Anatomy of a lesson

In a Bronx English class, new standards and a centuries-old poem converge

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

One bright afternoon this week, Catherine Miller’s 31 sixth-grade honors students sat inside a dimly lit classroom in the north Bronx and analyzed a 16th-century love poem. Its opening lines glowed on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the room: “Forget not yet the tried intent / Of such a truth as I have meant.”

The truth at The New School for Leadership and the Arts, or M.S. 244, the public middle school where Miller teaches sixth and seventh-grade reading and writing, is that the Common Core learning standards have transformed instruction over the past few years.

Miller now pushes her students to dig past the surface of challenging texts, like the poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt, and unearth their buried meanings. In the process, she says she’s made the standards her own. She selected the poem herself, for instance, and used it to supplement a publisher’s curriculum that is heavy on nonfiction.

The Common Core “is very much what you make it,” Miller said. “It can be your friend or foe.”

Chalkbeat spent Monday afternoon observing Miller’s reading class as part of our ongoing look at how the Common Core is reshaping instruction. Miller will join two other middle school teachers on a panel Thursday to talk about how the standards are playing out in their classrooms.

As when we’ve chronicled lessons before, we spoke with Miller after class and have included her thoughts in block quotes beneath highlights from the lesson.

12:58 p.m. As students opened their well-worn readers notebooks, Miller explained that the day’s lesson would explore the way writers use repetition to develop themes. In poetry, she added, repeated words are called a refrain.

A student went to the whiteboard and underlined the poem’s refrain, “Forget not yet,” then the class brainstormed other texts they had read with refrains. Next, Miller cut to the crux of the lesson: Why would Wyatt repeat those words?

“Remember, it’s not enough to tell me something repeats,” she told the class. “The real skill is explaining why there’s repetition — that’s what’s impressive.”

Miller said the purpose of the Common Core literacy standards is to prod students past a basic comprehension of a piece of writing to a more sophisticated study of the way authors assemble texts in meaningful ways.

That shift has been apparent on the state exams, Miller said, which for the first time last year assessed students’ command of the new standards.

“I remember on previous state tests, it was ‘Identify the metaphor,’” she said. “Now it’s, ‘How does that metaphor function and what’s the larger purpose of it within the piece?’”

Last year, when citywide passing rates plunged on the new exams, more than half of Miller’s sixth-grade honors students saw their scores improve over the previous year and a third of her students earned 4’s, the highest possible score.

1:38 Miller turned the class’ attention to “Watcher,” a poem about Hurricane Katrina by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Natasha Trethewey.

As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
As Miller had students write responses to the poems in their readers notebooks, she prodded them to include examples from the text.

Miller had chosen the first poem mainly for its use of the word “yet,” which was the subject of a recent grammar lesson. But she pulled in “Watcher” because it connected to their reading unit about natural disasters.

Before students tackled the text, Miller asked them to write and recite a few key vocabulary words from it. Then the class debated whether each word carried a positive, negative, or neutral connotation.

One girl argued that the word “looting” had a negative connotation because it suggested that people had taken advantage of chaos. In discussing the word “debris,” a boy referenced an article the class had read about space junk.

Besides previewing vocabulary in difficult texts, Miller also gives some historical context or has the class read related articles to gather background information. (In this case, they had already read about Hurricane Katrina.)

The point is that before students can analyze texts, they have to make sense of them, Miller explained.

“Without comprehension,” she said, “there will be no questions answered.”

2:09 Miller told the students to read the poem and underline instances of repetition. Then she asked them to reread it and jot down questions it provoked. She modeled this by writing a few questions on the board.

Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Miller modeled writing down questions that came to her as she read a poem.

Next, the class drew charts in their notebooks with columns for the stanza number, textual evidence, and significance. The class had decided that the poem’s repetition centered on a character who watched New Orleans reeling after the hurricane.

Together, they found evidence of the repetition, then split off into pairs to document more. One boy and girl debated whether the focus of the final stanza was the character watching for remains or the speaker watching that character “bear the pain” of loss, as the boy put it.

The students knew to back up their arguments with examples from the poem, not their own experiences or opinions. As one student, Di’Anna Bonomolo, noted, “Ms. Miller doesn’t like first person.”

Miller explained that many of her students had previously learned to preface statements about texts with statements like, “I think,” but that the standards called for evidence-based assertions.

“You should be able to prove what you think,” she said, “so you don’t need to say, ‘I think.’”

Miller asked the students to fill in the significance column of their charts for homework: What was the point of all those moments of watching? As they do with most texts, the class would return to the poem the following day to dig for more meaning.

“It challenges you,” Ian Reyes, 11, said after class. “We’re trying to get deep inside the poem.”

Hear Miller and two other middle school teachers explain how they teach reading under the Common Core at a panel discussion co-hosted by Chalkbeat and the Bronx Library Center. The event is Thursday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at the Bronx Library Center.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.