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?”