Core reading in the classroom

Common Core standards have transformed reading instruction in Reno’s Washoe County, writes Emily Hanford as part of an NPR series.

Books for independent reading are sorting by difficulty.

Books for independent reading are sorted by difficulty.

English teachers used to teach “skills and strategies.” They’d tell students what they were going to read, introduce the vocabulary, ask about their personal experiences with the topic, then give them a text at their reading level.

Angela Orr, who was a high school history teacher, was told to excerpt primary sources for top students, define all the hard words for “medium” kids and rewrite it in simplified form for struggling readers.

Under the Core, students are reading more complex texts at grade level, regardless of their reading level.

“Instead of using a text as a springboard into kids’ personal experiences,” the new standards demand that “students stick to the material, reading it carefully and citing evidence for all that they say or write.”

The new standards also call for “building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.”

That’s a big change,  says Aaron Grossman, a teacher trainer who used to teach elementary and middle school.  “Social studies and science just weren’t being taught,” he says. “In the effort to teach kids reading skills, we had kind of forgotten about the importance of a lot of other stuff.”

Linnea Wolters, who teaches low-income fifth graders, was shocked by a sample lesson on “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She assumed it was too difficult for her students.

Instead of introducing the sonnet, she had students read it on their own, then read it out loud herself.

After everyone had read the sonnet at least twice, Wolters guided the class through a series of “text-dependent questions and tasks.” The first asked students to figure out the poem’s rhyme scheme and to assign a different letter to each set of rhyming words.

A girl who’d been diagnosed with a learning disability was the first to see the rhyming pattern.

Two boys who don’t speak English at home and struggle with reading were the first to figure out that the poem was about the Statue of Liberty.

Wolters asked the boys if they had any evidence to support their idea. They pointed to the sonnet and said, “It says it’s a woman with a torch.”

“What do you think of Ezekial and Salvadore’s ideas?” Wolters asked the class. The other students weren’t sure. “Why don’t you see if you can find more evidence?” she asked them.

And that got the class going.

“All of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, ‘She’s in a harbor!’ and ‘There’s two cities!’ ” Wolters says.

Wolters was amazed to see her students so excited. High achievers are less enthusiastic about close reading, she tells Hanford. They’re used to reading quickly, answering a few comprehension questions and moving on.

In a Washington, D.C. school, fifth graders are struggling to understand a reading on the settling of the west, writes Cory Turner. The teachers asks if the Native American tribes are “nomadic.”

“On page 6, paragraph 2,” (Khalil Sommerville) says, “the first sentence: ‘The Haida and Tlingit of the Northwest built permanent wooden homes called longhouses.’ ”

Khalil flags the word “permanent.” In other words, not nomadic. After an attaboy for Khalil, Ms. Wertheimer asks about the Sioux.

Destiny Brown volunteers: “Page 6, on the first paragraph, at the end it says ‘They lived in tents called tipis.’ “

Here’s more from Turner on leveled reading and the question of how much struggle is helpful and how much is too much.

“Close reading” can be fun or awful, writes Larry Ferlazzo in Ed Week.

Imagine trying to figure out a modern art painting, says Christopher Lehman, author of Falling in Love with Close Reading.  “It involves looking at something again and again, studying details, and being curious.”

Teachers are using the new standards to create lesson plans, writes Lucy Boyd in Education Next. A seventh-grade English teacher at an Uncommon Schools charter, she worked with her co-teacher to decide how to teach to the Core. For example, they paired literature units with nonfiction readings, such as Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave and Walter Dean Myers’s The Glory Field.

Asian culture: Struggling shows strength

A Marxist slogan popular in my college days — Dare to struggle, dare to win! — applies to education, according to an NPR story. Struggling in school is seen as a problem in the U.S., but not in Asia.

“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. . . . struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

In a study, Stigler asked first-grade students to solve an impossible math problem to see how long they’d struggle with it. In the U.S., the average was less than 30 seconds.  The Japanese students worked for an hour, until researchers told them to stop.

U.S. teachers should teach students to struggle, Stigler believes.

 . . .  in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through the students hard work and struggle.

“And I just think that especially in schools, we don’t create enough of those experiences, and then we don’t point them out clearly enough.”

Getting parents to change their beliefs about learning will be difficult. Americans try to build their children’s confidence by telling them they’re smart or talented. “As soon as they encounter a something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates,” says psychologist Carol Dweck. Praising the struggle —  “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it” — gives children the confidence to cope with difficulties.

Praise is out

Schools are rejecting self-esteem boosting, reports the Washington Post. It turns out that pumping up students’ self-esteem through easy, unearned praise doesn’t improve their achievement.

As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

. . . children praised for trying hard or taking risks tend to enjoy challenges and find greater success. Children also perform better in the long term when they believe that their intellect is not a birthright but something that grows and develops as they learn new things.

Brain imaging shows “connections between nerve cells in the cortex multiply and grow stronger as people learn and practice new skills.”  Montgomery County (Maryland) schools now teach children that they’re developing their brains when they struggle to learn something new. Teachers also try to provide specific feedback on how students can improve instead of a vague “Good job!”

Praise should be used to encourage students to take risks and learn from failure, Dweck said. “Does the teacher say: ‘Who’s having a fantastic struggle? Show me your struggle.’ That is something that should be rewarded.”