in focus

How Lucy Calkins, literacy guru and Fariña ally, is fighting to define Common Core teaching

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.

The influential Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins was nearing the end of a talk about the new Common Core reading standards earlier this year when suddenly she let loose some barbed remarks.

Her target was David Coleman, the president of the College Board and one of the Common Core’s lead writers, whom she called “an expert in branding.” She later described a well-known model lesson by Coleman where high school students are asked to pore over the three-paragraph Gettysburg Address for several days, parsing the meaning of the individual words and phrases in the speech.

“To me, it basically represents horrible teaching,” Calkins said at the January event.

The founding director of the decades-old Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Calkins has helped train thousands of teachers and produced widely used teaching materials. More recently, she has watched with dismay as New York school officials, in their quest to usher in the Common Core, have embraced new literacy curriculums inspired by Coleman’s vision.

But in January, Calkins’ longtime friend Carmen Fariña, who has called Calkins her mentor, was appointed head of the city school system. The two met privately at the Department of Education headquarters after Fariña became schools chancellor.

Around that time, Calkins wrote to Fariña urging her to resist the curriculum guidelines written by Coleman and his team, Calkins said in her speech.

“Please, Carmen,” Calkins said she appealed to Fariña, “protect the Common Core from the documents surrounding it, that are people’s interpretations of it.”

Now, Fariña has the power to reimagine the way educators across the city teach reading and writing in the age of the Common Core. Already, the chancellor has promised a top-to-bottom review of the city’s recommended curriculums. And to lead a citywide Common Core literacy training next month, her administration brought in Calkins’ group.

But some critics say that parts of Calkins’ approach and the Common Core are incompatible. The prospect that Fariña’s ascension could expand Calkins’ influence over the school system has already unsettled some of of them, including New York University education professor Susan Neuman.

“I think that’s scary,” Neuman said, “and devastating.”

An influential approach, with its fair share of critics

Some of the city’s top-performing schools — including Manhattan’s P.S. 6, where Fariña was principal, and those in the Brooklyn district where she was superintendent — follow Calkins’ approach. The approach, which falls under the heading of balanced literacy and is sometimes referred to as the workshop model, is known for having teachers corral students onto carpets for brief reading-skill lessons and then send them off to practice with books the students choose.

In 2003, then-Chancellor Joel Klein ordered most schools to adopt balanced literacy and hired Calkins’ group to train teachers. When Fariña became a deputy chancellor the following year, she oversaw the balanced literacy push.

During the long-running “Reading Wars,” critics attacked balanced literacy for what they considered too little teacher-led instruction, especially in phonics. But they have found new ammunition in the Common Core.

First, they say that balanced literacy’s insistence that students spend much of their time reading self-selected books runs counter to the standards’ demand that all students read texts at and above their grade level. Next, they say that the balanced literacy model can strand students without the background information they need to make sense of specific texts — neglecting the standards’ insistence on a “content-rich curriculum.”

“There’s consensus among cognitive scientists that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension and you don’t get that in balanced literacy,” said Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and longtime critic of Calkins’ approach. “It focuses on the skills divorced from any content.”

That criticism registered with Klein, who launched a pilot program in 2008 to compare schools using balanced literacy and other methods to ones using Core Knowledge, a curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of background information. The study found greater gains in the schools using Core Knowledge, which the state and city went on to endorse as Common Core-aligned.

Calkins has criticized the pilot study as flawed and too limited. In an interview, she defended using ability-matched books, which she said enables struggling readers to work their way up to grade-level texts. And she said that balanced literacy includes “shared texts” at or above grade level, which classes read together and teachers supplement with background information.

But even as some have suggested that Calkins’ approach clashes with parts of the Common Core, Calkins has publicly embraced the standards, co-authoring a top-selling book on the Common Core and teaching educators how to meet them. Scores of city schools still work directly with Calkins’ group to implement her brand of balanced literacy.

“I have no question in my mind that balanced literacy well done can absolutely help children reach the standards as well as anything,” said Chris Napolitan, an assistant principal at Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, which follows Calkins’ literacy model.

A model of Common Core reading takes hold

Whereas Calkins’ sway over instruction is easily detectable in the many classrooms that use her materials and methods, David Coleman’s impact has been more indirect.

This was apparent a few years ago when New York asked publishers who were vying to create new Common Core teaching materials for the state to complete an unusual task: analyze Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson. They were also asked to create teacher-training materials based on Coleman’s model lesson.

Those publishing requirements, tucked into the state’s request for Common Core curriculum proposals, were just one sign of Coleman’s double influence: After he helped craft the standards, he and a group he co-founded guided education officials as they worked to make sure the standards reached classrooms.

One way he and Susan Pimentel, another Common Core author, did that was by developing guidelines for states and school districts to determine whether teaching materials are properly aligned to the standards. The guidelines were published soon after the standards, and they detail the work students should do in class, much of it centered on reading challenging texts multiple times and analyzing them.

New York State officials told would-be curriculum developers to align their materials to the guidelines, known as the Publishers’ Criteria. City officials then used the guidelines to evaluate dozens of existing literacy programs, eventually endorsing four as Common Core-aligned.

The city commissioned the publishing giant Pearson to design one of the endorsed programs, a new curriculum called ReadyGen, to match Coleman’s guidelines. The “Publishers’ Criteria were very prominent” in the design process, said P. David Pearson, a literacy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum.

“We as districts have chosen to embrace the Publishers’ Criteria because our teachers and students have a right to excellent materials,” then-Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a 2012 announcement.

Eventually, nearly 90 percent of elementary and middle schools that bought new materials last year ordered from the city’s recommended curriculum list, which did not include Calkins’ materials.

With officials following Coleman’s lead, Calkins cries foul

Recently, Calkins has been firing back. After the city declined to endorse her materials last year, Calkins spoke to a group of principals whose schools follow her approach, challenging the prominent role that Coleman, Pimentel, and their group have played.

“The Common Core I believe is a really precious thing,” she told them. “And I don’t want it to go down by equating it with the Publishers [Criteria],” which, she added, “was written by just two people who are not educators.”

Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins' group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
Carmen Fariña gave a major speech in April at Teachers College, where she has worked extensively with Calkins’ group. Fariña praised Calkins at the start of her speech.

In their 2012 book about the Common Core, Calkins and her co-authors argued that the Publishers’ Criteria “directly contradict” the standards’ premise that some instructional decisions be left to educators. They also pointed out that Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by Coleman, Pimentel, and another Common Core writer, received an $18 million grant to guide implementation of the standards.

In her speech this January, Calkins argued that Coleman’s Gettysburg Address lesson violates principles valued by “experienced educators”: it limits student choice, gives short shrift to reading strategies, and ignores students’ interests and skill levels. Echoing other critics, she noted that the lesson’s directions tell teachers to “plunge” students into the speech without explaining its context, forcing students “to rely exclusively on the text.”

“Until you have a whole city teaching that way and you get unbelievable results,” Calkins said, “I don’t think you create a curriculum based on it.”

Coleman declined to be interviewed for this story. Pimentel, however, provided a five-page rebuttal to Calkins’ critiques.

She argued that the Publishers Criteria is a tool for curriculum developers, but not a curriculum, and “does not usurp teacher choice.” She noted that the Gettysburg lesson was only the first of many model lessons her group created, and that it was designed for teachers to adapt. And she said this “close reading” approach, which privileges the words on the page over students’ prior knowledge, is effective.

Calkins’ group, meanwhile, “has little to no evidence for the effectiveness of its approach, in spite of an over 30 year existence,” Pimentel wrote.

In her talk to principals last year, Calkins faulted the state for asking curriculum developers to adhere to Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines. She added that she had assigned a half-dozen staff members to analyze the state-commissioned reading materials, which are posted on a state website called EngageNY.

“We’re taking on Engage New York,” she told the group.

A state education department spokesman noted that many states and districts used the Publishers’ Criteria to guide their curriculum decisions.

Calkins also helped launch an online forum for teachers to critique the state’s new Common Core reading test, which Pearson designed. In her January speech, she criticized the test’s Coleman-inspired emphasis on close reading, which she said forced students to repeatedly refer back to specific lines in the test passages to answer questions, rather than use their own understanding of the texts.

“Is that how we want to teach reading?” she asked.

Without committing to Calkins, Fariña signals her allegiance

As the debate over the best way to teach Common Core-aligned reading and writing drags on, Carmen Fariña could begin to settle that debate within the city’s classrooms.

So far, she has left the city’s recommended curriculum list in place for next year. But in a message to principals, she guaranteed a “comprehensive review process to identify additional Common Core-aligned instructional materials” — which could include those produced by Calkins’ group.

“I think Lucy’s program will make it back into the mix,” said Pearson, the professor who helped write the ReadyGen curriculum. He added that Calkins has a “convincing argument” that her approach can help students meet the new standards.

As Fariña reevaluates the curriculums, she has pledged to offer educators more Common Core training. Next month, that will take the form of a two-day conference for principals on middle school literacy run by Calkins’ team.

It is also possible that Fariña’s administration could encourage schools to adopt elements of Calkins’ approach even if they choose to stick with materials or teaching practices associated with Coleman’s vision.

After all, the differences between the two camps often amount to a matter of emphasis. For instance, Calkins says close reading has a place in literacy instruction, and Coleman and Pimentel’s guidelines say that students should sometimes get to read books they choose that are at their own skill level.

“Everything kids read cannot be grade-level complexity,” said David Lebin, a consultant with Student Achievement Partners. “To get a volume of reading, you have to have texts at different levels.”

For her part, Calkins seems confident that her group will play a larger role under Chancellor Fariña in helping schools meet the new standards.

“Yes, the city’s moving in our direction,” Calkins said during an interview in February. “Obviously.”

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First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”