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

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.