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

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.