Susan Stornetta: Nevada schools can produce successful students

The Reno Gazette Journal on Nov. 2 reported that, for the fourth year in a row, Nevada students attained the lowest average academic composite score in the nation.

What’s ironic is that when Washoe County School District adopted Common Core Standards in 2011, employee Aaron Grossman already had researched the project and its methods and, with Torrey Palmer and Cathy Schmidt, formed the Core Task Project (CTP). The basic literacy standard required students to read and understand complex fiction and informational texts at or above grade level and they began work on lesson plans to introduce Core’s techniques.

Teachers often encouraged students to respond to readings with personal opinions and experiences. Grammar school children’s voices are immature, and their feelings don’t always help them understand challenging material. They’re building basic knowledge and attitudes in elementary school, despite their emotions, and the lesson plans would reinforce this.

The team invited all 63 Washoe County elementary school principals to send teachers to participate in a pilot project session launching the first literacy lesson. The 18 who attended the session generally were unenthusiastic or even hostile toward the new standards.

This plan stipulated giving no background information to students, who would do a silent “close reading” of a Richard Feynman essay about viewing the world as a scientist. Teachers would then read it aloud and guide discussion so that students pulled facts from the material. Despite fears that students thrown into the deep end would shut down, the plan’s directions worked, and children were excited by discovering answers for themselves. Success was energizing, and teachers requested additional lessons.

Unsurprisingly, criticism was rampant, from educators with entrenched habits, overreacting political hardliners predicting the destruction of democracy, parents envisioning indoctrination or stifling of innovation, teachers dreading “teaching to tests,” and others. By October, school officials were considering disbanding the project.

The team contacted David and Meredith Liben, two Core literacy standards authors. Addressing Washoe County educators, they outlined the strengths of CTP’s lesson plan, a gem from their own school district. A video by David Coleman, lead Common Core author, showed how with “close readings,” discussion, and increasingly complex materials from various fields introduced throughout the first eight grades, students could build a coherent knowledge base. The project was reprieved.

In February 2012, CTP offered another lesson plan, and this time each school responded. The text was Emma Lazarus’ 1887 poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Teachers were dismayed. Many adults would not understand this work with its complex language and unfamiliar references.

Despite misgivings, a Nevada fifth grade class read the poem silently, then heard it aloud. They were to identify the rhyme scheme, using a separate letter for each rhyme. Children struggled, then a “learning-disability” child called out, “It’s a pattern.”

Following the lesson plan, the teacher said that the poem was about two statues. What did it say about them? Two boys, new to English and working together, said, “It’s about the Statue of Liberty,” The teacher asked for evidence, and they cited a line describing a woman carrying a torch. Then, answers began to come from all over the room: “She’s in a harbor” and “There’s two towns.”

This approach makes great sense to me. Kids deserve a chance at success; so many get lost in confused emotions and feelings of failure. If children feel the thrill of discovery, engage in learning and gain self-reliance, we owe it to everyone to facilitate the process. Successful and confident students are better equipped not only to take tests but to develop rewarding lives. Nevada schools can produce these kinds of graduates. CTP’s lesson methods clearly hold promise and should be encouraged in Nevada classrooms.

Natalie Wesler’s new book “The Knowledge Gap” (New York: Avery, 2019) provided this information as she researched these events in Washoe County in 2011.


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