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.”

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

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.