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What Does A Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?

As we're detailing this week, teachers and school leadershave a lot of work to do to adopt curricula aligned with the new Common Core State Standards.

In the Internet era, the best resources should be able to easily leap political boundaries and get into the hands of teachers across the country. But reading and digesting the standards and determining what lessons best fulfill them is a big, big job. And as a result, the media discussion of the Common Core — and thus its political chances — has been influenced bya few pieces of math homework that weren't, frankly, particularly high quality, or necessarily well-aligned.

Some folks are taking it upon themselves to independently review and rate individual high-quality Core-aligned lessons and make them easier to find. The experts we talked to pointed in particular to three such efforts: a project called EQUIP (Educators Evaluating Quality Instructional Products), that's an initiative of Achieve, a nonprofit involved in writing the standards; EngageNY, run by the New York State Department of Education; and the instructional materials review from Louisiana's Department of Education.

Each of these efforts is on the small side — EQUIP features just 22 exemplar units or lessons, all open-licensed and free to use — and it doesn't have the marketing muscle of the curricula designed by the big textbook companies. But what it does have is the informed opinions of teachers and former teachers.

"The bottom line is that there is not a ton out there that is truly aligned, rigorous and high quality," said Kate Gerson, who works with EngageNY as a research fellow and is a former classroom teacher. "So you have to be very, very careful about what you use."

I asked Gerson to walk me through one of the lessons featured on her site, as a way of getting super-specific about what makes a good Common Core- aligned lesson. She chose a lesson designed for the first day of ninth-grade English. And so, with Gerson as our guide, we'll be doing a close reading of a close reading.

Are you keeping the goal where it was and helping students get there or are you lowering the bar?That's a deep question.

'St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves'

The text for the lesson is a short story by Karen Russell,"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves." It's a magical realist take on a coming of age story, featuring werewolves being domesticated into proper young ladies.

"It's a gorgeous text by a young, brilliant writer," says Gerson.
"The first couple pages are so thick and complex. It's a very challenging read for students."

The story hits the three main points that Gerson says the Common Core standards are looking for. The first, and most important, is that it's complex enough to be a challenge for freshmen. Students are typically going to be encountering stories a year or two earlier than they did under old standards, which means the books may need to be screened for provocative material as well.

The second is the "canon." That's a nebulous concept in any age. But Russell's work meets recognized benchmarks for literary quality — her debut novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and she's the winner of a 2013 MacArthur grant. Being new is good, too. "The phrase 'contemporary authors' is in the standards in multiple places," Gerson says. This story was originally published in 2007.

Finally, including work by a younger, female writer meets the standards' call for diversity of all kinds.

Words In Context

The lesson outlines clearly which standard will simply be covered (citing textual evidence, RL.9-10.1), and which will be directly assessed (determining meaning of words in context, and how they contribute to tone, RL.9-10.4).

The students actually start by reading and discussing the standards themselves. The teacher passes out a list of all the standards, and they focus on the ones they'll be learning that day. Gerson says discussing the standards is not necessarily part of the standards. But generally it's part of good pedagogy — "to name the goal, tell students what you're asking them to accomplish."

Then, it's time to read. "It's a good lesson for Day One because there's not a lot of screwing around," says Gerson. "Open the book, let's talk about it."

At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy. We forgot the barked cautions of our mothers and fathers, all the promises we'd made to be civilized and ladylike, couth and kempt. We tore through the austere rooms, overturning dresser drawers, pawing through the neat piles of the Stage 3 girls' starched underwear, smashing light bulbs with our bare fists. Things felt less foreign in the dark.

First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud. "There is an orientation aspect," says Gerson. "We're going to do this new thing" — understand vocabulary in context, cite textual evidence — "and we're going to get smarter at it as the year goes on."

Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words. They write the definition of new words on Post-It notes. Forty percent of the class time — the biggest chunk of the lesson — is spent this way. This is crucial, Gerson says: "The biggest change [with the Core] is that we as teachers must get smarter about how to construct learning experiences where students are doing more work than we are."

Speaking from her own experience as an English teacher, she said, the tendency all too often has been to instead spend class time "performing" literature — spelling out the subtext, defining tough words before students have a chance to puzzle over them, and advertising key plot points like the voiceover on a Bravo reality show.

Introducing the standards will ideally refocus English class. "The goal has moved from getting the salient points in the narrative to getting better at reading," says Gerson.

Hermione Granger Syndrome

This sounds obvious. We don't go to school to be able to recite the plot points of an arbitrary short story.

Yet in practice, English teachers often spend their time in conversation with "the three or four highest-performing students in the room," Gerson says, while others, at best, passively absorb the main ideas of a text.

Everyone who's ever read Harry Potter knows this was a problem with a certain teacher's pet at Hogwarts, too.

"I call it Hermione Granger syndrome, and it's something I absolutely did as a teacher," Gerson says. "You are so excited and want to make sure they see everything that's cool about the text. ... We can be dazzled by that discourse, that Socratic experience."

One major strategy the standards introduce is for teachers to get out of the students' way and not to make it too easy on anyone. "It's very common to want to protect, advocate, support and ensure the comfort of students that are struggling," Gerson says. "What all the research is telling us is that we must create content where there is a productive struggle ... where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else."

That can be a tall order. In a recent survey of 20,000 teachers, 73 percent said they taught students whose reading levels spanned four or more grades.

Read To Write

After they have gotten to know the story well, students pair up to tease out the meaning of words like lycanthropic, couth and kempt.

They finish the day with a "quick write" where they use evidence from the text to relate the story's epigraph to its first paragraph. This short composition will be the assessment of standard 9-10.4.

The Common Core Standards have been criticized for being unrealistically tough. In the two states that have started giving Core-aligned tests, test scores initially dropped 25 to 30 percentage points. Gerson acknowledges that this lesson, as great as it is, is a lot to tackle on Day One. Traditionally, teachers might use that first English class for expectation setting, talking about rules, maybe a little writing assignment about what you did over the summer.

"This lesson was built for students who are ready for ninth grade, and so few are today," says Gerson. "Teachers are finding they have to go slower-- it takes two to three days to complete a lesson."

However, she says, teachers have to watch out for modifications that do the work for students — playing an audiobook instead of asking them to read, for example.

This is getting to the heart of what it means to have standards — how can you maintain the same expectations for all students and involve them each in learning when they are starting from such different places?

"Are you keeping the goal where it was and helping students get there or are you lowering the bar?

That's a deep question."

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.