First Person

Reading Closely For Connection In The Common Core

The Common Core’s “six shifts in literacy,” or the big ways in which the standards aim to overhaul teaching, can be boiled down a la Michael Pollan: Read complex texts. Mostly nonfiction. Very closely.

Through that close reading, teachers get clear opportunities to foster critical thinking. Attempting to help students access texts, previous standards and curricula in many states have focused on previewing the material, skimming it, and connecting it to the outside world, the self, and other texts — at best, achieving a rich holistic understanding, and at worst, dancing around the challenges posed by the author’s actual words.

But the Common Core’s reverence for the text as “the master class,” as chief creator David Coleman said in a 2011 speech, means that students’ personal interpretations are deemphasized — and even denounced. That particular pendulum swing has me concerned because, in my experience, students must also bring their own perspectives and experiences to the text if they are to read critically.

The Common Core does asks students to bring their own opinions to the text in standards that challenge readers to analyze authors’ intended meanings and even critique their methods. But while the imperative “provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments” does not outright prohibit students from having personal reactions to a text, none of the language in the Common Core suggests that they should, or that their personal reactions could be useful in assisting their analysis. Indeed, Coleman said in the same 2011 speech, “What we’ve done too much is tried to go outside the text to motivate kids. ‘You should be interested in this because of your background. It should remind you of something.’ We try to sell it almost in advance of reading it, when the only source of motivation that’s reliable is the richness and beauty of [the text] itself.”

I could see that imbalance in the way my incoming sixth-graders engaged with texts at the beginning of last year. As per their training in elementary school, their responses to literature were all about connections: “This character reminds me of my sister, who’s really brave.” I had to work hard to bring their attention more closely to the text. What has this character (not your sister) done that seems brave? On what page, and in what line, do you see the bravery demonstrated? Our students do desperately need to make this shift back toward the author’s intended meaning.

But the Common Core architects are throwing out reams of sound research, theory, and practice if they wager that students will (or should) be motivated to read an author’s words in a vacuum. Coleman’s statements signal what I think is a dangerous omission, especially in terms of reading literature, because it disregards what renowned literacy theorist Louise Rosenblatt called the transactional nature of reading.

As Rosenblatt put it, “Books do not simply happen to people. People also happen to books.” Her meaning is that a work of literature is just spots on paper until a reader’s mind brings those spots to life. Truly critical, engaged reading requires a human connection with the text, not just a magnifying glass. So developing readers, especially reluctant ones, need the space to ask both, “What does this mean?” and “What does this mean to me?”

For example, I’m confident that reading “The Road Not Taken” was a more meaningful experience for my sixth-graders thanks to discussions we had about difficult choices they’ve had to make. We did carefully analyze Robert Frost’s actual words, but we also got to the heart of why I think he wrote them: to help readers reflect on their own lives. One student raised an ordinary but very real choice for him as an 11 year-old: “This morning I had to make the choice to bring my little sister to school on time and be late myself, rather than making my sick grandmother take her.” Another girl reflected on a more high-stakes decision, whether to stand up for a friend who was being ostracized by the “popular kids.” She said that Frost’s final stanza captured the way she felt: “I did the harder thing, the thing not as many people would have done, and it made a big difference.”

I do believe that the Common Core is based on an honest assessment of what our kids need, and I trust that the people who designed it understand the value of connecting texts to our lives. In his 2011 speech, using Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to illustrate a Common Core approach to text analysis, Coleman does point out that in the final paragraphs, “King himself goes beyond the letter. That is, he begins to make analogies to Hitler’s power. He begins to make analogies about other laws. He invites us, I’m trying to say, to go beyond it with him.” King does indeed invite readers to connect his experiences to others, and our students should follow his lead.

My concern lies in the fact that Coleman outlines the reading of King’s letter as a six-day classroom activity. I pray that our students don’t tune out before day six, when they’re finally encouraged to think beyond the text to the world they live in.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.