First Person

Reading Closely For Connection In The Common Core

The Common Core’s “six shifts in literacy,” or the big ways in which the standards aim to overhaul teaching, can be boiled down a la Michael Pollan: Read complex texts. Mostly nonfiction. Very closely.

Through that close reading, teachers get clear opportunities to foster critical thinking. Attempting to help students access texts, previous standards and curricula in many states have focused on previewing the material, skimming it, and connecting it to the outside world, the self, and other texts — at best, achieving a rich holistic understanding, and at worst, dancing around the challenges posed by the author’s actual words.

But the Common Core’s reverence for the text as “the master class,” as chief creator David Coleman said in a 2011 speech, means that students’ personal interpretations are deemphasized — and even denounced. That particular pendulum swing has me concerned because, in my experience, students must also bring their own perspectives and experiences to the text if they are to read critically.

The Common Core does asks students to bring their own opinions to the text in standards that challenge readers to analyze authors’ intended meanings and even critique their methods. But while the imperative “provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments” does not outright prohibit students from having personal reactions to a text, none of the language in the Common Core suggests that they should, or that their personal reactions could be useful in assisting their analysis. Indeed, Coleman said in the same 2011 speech, “What we’ve done too much is tried to go outside the text to motivate kids. ‘You should be interested in this because of your background. It should remind you of something.’ We try to sell it almost in advance of reading it, when the only source of motivation that’s reliable is the richness and beauty of [the text] itself.”

I could see that imbalance in the way my incoming sixth-graders engaged with texts at the beginning of last year. As per their training in elementary school, their responses to literature were all about connections: “This character reminds me of my sister, who’s really brave.” I had to work hard to bring their attention more closely to the text. What has this character (not your sister) done that seems brave? On what page, and in what line, do you see the bravery demonstrated? Our students do desperately need to make this shift back toward the author’s intended meaning.

But the Common Core architects are throwing out reams of sound research, theory, and practice if they wager that students will (or should) be motivated to read an author’s words in a vacuum. Coleman’s statements signal what I think is a dangerous omission, especially in terms of reading literature, because it disregards what renowned literacy theorist Louise Rosenblatt called the transactional nature of reading.

As Rosenblatt put it, “Books do not simply happen to people. People also happen to books.” Her meaning is that a work of literature is just spots on paper until a reader’s mind brings those spots to life. Truly critical, engaged reading requires a human connection with the text, not just a magnifying glass. So developing readers, especially reluctant ones, need the space to ask both, “What does this mean?” and “What does this mean to me?”

For example, I’m confident that reading “The Road Not Taken” was a more meaningful experience for my sixth-graders thanks to discussions we had about difficult choices they’ve had to make. We did carefully analyze Robert Frost’s actual words, but we also got to the heart of why I think he wrote them: to help readers reflect on their own lives. One student raised an ordinary but very real choice for him as an 11 year-old: “This morning I had to make the choice to bring my little sister to school on time and be late myself, rather than making my sick grandmother take her.” Another girl reflected on a more high-stakes decision, whether to stand up for a friend who was being ostracized by the “popular kids.” She said that Frost’s final stanza captured the way she felt: “I did the harder thing, the thing not as many people would have done, and it made a big difference.”

I do believe that the Common Core is based on an honest assessment of what our kids need, and I trust that the people who designed it understand the value of connecting texts to our lives. In his 2011 speech, using Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to illustrate a Common Core approach to text analysis, Coleman does point out that in the final paragraphs, “King himself goes beyond the letter. That is, he begins to make analogies to Hitler’s power. He begins to make analogies about other laws. He invites us, I’m trying to say, to go beyond it with him.” King does indeed invite readers to connect his experiences to others, and our students should follow his lead.

My concern lies in the fact that Coleman outlines the reading of King’s letter as a six-day classroom activity. I pray that our students don’t tune out before day six, when they’re finally encouraged to think beyond the text to the world they live in.

First Person

To close out teacher appreciation week, meet the educators whose voices help shape the education conversation

From designing puzzles to get kids fired up about French to being christened “school mama” by students, teachers go above and beyond to make a difference. Chalkbeat is honored to celebrate Teacher Appreciation week with stories of the innovation, determination, and patience it takes to teach.  
Check out a few of the educator perspectives below and submit your own here.

  1. First Person: When talking about race in classrooms, disagreement is OK — hatred is not by David McGuire, principal at Tindley Accelerated Schools and previously a teacher in Pike Township. McGuire is also a co-founder of a group called Educate ME.  
  2. First Person: What my Bronx students think about passing through scanners at school by Christine Montera, a teacher at East Bronx Academy for the Future in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence-New York.  
  3. First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read by Jarred Amato, High School English teacher and founder of ProjectLITCommunity.
  4. This fourth-grade teacher doesn’t take away recess or use points to manage the class. Instead she’s built a culture of respect by Liz Fitzgerald, a fourth-grade teacher at Sagebrush Elementary and Colorado Teaching Policy fellow.
  5. First Person: Why I decided to come out to my second-grade students by Michael Patrick a second grade teacher at AF North Brooklyn Prep Elementary.
  6. Meet the teacher who helped organize the Women’s March on Denver, a profile of Cheetah McClellan, Lead Math Fellow at Denver Public Schools.
  7. First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works, by Dave Mortimer, and educator at Bank Street School for Children.
  8. What Trump’s inauguration means for one undocumented Nashville student-turned-teacher a profile of Carlos Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel and Teach for America fellow.
  9. First Person: ‘I was the kid who didn’t speak English’ by Mariangely Solis Cervera, the founding Spanish teacher at Achievement First East Brooklyn High School.
  10. First Person: Why recruiting more men of color isn’t enough to solve our teacher diversity problem by Beau Lancaster, a student advocate at the Harlem Children’s Zone and  Global Kids trainer teaching, writing, and developing a civic engagement and emotional development curriculum.
  11. Sign of the times: Teacher whose classroom-door sign went viral explains his message a profile of Eric Eisenstad, physics and biology teacher at Manhattan Hunter Science High School.
  12. First Person: How teachers should navigate the classroom debate during a polarizing election year  by Kent Willmann, an instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. He previously taught high school social studies in Longmont for 32 years.
  13. First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery by Rousseau Mieze, a history teacher at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school.
  14. Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher by Amanda Gonzales, a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado.
  15. This teacher was a ‘class terrorist’ as a child. Now he uses that to understand his students by Andrew Pillow a technology and social issues teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep Middle.
  16. What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons by Trilce Marquez, a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea.
  17. Here’s what one Tennessee teacher will be listening for in Haslam’s State of the State address by Erin Glenn, a U.S. history teacher at East Lake Academy of Fine Arts and Tennessee Educator Fellow with the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
  18. An earth science teacher talks about the lesson that’s a point of pride — and pain a profile of Cheryl Mosier, a science teacher at Columbine High School.
  19. A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business by Shanna Peeples, secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.
  20. How this teacher went from so nervous her “voice was cracking” to a policy advocate by Jean Russell, a literacy coach at Haverhill Elementary School,  2016 Indiana Teacher of the Year and TeachPlus statewide policy fellow.

First Person

I’m a black man raised on the mistaken idea that education could keep me safe. Here’s what I teach my students in the age of Jordan Edwards

The author, Fredrick Scott Salyers.

This piece is presented in partnership with The Marshall Project

I worry a lot about the students in the high school where I teach. One, in particular, is bright but struggles in class. He rarely ever smiles and he acts out, going so far recently as to threaten another teacher. As a black, male teacher — one of too few in the profession — I feel especially compelled to help this young black man reach his potential. Part of that work is teaching him the dangers that might exist for him, including the police.

The killing of Texas teenager Jordan Edwards proves, though, that it’s not just black boys with behavior issues who are in danger. Jordan — a high school freshman, star athlete and honor student — was shot dead by a police officer last month while leaving a house party. As he rode away from the party in a car driven by his older brother, officers who’d been called to the scene fired multiple rifle rounds at the car. One bullet went through the passenger window, striking Jordan in the head. Murder charges have since been filed against the officer who fired the fatal shot.

It’s a near impossible task to educate black children in a society that constantly interrupts that work with such violence. Still, it’s incumbent on educators like me to guide our students through the moment we’re living in — even when we can’t answer all their questions, and even if we’re sometimes confused ourselves.

I began teaching in 2014, the year the police killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice dominated headlines. The tragedies have piled on, a new one seeming to occur every month since I first stepped into a classroom. I currently teach ninth-graders at a predominantly black charter school in Brooklyn, and I often find myself struggling to make sense of the events for my students.

I’ve shown them clips from popular films like “Selma” and “Fruitvale Station” and prepared lessons on the civil rights movement, and I’ve done my best to ground it all in the subjects I was hired to teach — American history, composition, and college readiness. My hope is that these films will encourage my students to connect today’s police violence to our nation’s history of racial injustice. And, because there are no easy answers, they’ll simply be encouraged by the perseverance of those who came before them.

I can’t help but worry I’m sending them mixed messages, however, teaching them lessons on resistance while also policing their conduct day to day. As an administrator and one of few black male teachers in my school, I’m often charged with disciplining students. I find myself having a familiar talk with many of them: “get good grades,” “respect authority,” “keep your nose clean.”

It’s instruction and advice that can feel pointless when a “good kid” like Jordan Edwards can have his life cut short by those sworn to serve and protect him. Still, I try in hopes that good grades and polite behavior will insulate my students from some of society’s dangers, if not all of them.

The Monday after police killed Edwards, I asked the students in my college readiness class to watch a news clip about the shooting and write out their feelings, or sit in silence and reflect. Many of them were already aware of what happened. I was proud that so many of them were abreast of the news but saddened by their reflections. At just 14 and 15 years old, many of them have already come to accept deaths like Jordan’s as the norm, and readily expect that any one of them could be next. “Will this police officer even be fired?” one asked. “Was the cop white?”

The young man I worry about the most was more talkative than usual that day. During the class discussion, he shared his guilt of being the only one of his friends who “made it” — making it meaning being alive, still, and free. The guilt sometimes cripples him, he said, and high-profile police killings like Jordan’s compound that guilt with a feeling of hopelessness. They make him think he will die in the streets one way or another.

I didn’t know what to say then, and I still don’t have a response for him. I’ve always taught students that earning an education might exempt them from the perils of being black in America, or at least give them a chance at something more. I was raised on that notion and believed it so much that I became an educator. But deaths like Jordan’s leave me choking on the reality that nothing I can teach will shield my students from becoming the next hashtag.

In lieu of protection, I offer what I can. I provide a space for my students to express their feelings. I offer love and consideration in our day-to-day interactions and do my best to make them feel seen and, hopefully, safe for a few hours each day.

Fredrick Scott Salyers teaches at a charter high school in Brooklyn. He began his career in education as a resident director at Morehouse College. Find more of his work here.