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.
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