’s a welcome relief to hear that this school is struggling with the same issues we all are with introducing the Common Core,” said Letta Belle, principal of the National Heritage Academy in Brooklyn. She said KIPP Infinity’s focus on “making sure teachers are familiar with the standards” is something other schools can learn from, especially given that “no one knows what the test is going to look like.”

Elementary and middle school students will take state tests that are aligned to the Common Core for the first time next month.

A student's worksheet in Frances Olajide's 6th grade writing class. The subway poem is in the 5th row.
A worksheet in Frances Olajide’s sixth-grade writing class includes a poem about the subway and other texts about New York City.

In Frances Olajide’s sixth grade writing class, visitors watched students work to figure out the meaning of a tricky line in Kilmer’s famous poem about the city’s subways. After annotating the poem on a worksheet that included excerpts from several other texts about New York City — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and discussing the purpose of the poem as a whole, students turned to the last line, “Each one the pleasant outdoor sunshine leaves.”

“This is so hard,” Olajide told her students. “I’m so excited. Turn to tell your neighbor if you think you know what it means.”

After students talked in pairs, a few students wagered guesses  in front of the whole class. After a few wrong answers — which Olajide cheerfully identified as incorrect — she said, “I’m not looking for a guess right now. I’m looking for: I have a thought that is clear; this is what I’m trying to show.”

Hands shot up. After a few close-but-not-quite answers, a student said, “It’s dark in the subway! There’s no sunshine.”

That was the answer Olajide was looking for. “It’s showing us something about the subway,” she said. “Isn’t that a cool sentence?”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.