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?”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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 [email protected]

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