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Don't Gamble With Our Kids

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Following is a guest post by Sarah Yost, a 2013 -2014 Hope Street Group teacher fellow, who teaches 8 th grade English Language Arts at Westport Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky.

As a middle school teacher, my days are often filled with the oscillating drama of adolescence - the lows and highs of weeklong romance, intense friendship and betrayal, moving compassion, cruel bullying, impassioned fights for justice, thrilling break throughs with "Eureka!" moments, as well as painful insecurity, shame and self-doubt. Navigating the world of the pre-teen requires a strong stomach, and learning to guide those young travelers through its rough waters will earn a land-lover her sea legs.

Because this is the tumultuous world I inhabit, the happenings in Frankfort don't always register on my radar. -Recently, however, I heard about House Bill 215, which seeks to repeal the Kentucky Core Assessment Standards (KCAS) and was immediately shaken. Only proposed legislation so dangerous could pull my attention from my classroom and inspire in me a need to act immediately. Why my concern over HB 215? Because this bill has the power to harm my students, and they--not mere ideology--are what the fight is all about for me.

Before KCAS was implemented, English Language Arts (ELA) in Kentucky was a much softer subject, and one that was not successfully preparing students for college or careers in great enough numbers. The former ELA standards in Kentucky concerned genre and process, rather than defining actual skills the students needed to be able to master. In our district, writing and reading classes were divorced from one another. In isolated writing classes, we taught six six-week units and centered each unit around a different genre - poetry, memoir, feature article and so forth. The writing we did was creative and process-driven in the best classrooms, but did little to prepare students for the types of writing that would be required of them in high school and college. It helped them explore a sense of self and share their experiences, but more challenging skills like literary analysis or nuanced arguments were left for the high school teachers to start teaching from scratch.

Reading classes were grouped by ability in our district, and the classes for lower readers followed strictly scripted textbook programs that included low-level passages aligned with their low-level reading skills. Poor readers never experienced grade-level texts, and on the rare occasions that they did, we read the information aloud and interpreted it for them. Without independent practice, these students continued to fall farther and farther behind their peers. Without success, these students learned to believe they could not handle grade-level reading. I feel guilty when I think about the students in my first few years of teaching, because I know I did not do everything I could have done to support their academic success. I did not teach them how to think for themselves. As a teacher of low-income, inner-city students, I cannot afford to return to the days of low expectations. There is too much at stake.

With the KCAS came critical changes to the ELA curriculum and to my instruction. Reading and writing have been reunited into one inseparable subject, and I now teach kids to write and develop analyses of their reading that pushes their thinking to uncomfortable levels. As students work through this discomfort, neural pathways are created and reinforced that will support growth and development throughout their lives. Where before, I wanted to shelter lower-performing students from the pain of intellectual struggle, now--with the KCAS and its instructional shifts--I know that without that struggle there can be no growth; and I'll be there to support them all the way through to mastery.

Some students still need and receive a second literacy class where they get extra help and work with texts at their reading levels. The KCAS has not taken these interventions away, but rather given all students the opportunity to experience rigorous, complex texts in their primary ELA classes. Now all students are held to rigorous, skill-based standards. Expectations have been raised for all students and all teachers, and that is a good thing. We rise to the expectations that are set by our leaders, be they parents, teachers, administrators, or policy makers.

Some have made the argument that KCAS limits the classic literature students read. In middle school, I have found the opposite to be true. While there is a shift toward informational reading, the shift includes science and social studies classes. The standards call for more reading of complex texts in those subjects, so that the balance of informational to literary reading is equal. ELA teachers have more choice under KCAS in designing curriculum that uses complex texts for their students, because teachers are no longer bound to a textbook or basal reader. Now teachers can find the texts that capture their students' interests and reveal the beauty and power of the written word on rigorous levels. My students read more classic literature now with the KCAS than they did in our district's ReadXL program, and their literary analysis essays prove they are mastering high school level reading and writing skills.

The Kentucky Core Academic Standards for ELA have transformed my instruction and given my students the opportunities they deserve to be prepared for high school when they leave my classroom. I feel far more confident that I am teaching my students to think for themselves, graduate high school, and be college or career ready when they do so. Please don't allow the political ideology of a few to damage the progress we're making for all Kentucky students.

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