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Watching North Star Academy Teach Shakespeare

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by Doug Lemov, managing director of Uncommon Schools and author of Teach Like a Champion 2.0. He can be found on Twitter at @Doug_Lemov.

I spent several hours yesterday observing English classes at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark. I observed four classes. From an instructional perspective, it was a breathtaking experience, and it previewed several of the key topics I am writing about with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway in our forthcoming book Reading Reconsidered.

First of all, students were reading Shakespeare, in the original, in every class. This was a school-wide initiative, literacy coordinator Steve Chiger noted, as the year is going to end with various performances of the Bard's plays. But, on the day we observed Shakespeare, there was rigorous textual analysis and discussion. We got to see Beth Verrilli close reading Iago's soliloquy from the end of act 1 scene 3 of Othello. Her 12th graders were tearing the text apart, unpacking the imagery of greed, innuendo and deceit, line by line. "Who is Iago talking about here?" Beth asked, boxing the first lines where Iago describes his scorn for Rodrigo without naming him. "How do we know? What tells us that? What motifs from the first act does it recall that he calls him a 'fool' and a 'snipe' but never uses his name? As she did this, she cold-called students and they energetically and gamely weighed in—every one of them. It was perhaps the most rigorous and inspiring close read of Shakespeare I can recall seeing.

Meanwhile, Mike Taubman said almost nothing. His students were doing all of the talking. They were having a "college-style seminar" on King Lear. The expectation was that they would talk to each other about the text using evidence and strong arguments and that they would focus on developing one another's ideas. He evaluated their discipline, focus, insight, and evidence in developing one another's ideas. Here was his rubric for scoring their comments. During the discussion, he never gave his opinion about Lear. He gave students feedback on their discussion to help them stay "inside the box." "Here's what Tanesha just did," he said at one point. "She took two potentially opposing definitions of the idea of truth from the text, and she asked us to define truth or clarify which one we were talking about. That's an outstanding move. So.... what's the answer to her question?"

Meanwhile, Matt McCluskey and Kate Whitehead were tearing apart Macbeth and Hamlet, Matt asking students to interpret Claudius's speech at the beginning of the play, and reframing their initial interpretations but focusing them on his line "With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage," and Kate asking students to read Hamlet's first soliloquy and identify lines they thought were most worthy of analysis and to explain, in writing, why.

It was an all-around clinic on what high expectations can look like in literacy classrooms. And on what those expectations can do: recently 75% of students scored a 3 or higher on an AP exam, North Star's college placement results look like this, and their mean SAT score is above the national average despite a population of students that some would write off—almost entirely poor kids, almost entirely kids of color, many from single-parent families. You know: those kids. 

As for us, the lessons we observed will help inform chapters in our book on key tenets of the instruction we saw: Close Reading (how to read very challenging text and understand not just its "gist" but its substance and nuance in detail, line-by-line) and Intellectual Autonomy (how to teach and support students in generating their own questions and interpretations). But one more idea from our book was perhaps the most dominant presence throughout the school, albeit a quiet one: Text Complexity.

On the bookshelf in the back of Kate's classroom, for example, were stacks of To Kill a Mockingbird and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Mike's classroom were Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. When you go to North Star College Prep High School and your teachers believe you are going to college no matter whether you are poor or what work your parent does or doesn't do, the expectations show up in what you read. You read complex, challenging text. You read text that familiarizes you with one of the fundamental experiences of going to (or preparing for) college: reading above your comfort level. 

This is interesting because for many years in this country the narrative became, never give a student a book above his or her reading level. Never risk introducing frustration. If there are more than five words he doesn't know on a page, it's too hard. And the result has been kids who cannot read what they read at North Star. Or what they'll need to read in college. The better solution is to teach students to read the most challenging text (i.e., to close read it as Beth did) and to love it (through discussion like Mike's and dramatic readings like Matt used) and to write about it (as Kate did). It can be done, of course, and if we are going to be serious about poor and minority kids having the same shot to not only get into but succeed in college as their more privileged peers, we're going to have to up our game on text complexity. If you go through high school having never read a book more than 100 years old and arrive on campus only to be handed John Donne or the Constitution of the United States or Origin of Species, you don't have a chance. Reading complex text with students, challenging them to read above their comfort zone, and teaching them how to do that—those are things a great school does. We can't wait to describe more about how to do that in our book, but in the meantime I want to make the case for challenging text here. There's a lot of backlash against the Common Core, but concerns about implementation and testing aside, the core of its argument in ELA—the core of the Core—is that students need to read—and close read—more challenging text. This is one of the most important single arguments in education today.

--Doug Lemov

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