Part 2 in a four-part series on reading in the Common Core era.
Linnea Wolters was prepared to hate the Common Core State Standards.
She taught fifth grade at a low-income school in Reno, Nev., where, she says, there was always some new plan to improve things. And none of it added up to good education. But, after leading her class through a Core-aligned lesson — a close reading of Emma Lazarus' sonnet "The New Colossus" — she was intrigued, especially by the way different students reacted to the process.
Many of Wolters' typically low-performing students really engaged with the lesson; they gave it their all. But the higher achievers were resistant, she says.
Other Washoe County teachers who tried early Common Core-aligned lessons with their students noticed this too, says Torrey Palmer, who was a literacy coordinator for the school district.
"High-achieving readers were used to reading very quickly through a text, answering a series of comprehension questions, done," she says. They weren't used to being challenged.
Reno High School is one of the top-performing high schools in Washoe County. Many teachers there were initially resistant to the Common Core. They thought: We already have high standards, no need for new ones.
But the Common Core has been good for Reno High, says Brien Karlin, a U.S. history teacher. "Common Core teaches us to teach students better," he says.
I visited Karlin's American government class earlier this year, on the day they did a close reading of an article by Larry Sabato called "Ban the Gerrymander."
Before Karlin handed out the article, he did a quick review of what students had already learned about gerrymandering — the process of drawing voting districts to favor one political party or the other.
The class spent a few minutes reviewing what the U.S. Constitution says about how voting districts can be drawn, and Karlin showed several slides of congressional districts with odd bulges and bends thanks to the politics of boundary drawing.
In the past, a lecture about boundary politics might have taken up the entire class period. But one goal of the Common Core is for students to spend more time reading and analyzing complex texts. Karlin warned his standard-level class of 11th- and 12th-graders:
"It's at a reading level past graduation from high school, so it may be a little bit challenging," he said. "But I'm a firm believer that you guys are able to do hard things."
With that, Karlin divided the students into small groups, passed out the article, and asked them to read it aloud, together. They then tackled a series of questions that required them to cite evidence for their answers.
The first question: "On line 6, the author uses the phrase 'artificially intensified partisanship.' What does he mean by this?"
One group of students was stumped because they weren't sure of the word "intensified." Without defining it for them, Karlin tried to help.
"If something has been intensified, it's become what?" Karlin asked the group.
"Better!" one student blurted out.
"Not necessarily better," Karlin said.
"I can't think of a word," said the student, her face pinched with frustration.
"If a feeling becomes more intense," Karlin asked, "it's become what?"
"Good. So intensify means 'making stronger.' "
Karlin then moved on to another group struggling with a different question. He says his students aren't accustomed to reading closely like this. Before the Common Core, they were typically asked to read something and summarize it. Or they might have been asked their opinion about a text.
Students love talking about their opinions, says Karlin. "They go crazy on a 'what do you think of ... ' question. That's kind of like their bread and butter as far as skating by," he says. "But when you actually say, 'Identify three specific arguments that Abraham Lincoln was making in the Gettysburg address,' they struggle there."
One of the things Karlin appreciates most about the Core standards is that they've given him new ideas about how to teach without telling him what to do. He wrote the lesson about gerrymandering himself; it doesn't come from a textbook or a curriculum guide or the district office.
For Karlin and other teachers at Reno High, this is one of the best things about Common Core. It's given them common ground to share lessons with each other — and with teachers around the country.
What Do The Kids Think?
Most of the teachers in Washoe County, Nev., are on board with the Common Core. But what about the students?
Several students at Reno High School who were interviewed for this story admitted they'd never heard of the Core until their teacher told them a reporter was coming to ask them about it. But many have noticed a change in the way they've been learning over the past few years.
"We're doing more reading in my physics class, and we're doing more analysis in my history class," 12th-grader Maddi Eckert says. "The way that we're learning now, it seems to encompass so many more different levels of thought."
Ania Cavillo-Mason says she really liked the close-reading lessons. She remembered using the technique in advanced classes early in high school, but in standard-level classes, lectures and note-taking were far more common.
"It's like you're just getting the basics of everything," she says of lectures. "You're getting, like, a term and a definition and one example, maybe."
But she says close reading is different.
"It feels like the point is to actually learn something and to actually gain something from it," says Cavillo-Mason. "You have to use your brain, and you have to struggle a little bit to figure it out. Once you do, you've actually gained something from it."
Once Those Assessments Come Out
Linnea Wolters is now an implementation specialist for the Washoe County School District; she works with teachers across the district as they try to put the Common Core into practice.
She believes the Core is improving education in Washoe County. She says most kids — high achievers and low achievers — are more engaged in school now.
"You can feel in a classroom when kids care about what they're doing," she says. "You can't learn when you don't care. And if you can create environments where students care deeply about what they're doing, learning will follow," she says.
But, she adds, "I don't have a number to support that."
Much of what happens in education these days comes down to numbers. In other words, test scores. Students in Nevada take their first fully-aligned Common Core tests this spring. Wolters and others are anxious about how students will do.
"Once those scores come out, then systems do crazy things to respond and react to them," says teacher Torrey Palmer.
"My hope is that when the test matches great teaching," Wolters says, "and the teaching produces great thinking, that it will all work itself out."
This story originally appeared as part of American RadioWorks' "Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core."