The last in our four-part series on reading in the Common Core era.
All week we've been reporting on big changes in reading instruction brought on by the Common Core State Standards: a doubling-down on evidence-based reading, writing and speaking; increased use of nonfiction; and a big push to get kids reading more "complex texts."
Whatever you think of these shifts, they're meaningless ideas without a classroom and kids to make sense of them. That's today's story, as we round out our series on reading in the Core era.
It's midmorning at Watkins Elementary in Washington, D.C. From the fourth floor, Amy Wertheimer's fifth-grade classroom looks out over a red-brick grid of row houses and, looming over it all, the U.S. Capitol. But every back is to the view as Ms. Wertheimer calls her kids to the reading rug.
"All right, we are on the carpet in 5 ... 4... "
The students force their rubbery legs, full of early energy, to criss-cross applesauce. Each has a binder. Inside is evidence that the Common Core State Standards have been here.
The kids are reviewing a bit of nonfiction — what the Core calls an "informational text" — titled "Who Settled the West?" It begins with the Native Americans, then moves through the arrival of Europeans and into the 19th century migrations of Mormons, former slaves and gold seekers.
For many of the kids, it was a tough read. Or, to use the Core's vocabulary, "complex." Which is why they're now tackling it together, as a class.
Ms. Wertheimer warms them up with a text-dependent question: "Are all of these native peoples nomadic?"
The kids comb through the text, line by line, word by word.
What makes the text tough? The language, for one. Words like "prejudice" trip them up, as do some of the Native American names. If "Haida" is a speed bump for these readers, "Tlingit" is a brick wall.
But once Khalil Sommerville struggles through them both, he does something just as hard, something the Common Core really wants him to be able to do: He answers Ms. Wertheimer's question using evidence from the text.
"On page 6, paragraph 2," he 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.' "
This kind of classwide reading seems to engage the kids. Lots of hands shoot up. When Ms. Wertheimer notices a wallflower, she finds a way to include him.
Searching For Answers
It's also tiring work for the kids. So, after 20 minutes, they break into groups.
One cluster of 10-year-olds dives into the packet, looking for reasons why African-Americans headed west before and after the Civil War.
Kandice Norris scans the text, finds a key quote and offers up Reason One: Former slaves could find paid work in the West. Novaun Lee chimes in with Reason Two: Even before the war, slavery was illegal in the West.
Ms. Wertheimer walks from group to group, helping and encouraging the kids to show evidence for their answers. She's been teaching for 17 years and says this shift to reading more complex material is a big difference, and she loves it.
"This pushes them," she says. "And the high kids aren't bored, and the low kids aren't bored. And we're all learning about really interesting things."
It's at this point that I have to mention Ms. Wertheimer's hair — a serious salt-and-pepper bob. But along the bottom runs a surprising fringe of dyed-pink hair.
It's a perfect metaphor for how she — and lots of teachers — are approaching reading in the Common Core era. Not as an either-or proposition. The Core standards don't say everything kids read has to be salt-and-pepper serious and seriously hard. There's still plenty of room for pink.
That's why kids here have leveled libraries. Leveling pre-dates the Core. It's a way of labeling books based on the skill needed to read them.
In many schools, leveled reading once drove instruction. Kids would spend their entire day reading at or close to their comfort zone. At Watkins, daily independent reading with leveled books provides a counterbalance to the tough stuff, a breather.
Next door, in teacher Kate Sommerville's fifth-grade class, Tonyae Butler sits quietly at her desk, reading Roald Dahl's The Witches. She has already plowed through his other classics, including Matilda and James and the Giant Peach.
Tonyae says the book is actually below her reading level, but that's OK. She's having fun. And that's the point.
Still, I assume she prefers Dahl to the close-reading binder on her desk. They'll be tackling a tough, new article shortly.
"Do you think it looks kind of tough?" I ask.
Her answer: "I think it looks interesting and tough."
To my surprise, Tonyae says, one thing can be both.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This week, the NPR Ed team has been telling us about changes in many U.S. classrooms brought on by the Common Core State Standards - specifically, when it comes to reading. Before the Core, many schools paired youngsters with material that they knew they could read to build students' confidence and a love of reading. The Core Standards talk a lot about the importance of reading material that is more complex and that can mean children struggling more than they're used to. For more on what that can look like, NPR's Cory Turner reports now from the fifth grade.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Time for the tough stuff. Its mid-morning at Watkins Elementary in Washington, D.C. and Ms. Amy Wertheimer calls her kids to the reading rug.
AMY WERTHEIMER: All right and we are on the carpet in five,
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: We all got to sit together.
TURNER: The students force their rubbery legs, full of early energy, to criss-cross applesauce. Each has a binder and inside is some of this complex reading the Core talks about. Today, the kids are going over an informational text called "Who Settled The West?"
WERTHEIMER: Are all of these native peoples nomadic?
TURNER: To answer Ms. Wertheimer's question, the kids have to comb through the text, line by line, word by word.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Predujice, predijuce, prejudidice, prejudice?
TURNER: Some of the vocabulary's pretty tough - like prejudice, and a handful of Native American names.
KHALIL SOMMERVILLE: The Haiti(ph) and twanglit(ph).
TURNER: That's Khalil Sommerville struggling to get through Haida and Tlinglit. But then he does something just as hard - something the Common Core really wants him to be able to do. He answers Ms. Wertheimer's question using evidence from the text.
KHALIL: On page six, paragraph two, the first sentence - the Haida and Tlinglit of the Northwest built permanent wooden homes called longhouses.
TURNER: Khalil flags the word permanent - in other words, not nomadic. What about the Sioux, Ms. Wertheimer asks? Destiny Brown volunteers.
DESTINY BROWN: Page six, on the first paragraph, at the end it says they lived in tents called tipis.
WERTHEIMER: Nicely done. Good job accessing the text.
TURNER: It's clearly tough reading for many of these kids, but going through it together really seems to grab them. Lots of hands shoot up and when Ms. Wertheimer does notice a wallflower, she finds a way to include him. After about 20 minutes, the class breaks into groups.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Oh, no, no, no, let's read "Heading West." Isn't that give us a good clue?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: All right, so...
TURNER: One cluster of 10-year-olds dives into the packet, looking for reasons why African-Americans headed west before and after the Civil War.
NOVAUN LEE: Besides the North, another place that offered safety to slaves was the West. That was easy.
KANDICE NORRIS: They was not illegal in the West and African-Americans could find paid work there.
TURNER: Reason one, says Kandice Norris - paid work. Novaun Lee chimes in with reason two.
NOVAUN: Oh, so there was no - it was illegal to have slavery.
TURNER: Novaun then appoints himself the team stenographer.
NOVAUN: We need a marker or something I can write big with.
TURNER: Ms. Wertheimer walks from group to group, helping and encouraging the kids to show evidence for their answers. She's been teaching for 17 years and says this shift to reading more complex stuff - it's a big difference, but...
WERTHEIMER: I love this.
TURNER: It doesn't matter, she says, if kids don't understand every word.
WERTHEIMER: This pushes them and the high kids aren't bored and the low kids aren't bored and we're all learning about really interesting things.
TURNER: I have to mention something now - Ms. Wertheimer's hair. She has a serious salt-and-pepper bob, but at the bottom is a surprising fringe of dyed-pink hair. It's actually a perfect metaphor for how she and lots of teachers are approaching reading in the Common Core era, not as an either-or proposition. The Core Standards don't say everything kids read has to be salt-and-pepper serious and seriously hard. There's still plenty of room for pink. That's why kids here have leveled libraries. Leveling is an old way of labeling books based on the skill needed to read them. At Watkins, daily independent reading with these books provides a breather from the tough stuff.
TONYAE BUTLER: I have read "James And The Giant Peach," "Matilda."
TURNER: Tonyae Butler loves Roald Dahl. Last year, she plowed through "The BFG," today, "The Witches." She says it's below her level, but who cares? She's having fun. I assume she prefers Dahl to the close-reading binder on her desk. They'll be tackling a tough, new article soon.
Oh, you got it right here.
TONYAE: It's called "The First Peoples." We didn't read it
yet, but she gave it to us to read today.
TURNER: Oh, and you think it looks kind of tough?
TONYAE: I think it looks interesting and tough.
TURNER: To my surprise, Tonyae says one thing can be both. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.