Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

On Programs, Broken Promises and Why We Aren’t Finland

Lapland Finland Reindeer

A few weeks ago the New York City Department of Education announced that it was recommending new “high-quality” Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for schools to adopt next year so that students can, in the words of the DOE, “realize the full promise of the Common Core Standards.” These materials have been developed for the city—at what must be considerable cost—and for ELA they’re giving schools two choices in the following grade bands: Core Knowledge or Pearson’s ReadyGen for K-2 classrooms, ReadyGen or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 3-5, and Scholastic’s Codex or Expeditionary Learning for Grades 6-8. (High school options are still to be determined; information on Pearson’s ReadyGen is not yet online.)

The City has emphasized that these are recommendations not requirements, though it’s unclear whether there will be any protocols—or repercussions—for schools not choosing one. And, perhaps needless to say, this move has made me heartsick, as has the backlash it’s set off against balanced literacy and workshop models, which, in certain circles, are now being deemed failures.

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Part of what so disheartens me is that we’ve been here before. Balanced literacy and workshop were, in fact, seen as antidotes to packaged, one-size-fits-all programs that used short texts and excerpts to teach isolated skills to students—without any real significant achievement results. The new programs preserve the one-size-fits-all model, with a mix of short and book-length texts to be read by everyone in the class, but the texts themselves are different. They’re authentic—as in, not abridged or watered-down—but they’re often poorly matched to their designated grade levels in order to meet someone’s notion of complexity. Take the anchor text for a ReadyGen third grade thematic unit on “A Citizen’s Role in Our Government”, for instance: Behind Rebel Lines by Seymour Reit. It’s a nonfiction account of a Canadian girl who posed as a boy during the Civil War in order to  join the Union Army, and while it looks like a fascinating book, Scholastic’s Book Wizard lists it as having a Grades 6-8 interest level, a 7.2 grade reading level, and a guided reading level of T. Hmm. When did third grade become the new seventh grade?

And then there’s the questions that come with the texts. They’re the kind of questions found on standardized tests, minus the multiple-choice answers. And they’ve been broken down into categories, which align to the bands of the Common Core Anchor Standards and, again, the tests. For the following paragraph from the preface of Behind Rebel Lines, for example, students are asked this Vocabulary question: “What does feminist mean and what context clues in the ‘To Begin’ section help you determine the meaning?”

Behind Rebel Lines 1A

And for this passage, which appears on page 3, students are asked a Key Ideas and Details question, “Why did Emma say the billboard had ‘fancy wording’? Which words might be considered ‘fancy’ and why?”; and an Integration of Knowledge and Ideas question, “What does the sentence ‘the country was in peril and had to be saved’ mean? Use your own words to restate this.”

Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Now imagine that you’re a third grader who, in New York State, has not yet begun to explore history in social studies, which means you might only have a foggy notion of the past and no knowledge of the Civil War or how women’s roles changed over time. If the teacher has followed the program instructions, she would have reminded you to “adjust [your] reading rate as [you] encounter unfamiliar words.” But even with that, how would you begin to answer these questions? And why would we ask you to beyond the need to prepare you for a test based on someone’s narrow, mechanical, but definitely testable, interpretation of the Standards?

And that brings me to another reason I’m heartsick. Having actually welcomed the Common Core Standards for the emphasis they seemed to place on reading for deeper levels of meaning, I now find myself feeling disappointed and duped. And in that, I’m not alone. In addition to educators like Diane Ravitch and Tom Newkirk who’ve reversed their original thinking on the Standards because of the industry that’s cropped up around them, New York State Principal Carol Buris also went from being a fan to an opponent as she realized she’d been naïve. Here’s how she puts it in a piece posted by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post‘s “The Answer Sheet“:

“When I first read about the Common Core Standards, I cheered . . . . I should have known in an age in which standardized tests direct teaching and learning, that the standards themselves would quickly become operationalized by tests. Testing, coupled with the evaluation of teachers by scores, is driving implementation. The promise of the Common Core is dying and teaching and learning are being distorted.”

Outsourcing CartoonFinally, I’m heartsick for another broken promise that’s explicitly stated in the Standards: that teachers would be “free to provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgement and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards.” By engaging in the development and adoption of scripted programs, the New York City Department of Education has demonstrated yet again it’s lack of trust in teachers. And they’ve, in effect, outsourced the critical thinking work of teachers to a corporation, whose priority is shareholder profits not children, and turned teachers into delivery systems instead of professionals with sound judgment.

How a teacher who’s not encouraged to think critically and independently can possibly support students to do so is completely beyond me. And this is where Finland comes in. Not investing in teachers’ professional capacities—which means giving them the time, resources and supports to collaboratively learn and deepen their understanding of both content and pedagogical craft, not training them to implement a program—flies right in the face of what top-rated systems, like Finland’s, have done to produce change. Those systems all used what Canadian educator and writer Michael Fullan calls “effective drivers” for whole system reform. These include a commitment to develop the entire teaching profession, a belief in teacher ownership, and trust and respect for teachers. Accountability, on the other hand, which he defines as “using test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools” is at the top of his list of “wrong drivers.” And this is precisely what New York City is using to try to drive school change.

And so, while I know my dear city will never have reindeer, Moomintrolls and the midnight sun, until it starts heading in Finland’s direction, I fear that I’ll remain heartsick.

Moomintroll 1

From one of the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson