in focus

How Lucy Calkins, literacy guru and Fariña ally, is fighting to define Common Core teaching

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
To help some struggling schools improve their writing instruction, Fariña has turned to her mentor, Lucy Calkins, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

The influential Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins was nearing the end of a talk about the new Common Core reading standards earlier this year when suddenly she let loose some barbed remarks.

Her target was David Coleman, the president of the College Board and one of the Common Core’s lead writers, whom she called “an expert in branding.” She later described a well-known model lesson by Coleman where high school students are asked to pore over the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address for several days, parsing the meaning of the individual words and phrases in the speech.

“To me, it basically represents horrible teaching,” Calkins said at the January event.

The founding director of the decades-old Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Calkins has helped train thousands of teachers and produced widely used teaching materials. More recently, she has watched with dismay as New York school officials, in their quest to usher in the Common Core, have embraced new literacy curriculums inspired by Coleman’s vision.

But in January, Calkins’ longtime friend Carmen Fariña, who has called Calkins her mentor, was appointed head of the city school system. The two met privately at the Department of Education headquarters after Fariña became schools chancellor.

Around that time, Calkins wrote to Fariña urging her to resist the curriculum guidelines written by Coleman and his team, Calkins said in her speech.

“Please, Carmen,” Calkins said she appealed to Fariña, “protect the Common Core from the documents surrounding it, that are people’s interpretations of it.”

Now, Fariña has the power to reimagine the way educators across the city teach reading and writing in the age of the Common Core. Already, the chancellor has promised a top-to-bottom review of the city’s recommended curriculums. And to lead a citywide Common Core literacy training next month, her administration brought in Calkins’ group.

But some critics say that parts of Calkins’ approach and the Common Core are incompatible. The prospect that Fariña’s ascension could expand Calkins’ influence over the school system has already unsettled some of of them, including New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

“I think that’s scary,” Neuman said, “and devastating.”

An influential approach, with its fair share of critics

Some of the city’s top-performing schools — including Manhattan’s P.S. 6, where Fariña was principal, and those in the Brooklyn district where she was superintendent — follow Calkins’ approach. The approach, which falls under the heading of balanced literacy and is sometimes referred to as the workshop model, is known for having teachers corral students onto carpets for brief reading-skill lessons and then send them off to practice with books the students choose.

In 2003, then-Chancellor Joel Klein ordered most schools to adopt balanced literacy and hired Calkins’ group to train teachers. When Fariña became a deputy chancellor the following year, she oversaw the balanced literacy push.

During the long-running “Reading Wars,” critics attacked balanced literacy for what they considered too little teacher-led instruction, especially in phonics. But they have found new ammunition in the Common Core.

First, they say that balanced literacy’s insistence that students spend much of their time reading self-selected books runs counter to the standards’ demand that all students read texts at and above their grade level. Next, they say that the balanced literacy model can strand students without the background information they need to make sense of specific texts — neglecting the standards’ insistence on a “content-rich curriculum.”

“There’s consensus among cognitive scientists that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension and you don’t get that in balanced literacy,” said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and longtime critic of Calkins’ approach. “It focuses on the skills divorced from any content.”

That criticism registered with Klein, who launched a pilot program in 2008 to compare schools using balanced literacy and other methods to ones using Core Knowledge, a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of background information. The study found greater gains in the schools using Core Knowledge, which the state and city went on to endorse as Common Core-aligned.

Calkins has criticized the pilot study as flawed and too limited. In an interview, she defended using ability-matched books, which she said enables struggling readers to work their way up to grade-level texts. And she said that balanced literacy includes “shared texts” at or above grade level, which classes read together and teachers supplement with background information.

But even as some have suggested that Calkins’ approach clashes with parts of the Common Core, Calkins has publicly embraced the standards, co-authoring a top-selling book on the Common Core and teaching educators how to meet them. Scores of city schools still work directly with Calkins’ group to implement her brand of balanced literacy.

“I have no question in my mind that balanced literacy well done can absolutely help children reach the standards as well as anything,” said Chris Napolitan, an assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, which follows Calkins’ literacy model.

A model of Common Core reading takes hold

Whereas Calkins’ sway over instruction is easily detectable in the many classrooms that use her materials and methods, David Coleman’s impact has been more indirect.

This was apparent a few years ago when New York asked publishers who were vying to create new Common Core teaching materials for the state to complete an unusual task: analyze Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson. They were also asked to create teacher-training materials based on Coleman’s model lesson.

Those publishing requirements, tucked into the state’s request for Common Core curriculum proposals, were just one sign of Coleman’s double influence: After he helped craft the standards, he and a group he co-founded guided education officials as they worked to make sure the standards reached classrooms.

One way he and Susan Pimentel, another Common Core author, did that was by developing guidelines for states and school districts to determine whether teaching materials are properly aligned to the standards. The guidelines were published soon after the standards, and they detail the work students should do in class, much of it centered on reading challenging texts multiple times and analyzing them.

New York State officials told would-be curriculum developers to align their materials to the guidelines, known as the Publishers’ Criteria. City officials then used the guidelines to evaluate dozens of existing literacy programs, eventually endorsing four as Common Core-aligned.

The city commissioned the publishing giant Pearson to design one of the endorsed programs, a new curriculum called ReadyGen, to match Coleman’s guidelines. The “Publishers’ Criteria were very prominent” in the design process, said P. David Pearson, a literacy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum.

“We as districts have chosen to embrace the Publishers’ Criteria because our teachers and students have a right to excellent materials,” then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a 2012 announcement.

Eventually, nearly 90 percent of elementary and middle schools that bought new materials last year ordered from the city’s recommended curriculum list, which did not include Calkins’ materials.

With officials following Coleman’s lead, Calkins cries foul

Recently, Calkins has been firing back. After the city declined to endorse her materials last year, Calkins spoke to a group of principals whose schools follow her approach, challenging the prominent role that Coleman, Pimentel, and their group have played.

“The Common Core I believe is a really precious thing,” she told them. “And I don’t want it to go down by equating it with the Publishers [Criteria],” which, she added, “was written by just two people who are not educators.”

Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins' group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins’ group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.

In their 2012 book about the Common Core, Calkins and her co-authors argued that the Publishers’ Criteria “directly contradict” the standards’ premise that some instructional decisions be left to educators. They also pointed out that Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by Coleman, Pimentel, and another Common Core writer, received an $18 million grant to guide implementation of the standards.

In her speech this January, Calkins argued that Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson violates principles valued by “experienced educators”: it limits student choice, gives short shrift to reading strategies, and ignores students’ interests and skill levels. Echoing other critics, she noted that the lesson’s directions tell teachers to “plunge” students into the speech without explaining its context, forcing students “to rely exclusively on the text.”

“Until you have a whole city teaching that way and you get unbelievable results,” Calkins said, “I don’t think you create a curriculum based on it.”

Coleman declined to be interviewed for this story. Pimentel, however, provided a five-page rebuttal to Calkins’ critiques.

She argued that the Publishers Criteria is a tool for curriculum developers, but not a curriculum, and “does not usurp teacher choice.” She noted that the Gettysburg lesson was only the first of many model lessons her group created, and that it was designed for teachers to adapt. And she said this “close reading” approach, which privileges the words on the page over students’ prior knowledge, is effective.

Calkins’ group, meanwhile, “has little to no evidence for the effectiveness of its approach, in spite of an over 30 year existence,” Pimentel wrote.

In her talk to principals last year, Calkins faulted the state for asking curriculum developers to adhere to Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines. She added that she had assigned a half-dozen staff members to analyze the state-commissioned reading materials, which are posted on a state website called EngageNY.

“We’re taking on Engage New York,” she told the group.

A state education department spokesman noted that many states and districts used the Publishers’ Criteria to guide their curriculum decisions.

Calkins also helped launch an online forum for teachers to critique the state’s new Common Core reading test, which Pearson designed. In her January speech, she criticized the test’s Coleman-inspired emphasis on close reading, which she said forced students to repeatedly refer back to specific lines in the test passages to answer questions, rather than use their own understanding of the texts.

“Is that how we want to teach reading?” she asked.

Without committing to Calkins, Fariña signals her allegiance

As the debate over the best way to teach Common Core-aligned reading and writing drags on, Carmen Fariña could begin to settle that debate within the city’s classrooms.

So far, she has left the city’s recommended curriculum list in place for next year. But in a message to principals, she guaranteed a “comprehensive review process to identify additional Common Core-aligned instructional materials” — which could include those produced by Calkins’ group.

“I think Lucy’s program will make it back into the mix,” said Pearson, the professor who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum. He added that Calkins has a “convincing argument” that her approach can help students meet the new standards.

As Fariña reevaluates the curriculums, she has pledged to offer educators more Common Core training. Next month, that will take the form of a two-day conference for principals on middle school literacy run by Calkins’ team.

It is also possible that Fariña’s administration could encourage schools to adopt elements of Calkins’ approach even if they choose to stick with materials or teaching practices associated with Coleman’s vision.

After all, the differences between the two camps often amount to a matter of emphasis. For instance, Calkins says close reading has a place in literacy instruction, and Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines say that students should sometimes get to read books they choose that are at their own skill level.

“Everything kids read cannot be grade-level complexity,” said David Lebin, a consultant with Student Achievement Partners. “To get a volume of reading, you have to have texts at different levels.”

For her part, Calkins seems confident that her group will play a larger role under Chancellor Fariña in helping schools meet the new standards.

“Yes, the city’s moving in our direction,” Calkins said during an interview in February. “Obviously.”

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How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.

school for love

Long hours, shared goals, and unbelievable stories: Why so many teachers fall in love with each other

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Timothy Brown

When Carrie and Kevin McCormack married in 2011, they quickly became known as the “teacher parents” of East Bronx Academy, the New York City school where they both worked.

But they didn’t stay the only couple on staff for long. Soon after, two other teachers paired off. Another relationship bloomed shortly afterward.

“My principal always jokes that we’re the hookup school,” Carrie McCormack says. “So many couples have met here.”

But East Bronx Academy is hardly the only school with love in the air. According to recent U.S. Census data, the most common marriages in America are between two grade-school teachers. And nearly 20 percent of people who work in education have spouses who do, too. Many of those couples met while working together.

Carrie and Kevin McCormack met as teachers at East Bronx Academy in New York City.

This Valentine’s Day, Chalkbeat has been looking at the love stories made possible by American education. Now we’re trying to answer the question of why schools are such fertile territory for love.

There are practical explanations: People who work in schools typically get started when they’re young, work together intensely, and have little time to meet other people.

“I always joke, if I hadn’t met Cornelius, I might be alone,” said Kassandra Minor, who met her husband in the bagel line on her first day teaching at a school in Brooklyn.

The benefits of pairing off with a fellow educator accumulate over time, especially as partnerships yield children. “It doesn’t hurt that we have the same vacation schedule,” says Grace Loew, a New York City teacher who met her husband when they were both first-year teachers in 2005. They’re now raising two sons together.

But educators say it’s about more than logistics. The shared task of trying to reach students who depend on schools to change their lives, they say, forges special bonds.

“Working in education, especially urban education, is an all-in job: emotionally, physically, spiritually and everything in between. The only people who can possibly understand the reward and sorrow of the work are fellow educators,” says Sally Jenkins-Stevens, who met her husband, Alex MacIver, when they taught together at a Bronx high school.

“You understand the stressors, the schedule, the unexpected days, and sometimes long nights that are associated with it,” says Brittany Monda, who met her husband Grant in a graduate program in Memphis, where they were both teachers and now each leads a school. “It’s great to know that someone has had a similar day to you without saying much when you get home.”

Or as McCormack puts it, “If I have to go home and talk to a husband who’s not a teacher, he’d probably think I was crazy.”

The possibility of falling in love has become lore at Teach For America, the nonprofit that draws many young adults to the classroom. Teach For America teachers have mentored their colleagues on the pros and cons of dating within the corps, and the number of relationships born at the organization’s summer training institute has even inspired a new piece of slang — “instiboo.”

The group’s founding CEO, Wendy Kopp, married an educator she met through Teach For America, and so did her successor, current CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard.

“Anyone seeking out a woman partner at Teach For America has a pretty good shot at finding someone, given the incredibly brilliant majority-women environment they find themselves in,” jokes Villanueva Beard.

About her own marriage, and the increasing number facilitated by Teach For America, she said, ’“There’s something powerful about being with a partner who deeply gets the urgency and the possibility, and who’s on a shared mission of being part of the solution, alongside our communities, to ensure educational equity and excellence for all.”

That work can bring together people who might otherwise not connect. Even though schools across the country struggle to attract as many male teachers and teachers of color as many would like to see in classrooms, they remain among the most diverse workplaces in America.

Ybelka Medina and Geoffrey Schmidt bonded at the New York City school where they worked.

For Geoffrey Schmidt and Ybelka Medina, a shared passion for reaching students who had struggled in their previous schools bridged what seemed like an insurmountable culture gap.

“I am a Dominican immigrant that grew up in a blue-collar family that depended on social welfare to make ends meet in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn,” says Medina. “Geoff is American, comes from a solid white-collar family … and initially came off as a total frat boy more interested in socializing than actually teaching. I really liked hanging out with him … but didn’t take him seriously as a teacher nor as someone to date.”

Then they spent time getting to understand what had drawn each of them to the classroom, and romance bloomed.

“Education by its nature draws people who look at our world and want to make it better,” Schmidt says. “It makes sense that this kind of intense thought partnership would lead to bigger things. I know for us, it gave us an opportunity to see one another in a different way than I think we ever might have otherwise.”

The experience of seeing someone doing work they’re deeply invested in also worked its magic on Cornelius Minor, Kassandra’s husband, who said he considers teaching an art.

“When you’re doing your art, you’re your purest and best self,” he said. “If people are in your company when you’re being that person and they notice you, that’s really powerful.”