Growing pains

Common Core has teachers rethinking text, swapping strategies

6th graders at Kipp Infinity Middle School discuss a poem.
Sixth graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School discuss a poem. On Tuesday, educators visited the charter school to learn about how it is adjusting to the Common Core standards.

A song by rapper Jay-Z, a poem by Joyce Kilmer, and an essay by Elizabeth Alexander all got a close reading by sixth-graders at KIPP Infinity Middle School on Tuesday.

Students didn’t realize they were on the front lines of their school’s transition to new Common Core literacy standards in reading. But the visiting teachers and principals in the back of the classroom did, and they were paying close attention.

The teachers and principals were taking part in a “School Study Tour” organized by NYC Collaborates, a nonprofit that seeks to facilitate conversation and collaboration across charter-district lines. KIPP Infinity was the 13th school toured since the program piloted in June, and the first in a series of three this month that focus on the new standards.

Tuesday’s visit focused on close reading, a skill that the standards emphasize. Sayuri Stabrowski, KIPP Infinity’s dean of literacy, spoke to the visitors about techniques for teaching the skill, then ushered them into classrooms to see instruction about it in action.

Stabrowski walked visitors through two rounds of reading a poem, one Common Core-aligned and one not. The difference?  In the Common Core-aligned version of the lesson, she opened with specific questions about two characters’ points of view and the meaning of an object reference in the poem, then asked participants to back up their answers with specific lines from the text.

“Try telling kids you’re going to read like writers,” she suggested. “Why these words? Why is this sentence shorter and that sentence longer?”

Before teachers could adjust to the approach to reading that the Common Core standards demand, she said, “We had to change the way [they] thought about text. … Teachers needed to change their planning and get to know their texts really well.”

She also encouraged visitors to teach close reading in all classes, not just English. In college, she said, “Whatever the major, students will be asked to tackle complex texts.”

Principal Allison Willis Holley said the Common Core-aligned texts she and her colleagues now teach are harder than any their students have faced before. (Holley and Stabrowski both teach reading alongside their leadership responsibilities.)

And they are challenging for teachers, too, she said. With a focus on textual evidence under the new standards, Holley said, “there’s a real ‘right is right’ approach that I’ve never felt as an ELA teacher.” Under this new approach to close reading, she explained, questions often have a single right answer, as opposed to the range of interpretations students might give in response to more open-ended questions about the meaning of a poem or essay as a whole.

Visiting educators drew a wide range of lessons from Tuesday’s presentation and classroom visits. Some of the lessons reflected ongoing uncertainty about the impact of the new standards, a year into the city’s rollout.

Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.
Visitors swap observations and check out hallway bulletin boards.

School of the Future Principal Stacy Goldstein said she still has questions about the instructional approach modeled during the visit, in which teachers guide students by providing very specific questions and feedback.

“I’m interested to see how we could fold in more close reading,” she said. “But I also have concerns about the dependence it brings.” Goldstein said it’s important that schools train students to tackle texts on their own after receiving such close guidance early on.

But Earl Brathwaite, principal of I.S. 339 in the Bronx, had an entirely different takeaway. What stood out to him was “the way the students are taking the leadership role in the lesson,” he said.

“The teacher is prompting and coaching as compared to direct teaching,” Braithwaite said. “I like the part where the teacher has more of a coaching role and the student goes in depth with the content.”

Responding to a fellow visitor who noted that the approach means students will get the wrong answer sometimes, Braithwaite said, “And that means teachers giving up control. That’s hard.”

Other visitors said their morning at KIPP Infinity had given them ideas to take back to their schools and classrooms.

“I wouldn’t have thought close reading was something you did in math,” said Tyler Moore, who teaches fourth grade at Voice Charter School in Queens.

His colleague, Ellen Constal, who teaches fifth grade, said the visit gave her new ideas for the questions she’ll ask students to focus on when they read a new text. “Creating the questions is something we haven’t focused on a lot in our school,” she said. “The focus on questions could be really helpful to us.”

“The example texts and lesson samples — that is huge,” said Johanna Powell, the reading program coordinator at Inwood Academy for Leadership, a charter school. “What I find difficult is figuring out where to find examples of this kind of text, of how to format them and how to align them with the curriculum standards.” Stabrowski said finding texts is one of the hardest parts of adapting classes to the new standards.

“It’s a welcome relief to hear that this school is struggling with the same issues we all are with introducing the Common Core,” said Letta Belle, principal of the National Heritage Academy in Brooklyn. She said KIPP Infinity’s focus on “making sure teachers are familiar with the standards” is something other schools can learn from, especially given that “no one knows what the test is going to look like.”

Elementary and middle school students will take state tests that are aligned to the Common Core for the first time next month.

A student's worksheet in Frances Olajide's 6th grade writing class. The subway poem is in the 5th row.
A worksheet in Frances Olajide’s sixth-grade writing class includes a poem about the subway and other texts about New York City.

In Frances Olajide’s sixth grade writing class, visitors watched students work to figure out the meaning of a tricky line in Kilmer’s famous poem about the city’s subways. After annotating the poem on a worksheet that included excerpts from several other texts about New York City — fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and discussing the purpose of the poem as a whole, students turned to the last line, “Each one the pleasant outdoor sunshine leaves.”

“This is so hard,” Olajide told her students. “I’m so excited. Turn to tell your neighbor if you think you know what it means.”

After students talked in pairs, a few students wagered guesses  in front of the whole class. After a few wrong answers — which Olajide cheerfully identified as incorrect — she said, “I’m not looking for a guess right now. I’m looking for: I have a thought that is clear; this is what I’m trying to show.”

Hands shot up. After a few close-but-not-quite answers, a student said, “It’s dark in the subway! There’s no sunshine.”

That was the answer Olajide was looking for. “It’s showing us something about the subway,” she said. “Isn’t that a cool sentence?”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede