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Common-Standards Challenge: Engaging in 'Close Reading'

Tampa, Fla.

Chief academic officers from 14 school districts are here to brainstorm their way into a new instructional era: the era of the Common Core State Standards. One of the big questions on their minds is how to engage their teacher corps in professional development that is far more than the typical drive-by session.

To explore what is ahead for teachers, the CAOs spent hours exploring one facet of the common standards: its requirement that students—and teachers—engage in "close reading" of text. Doing that well means a very different kind of instruction from what many teachers are used to.

The discussion about the common core was part of a retreat organized by the Aspen Institute, which facilitates networks of urban school district leaders. To preserve the frank, problem-sharing nature of the discussions, Aspen asked that we report on the issues being discussed without quoting district leaders by name.

Part of the talk here this week included chief financial officers, as well, in conversations about how best to manage district resources as systems strive to implement the common standards and teacher-evaluation systems linked to them.

The CAO-only discussion about common-core instruction, however, focused on the close-reading requirement of the standards. With David Pook, a New Hampshire teacher who helped shape the English/language arts standards, the 14 leaders walked through an example of close reading. They used a selection that one of the network districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., has been using with its 6th graders: an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Russell Freedman's The Voice That Challenged a Nation, which focuses on Marian Anderson's historic recital at the National Mall in 1939.

Unlike a typical lesson, these "students" were asked to read the passage silently, without any context or background knowledge supplied by their "teacher." They explored "text dependent" questions to flesh out the meaning and structure of the passage. Those questions are ones whose answers lie only in the text itself, and that help students make inferences and follow the arguments in it.

Instead of quickly feeding students the answers to the questions they will inevitably have, teachers are going to have to learn a whole new way of working: to "tolerate silences" and take a "let's-find-out" approach, channeling students back to the text for answers, Pook said. This will raise "confidence and stamina issues" for teachers, he said. "We'll have to hold teachers back and push them back to the text," he said.

One district official captured a key shift in the kinds of questions teachers will have to learn how to ask. He pointed to one of the questions, which asked, "What words did Freedman use to characterize what happened next?" He noted that many of his teachers would say they already do this.

"They'll say, 'Yeah, I always ask what happened next,' " he said. "But that's not the question. The question was, 'What words did Freedman use?' "

His colleagues around the table smiled and nodded knowingly. This, they seemed to agree, was the kind of thing that is going to have to be incorporated in teachers' understanding before anyone moves ahead to develop units, curriculum maps, and other resources.

Another CAO noted that many of her district's teachers weren't ever taught the disciplinary content that teaching the new standards requires. Another CAO noted that what is now required of teachers is a "sea change," and he's "really worried" about being able to provide the amount and kind of professional development necessary to bring about the needed shift.

It was clear that these CAOs believe such shifts are righteous and necessary. And they're also cognizant of the heavy lift ahead to get there.

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