Real Talk

My Area 3 Writing Project colleague, Joe, challenged me to share some of my bumps in the road as I experiment with the Common Core in my summer school class. He (very rightfully) said that the bumps are what people want to hear about–because they want to know how other people are navigating them. While I wasn’t in a place to do that yesterday, I am feeling much more up to the task today.

Because I’m not gonna lie. Yesterday sucked.

As I’ve been structuring my summer school class, I have decided to focus on building two major areas of my students’ skills: reading and writing (with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the writing).  Over the next three weeks, my plan is to focus on two major text types: narrative and argument. All of the reading we do is also in those types so that students can start to see the link between what we read and what we write.

For students that say they hate writing, they are surprisingly enthusiastic about it (more about that on a different day). However, yesterday, when it came to reading, I had a huge problem on my hands. We were reading a narrative and working through some tasks to help students collaboratively analyze its structure. This was after we read the piece to understand the gist of it and to extract significant moments from it. I thought the kids would be okay. They definitely were not, and they rebelled.

After what felt like an hour (but wasn’t) of not accomplishing anything, I finally hit the reset button. I stopped all of them, named the fact that something clearly wasn’t working, and then asked for their feedback. Their responses were not surprising, given what I had learned from them the previous day: “We don’t like to read.” “Why do we have to think so hard about this?” “Can’t we do grammar worksheets?” That last question sealed the deal for me. Because when I discover that a fifteen-year-old boy would rather do grammar worksheets than what I’m asking him to do, I know I’m in deep trouble. Very deep.

I managed to survive the rest of the day and left school feeling pretty discouraged and beat up. I needed to figure out exactly what went wrong so that I could fix it. In a hurry.

As I thought about my failings last night (over two glasses of Cupcake Red Velvet), I started to develop a theory. What if I didn’t include enough scaffolding? What if my release wasn’t gradual enough? Could that have been the cause of the rebellion? Had I gone too fast?

So I did what we do as teachers: I re-vamped all of our reading work for the next two days. I shifted our reading block to the morning when the kids (and I) are fresher. Then I thought about the way the Common Core Standards are organized. One thing that is so elegant about them is the way that they are horizontally aligned (in the document) so that one grade level builds on the next.

But what we don’t always talk about is how they are so intentionally vertically aligned on paper so that each standard sort of builds on the next one. The first person who made me realize this was Lucy Calkins in her book Pathways to the Common Core, co-authored by Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman. It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before (that’s probably why she’s Lucy Calkins, and I’m not).

Take the reading standards, for example. This is the general progression of the first section, “Key Ideas and Details” (in my words):

  • RI.9-10.1: Pull out details/evidence from a text; articulate explicit and implicit points in a text
  • RI.9-10.2: Gather those details and inferences and determine how they equate to a central idea in the text; write about this central idea
  • RI.9-10.3: Analyze the order of points and details in the text and how they are introduced, developed, and connected to each other.

As students progress through these standards, their understanding of a text can really become more sophisticated. That’s where my problem was.

I didn’t spend enough time with the first two and jumped right to the third one. My kids didn’t know what to do, and it was totally my fault.

When I started thinking about how I would change things for today, I realized that I needed to spend way more time on numbers 1 and 2 and not worry so much about number 3, not yet anyway. After all, what I am trying to do is make sure that my students have some really concrete tools to take with them into next year so that they don’t end up in summer school again.

So that’s exactly what we did. And I scaffolded the heck out of it too. We read the piece in small chunks and wrote paraphrases of each paragraph, including what the narrator was learning about herself. And then, when I finally did release them for independent work, I gave them small, manageable chunks to complete in a very short amount of time (10 minutes or so) and constantly had them share their thinking. For my students, who have demonstrated that they don’t have a whole lot of stamina, this worked.

And when they transitioned to writing about the central idea in the text (after I modeled very explicitly how I take my notes about something and transfer it to a written piece), they were successful.

And as I conferenced with them about their writing, they were listening to the feedback, trying on the suggestions, and sitting up a little taller each time I complemented something they were doing well. Even the kid who hated my guts yesterday and Monday was totally on my side after I recognized how good he is at making inferences about the narrator’s feelings.

So yeah.

It was a good day.