What A Common Core Lesson Sounds Like In A 10th-Grade English Class

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The Common Core State Standards in literacy and math have generated lots of attention and controversy, but what do they look and sound like in a classroom?


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. This morning, we're going to begin taking a closer look at the Common Core. Those are the learning benchmarks in reading and math now used in 43 states and Washington, D.C. The standards are controversial and have also led to big changes in schools. The NPR education team set out to capture the sound of that change. Reporter Becky Vevea of member station WBEZ starts us off in a 10th grade English class in Chicago.

BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: About 30 sophomores file into room 313 in Amundsen High School.

NICOLE MATASSA: All right, ladies and gentlemen. I need everybody's eyes up here, please.

VEVEA: Today, English teacher, Nicole Matassa, is working on this Common Core Standard - analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters and advance the plot or develop the theme. She's holding a reusable grocery bag filled with random stuff from her apartment - a stapler, a bottle of sunscreen, old-school headphones her students barely recognize.

MATASSA: Someone in your group is going to pull out four objects. OK? No peeking, and you are going to talk about, in your group, how each one of those objects could be a representation of a particular character.

VEVEA: The students are about halfway through reading the play "A Raisin In The Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry. Matassa makes her way around the room, and someone from each group reaches into the bag. Student Sara Berrocal pulls out a box of crayons, perfume and a bottle of hot pink nail polish. The girls in her group quickly match each object with a character. Mama Younger is nail polish. Ruth is the perfume.

SARA BERROCAL: Walter, crayons, 'cause he's bipolar

VEVEA: And here comes the tougher part - the part that's a cornerstone of the Common Core.

BERROCAL: So there's on page 72 where, like, Walter comes in...

VEVEA: Citing from the book to back up your opinions. The girls flip through pages while Matassa wanders around the room. She listens in to each group's discussion and chimes in when she thinks they could go deeper.

MATASSA: Yeah, what else is the thing about nail polish? Do you use the same nail polish color all the time?


MATASSA: No? So it doesn't last forever, right? How can we apply that to Mama?

BERROCAL: That she's not going to always be there?

MATASSA: Maybe that's something, right?

VEVEA: I asked student Sara Berrocal why she things Miss Matassa wanted them to do this exercise. Her answer - understanding that people are complicated won't just make her a better reader, it could come in handy in real life, too.

BERROCAL: So maybe I think this is going to help us later on in the future. We could, like - while we're talking to a person face-to-face, like, we could, like, learn two sides of that person. I don't know.

VEVEA: The point, Matassa says, is to help kids think critically in the classroom and everywhere else. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea in Chicago.

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