Re-balanced literacy

In struggling schools, Fariña looks to shape how students read and write

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to principals, superintendents, and network officials last month.

In her quest to revamp rather than close the city’s lowest performing schools, Chancellor Carmen Fariña is weighing in on how they teach students to read and write.

Fariña has asked some of the schools to use a writing program she favors, set aside uninterrupted reading time for students each day, and send teachers to be trained in particular methods — directives that reflect her strong opinions about reading and writing instruction and her deep commitment to the approach championed by Teachers College. The guidance, which promotes parts of an approach that fell out of favor with the previous administration, also represents one of Fariña’s most direct attempts as chancellor to influence what happens inside classrooms.

“Reading is not to take a test. Reading is for the rest of your life to enjoy reading,” Fariña said in a recent interview. “And we’ve lost that in our schools. Somehow or other, it was misinterpreted.”

But even as she nudges the struggling schools in her new turnaround program, called School Renewal, down a path she believes will lead to improvement, she is careful to say that principals will retain authority over their curriculums. Her caution reflects the administration’s eagerness to avoid comparisons to a previous chancellor’s school-improvement plan, which was faulted for dictating across-the-board changes.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Fariña’s spokeswoman, Devora Kaye.


At a meeting last month, some principals in the Renewal program were told to reserve up to 45 minutes daily for students to read “just-right” books matched to their ability levels. Elementary and middle school leaders were also told to use a writing program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and to send their “best and brightest” teachers to be trained there.

“Those are the non-negotiables we’re starting with in terms of instruction,” Laura Kotch, a former Teachers College consultant who serves as an adviser to Fariña, told the principals.

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.
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.

Fariña and Kotch, who co-authored a 2008 book in which they called Calkins a mentor, are adherents of an approach to reading and writing instruction long advocated for by Calkins’ group, called “balanced literacy.” The city is paying Teachers College $500,000 for Calkins’ writing materials, which will be used by 65 Renewal schools.

The daily “independent reading” time Fariña is calling for and the student-selected books are two key components of balanced literacy, where teachers give quick lessons on reading strategies before letting students practice with books of their choosing.

The approach was mandated citywide about a decade ago under former Chancellor Joel Klein. (As Klein’s deputy, Fariña helped carry out the policy, and Calkins was called in to train teachers.) But, eventually, Klein began to worry that the approach provided students with too little background information to make sense of their books, so he had some schools try a literacy program focused on building students’ background knowledge.

In 2013, when the city endorsed certain curriculums as aligned to the new Common Core standards, it included the information-focused curriculum but no traditional balanced-literacy programs, which tend to rely on classroom libraries over textbooks. Calkins’ writing materials also did not make the list.

Fariña has promised to review those recommended materials, but she has yet to shake up the list. Still, by asking a group of schools to adopt Calkins’ writing program, she is asserting some control over the materials and practices they use.

“Laura [Kotch] and Carmen are trying to push back to what we know is very important for children’s development as readers and writers,” said Principal Alison Coviello of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, a Renewal school that uses balanced literacy.

Balanced literacy meets the Common Core

A tenet of balanced literacy is that students must not only master the technical skills of reading and writing, but also they must learn to love doing it. Some proponents of balanced literacy say that joy has been abandoned as textbook publishers and educators scramble to meet the requirements of the Common Core.

In particular, they say class time spent “close reading” passages and writing in response to prompts — both skills assessed on the state’s Common Core exams — should be balanced with time for students to write about personal experiences and read books they select. In fact, Kotch is working with the publisher of ReadyGen, one of the city-approved Common Core curriculums, to add more time in the program for independent reading.

“I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” Fariña said last month. “I want to know that independent reading is a child curling up with a book and just learning to love that reading.”

Those changes trouble some critics of balanced literacy, who argue that parts of it are incompatible with the Common Core.

For example, they say letting students choose books matched to their skill level keeps some from reading the grade-level texts the standards demand, and that the approach can ignore the standards’ call for a “content-rich curriculum.” Others accuse the approach of being loosely structured, with too little direct guidance for students — especially ones who are struggling.

“What these kids need is instruction, not to sit there with books they can’t read,” said New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

Avoiding past mistakes

Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program on a recent panel.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Former schools Chancellor Rudy Crew, second from right, expressed doubts about his old school-turnaround program during a recent panel discussion.

While elementary and middle schools in the turnaround program learn to use the Teachers College writing methods, Renewal high schools will be trained in a writing program called Writing is Thinking. That program is modeled on an approach used by New Dorp High School on Staten Island, which made writing a key part of its school-wide reform efforts. All of the Renewal schools will also receive math training.

City officials insist that even as the schools are trained in particular methods, the trainings will be tailored to each school’s needs and the schools are free to use the teaching methods as they see fit. And at the December meeting, Kotch said that schools do not have to scrap their chosen literacy curriculums in order to add daily independent-reading time.

“We’re not asking you to undo anything you have in place that you think works well,” she said. “But we are asking you to think about finding that balance again, which has been lost in these curriculums which are very often whole-class.”

The administration’s insistence that it is not dictating the exact steps every low-performing school must take is partially an effort to dodge the sort of criticisms that were lobbed at a turnaround program created by former schools chief Rudy Crew in the 1990s.

His Chancellor’s District program flooded a group of struggling schools with extra resources, but also new requirements, prompting some critics to attack it as a blunt, top-down reform. On a recent panel, Crew expressed doubts about that approach.

“Everybody got the same memo, everybody got the same dollars, everybody got the same requirements,” he said. “And then you were sort of off to the races to do the best that you could with what you had.”

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.

How I Teach

He wasn’t much of a cook, but this French teacher has a winning recipe for teaching his native tongue

PHOTO: Simon Pearson/Creative Commons

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.

Arnaud Garcia, a French teacher at Loveland High School in the Thompson School District, never thought he’d go into teaching. He tried law school, then a restaurant job. Neither stuck.

He came around to education after discovering the joy of teaching French to his own child. He’s a fan of costumes, props and colorful decorations — anything to liven up the learning experience.

His teaching mantra is, “If it isn’t engaging, why do it?”

Garcia won the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language 2017 New Educator award, which recognizes educators in their first five years of teaching.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

When I was younger, I wasn’t a very good student (C at best) and I used to think that you had to be crazy to become a teacher. I came to the U.S. in 2003. I studied law earlier in France, and I really didn’t like it. But being the first of my family to ever go to college, I felt like I had to choose a career that would make my parents proud.

In the U.S., I started to work in a restaurant because people assumed that, as a native of France, I knew how to cook (which couldn’t be further from the truth in my case). Also, I wanted to practice speaking in English. When I had my first child, I started to teach him French. It was great to hear him saying words in French. It was like we were talking in a private code that only we could understand. I liked it so much I decided I could teach other children.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is colorful. I have posters that I change each time we start a new unit: words, verbs, numbers, gargoyles, stuffed animals, and Eiffel Towers everywhere. I also have a huge bin of clothes and props that we use daily for stories. I want it to be a safe place for my students where they feel comfortable. I want them to feel that it is THEIR classroom. It may look unorganized for some, but I (kind of) know where everything is when I need it.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
My ink stamps! Each time students participate, they get a a stamp (and I have a ton of different ones) and my students really want to get their stamps. I better not forget it, otherwise I’m in trouble! At the end of a week when I collect their papers with all the stamps, I know who participated and who may need some more help.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons to teach is during the daily life and chores unit. We look at a series of pictures of kids’ bedrooms from all over the world, and for a lot of my students, it is an eye-opener. I feel like it is very important to design lessons that encourage language use as well as expand the worldview of a learner. For me it is important that they become better citizens of the world, so it is necessary for them to realize that the world is vast, diverse and different from what they know.

On a lighter note, I love when it is time to bring my breakout boxes! I love designing puzzles in order to open the locks and open the box. Sometimes there are boxes inside of boxes and other times I hide different boxes in my classroom. For example, a breakout game that I have seen done was about Marie-Antoinette and Versailles. Students had to decipher clues in French in order to to discover “her last secret.” Not only does it promote deeper thinking, but it also uses all four levels of depth of knowledge. It prepares students for teamwork and collaboration, and they learn to work under pressure, challenging them to persevere.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
At the beginning of the semester, we come up all together with a silent sign or gesture if a student does not understand. Since I teach in French, it is crucial that they understand what is going on. I stop, and I explain again, we go over it again, we practice, we use our whiteboard and we play with the words or the grammatical structure until they get it.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I am hilarious (or most likely, students are making fun of my English, and my accent in general), so I don’t have that problem (too often). I also have several huge boxes of props and clothes and I love using them to tell a story in order to implement the vocabulary or grammar structure that I want them to know. I include the students so they feel like they are part of the story, and that it is their story. Usually, if the students see that I am having fun teaching, they are with me.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I think building relationships is primordial in our job. I have a great sense of pride when students staying in my class, even if they don’t need it to graduate. You see them grow as a student and a person, and it is one of my favorite parts of the job. I don’t have to know everything about their life, but they have to know that I care about them. We have an activity: the star of the week, where we learn about one student’s life. It is a great way to learn that one of your student is an artist or has a secret talent.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
During my first couple of years teaching, one parent seemed to not understand a word I said, finally telling me: “Thank God you’re teaching French and not English!” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.

Another time, I had a single mom who didn’t speak much English coming for a parent-teacher conference. Her daughter was one of the best students in my class, so I praised her in Spanglish and French. The mother started to cry, thanking me for my kind words. Again, I wasn’t sure what to say.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Comic books! I love Marvel comic books! They helped me learn English and I still read them every week.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
Our job is a service, not servitude — from my mentor, Toni Theisen, the district’s World Languages curriculum representative. It is very important to balance our professional and private lives. Teaching asks so much of us, that it’s easy to constantly work. I have five classes to prepare for — at all levels — so it would be easy for me to not have a social life and be completely burned out. But I need to have “me” time when I go home and I disconnect completely from school.