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April 2012 Vol. 19. No. 5 Focus on Engaging Curriculum

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Tougher standards, better readers?

A week with a Washington High honors student highlights the hopes and challenges of a national push to deepen adolescent literacy.

By by Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks on Mar 30, 2012 03:34 PM
Photo: Jessica Kourkounis for NewsWorks

Inside George Washington High, senior Zach Morales generally keeps quiet about his love of reading, but privately he is proud of it

What will you read this week? As part of our April print edition on engaging curriculum, the Notebook and NewsWorks took a multimedia peek inside the reading lives of local high school student Zach Morales and School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary

Zach Morales learned early that high school would go more smoothly if he kept certain things to himself.

But privately, the unassuming teen is proud of his passion for reading. So he hesitates for only a moment before opening the door to his small bedroom.

"I have a vast collection of books," says Morales, sweeping an arm towards shelves packed with horror novels, Harry Potter books, and biographies of professional wrestlers.

"Every book in this bookcase, I've actually read," he proclaims.

Listen to more of Zach's story in reporter Benjamin Herold's radio feature.

Morales is a senior honors student at one of Philadelphia's higher-performing neighborhood schools, George Washington High in the Far Northeast. Among Washington's 2,000 or so students, reading isn't exactly a hot topic of conversation.

But policymakers and academics are very interested in what students like Morales read. They argue that high schools across the country aren't pushing even their motivated students to read enough nonfiction, digest difficult texts, or do more than regurgitate information.

"In high school, there's not very much reading at all," says Elizabeth Moje, an expert on adolescent literacy at the University of Michigan. Worse, students "basically can't make meaning of what they have read."

Morales's teachers cite standardized testing and a losing battle with video games, iPods, and social media as barriers to student reading.

Experts cite another culprit: the dumbing-down of the high school curriculum.

That's why many are pushing the new Common Core State Standards, which aim to get students to read more diverse and challenging materials.

Pennsylvania is one of 45 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have signed on.

But a week inside George Washington High with Zach Morales shows just how challenging implementation will be – even in "good" schools.

The 70 percent goal

The hallways at G-Dub, as students call it, teem with urban diversity and adolescent hormones.

To survive, Zach Morales mastered the art of blending in.

He credits Stephen King.

"All of his books are like a godsend to me," says Morales.

The horror author's dark take on human nature has helped Morales to make sense of high school life. When he needs a break, Morales escapes with King's stories, which feed his imagination and help him accept his place in Washington's social hierarchy.

"I'm not anyone that stands out," says Morales. "And I'm not unhappy to say that."

Policymakers acknowledge the important role that novels and other literature play in the lives of young people.

But they stress that in order to succeed in college and careers, students need to read more nonfiction.

"By the time they graduate, [students] should be reading about 70 percent informational texts," says Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Even good students in relatively high-performing schools are a long way from that target, however. Despite being enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes, Morales is assigned relatively little reading from textbooks, research journals, news stories, and technical manuals.

Reading chart

His second period marketing class highlights the challenge of reaching the Common Core's lofty goal for nonfiction reading.

Teacher Albert Brown passes out a thin packet of worksheets. Students are expected to analyze basic data, then read and respond to questions. Many appear either indifferent or lost.

After quickly finishing each section, Morales waits, bored.

No reading homework is assigned.

Brown says it's hard to get most students to read anything, let alone bar graphs.

"They want everything spoon-fed to them," he says.

It's a vicious cycle: Kids aren't exposed to nonfiction, so they're bad at reading it, so teachers are reluctant to assign it.

But CCSSO's Phillips is emphatic: "We're not helping kids by keeping expectations low and then lamenting when they can't meet them."

College material?

Broadcasting an obsession with computer hacking isn't the best way to fly under the social radar of the modern high school.

So for almost a year, Morales read in private about hacker groups like Anonymous.

"I would just think about it all the time," he says.

A few weeks ago, though, Morales got to take his interest public during a presentation to his philosophy class about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Exuding confidence, Morales briefly mentioned SOPA, then enthusiastically filled his classmates in on the details of a recent confrontation between Anonymous and Dana White, the president of mixed martial arts company Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

"White called [Anonymous] 'internet nerds' and told them to bring it on. So they hacked the UFC website and shut it down," Morales delightedly recounted.

Afterwards, he beamed:

"It was so great to get up there and finally inform everybody about what's really going on."

That level of classroom engagement is a rarity for many high school students.

But a closer look through the lens of the Common Core standards reveals another challenge to ramping up the quality of high school reading.

Phillips says high schools should be pushing students to read long, challenging, college-level texts.

But for their class presentation, Morales and his partner visited a Wikipedia page and a couple of websites. The bulk of the information came from Morales's recollection of prior reading.

Christopher Meile, the philosophy teacher, is a dedicated and engaging 10-year veteran, but he's skeptical about using more rigorous texts.

Even if he assigned readings from Plato, says Meile, students "don't really follow it unless you break it down into a lot of little pieces and say this is exactly what [the author] is talking about."

That's precisely what Phillips doesn't want to hear.

"I think it's fair to say that the materials that [high school] students have to read have been dumbed down," says Phillips.

In college, "no one's sitting there helping you decipher words or understand a text," she adds. "You're expected to do it on your own."

Weaving it all together

Ultimately, says Moje, the University of Michigan professor, what matters is what students are able to do with what they read.

On that front, too, there's little disagreement that most U.S. high schools have a problem.

"Being able to make meaning, interpret, [understand] how one text relates to other texts and ideas – that is what our students are not able to do very well," Moje says.

She appreciates the Common Core's intentions but is concerned that teachers won't be given enough supports to effectively implement the new standards.

"We cannot simply say that kids need to read more," she says. "We can't just dump high-level texts, things [students] are reading in graduate school, into high schools."

CCSSO's Phillips acknowledges that the new standards will be a "big change" and that educators will need significant training. She stresses that "there are a lot of people working hard" on implementation, and she cites the acceptance of the Common Core by so many states as reason for optimism.

But in Philadelphia, like many school districts, details on implementation are hard to come by.

"The Common Core is more of the 'what,'" said District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon. "It doesn't tell you how to do it."

She says Philadelphia's approach will be to get state help to train teacher leaders who will then train other teachers.

By then, Zach Morales plans to be in college, studying computer science.

The quiet tenacity Morales has shown in privately pursuing his passions might be the best reason for hope.

While no one was looking, Morales spent the past four years stitching together in his mind all the independent reading he's done – fantasy stories, horror novels, research on hacker groups – to create a vision for his future.

"It gets me excited," he says, "to think that maybe I could be the next big video game designer."

About the Author

Contact Notebook/NewsWorks reporter Benjamin Herold at This Notebook/NewsWorks coverage is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Comments (13)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 2, 2012 8:19 pm

The key to the development of true reading ability lies within the fabric and implications of this article -- and the minds and dreams of our students.

May Zach Morales become the symbol for a new era of interest centered reading development.

And I hope Lorene Cary becomes a vocal leader of a transformation in the way reading is taught and developed in Philadelphia's schools.

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on April 3, 2012 5:28 pm

Thanks as always Rich for the insightful commentary.  I know this topic (high school reading) is right in your wheelhouse - would love to hear further thoughts about the direction the Common Core is taking on this front.

Re: Lorene Cary and transforming the way reading is taught in Philly schools -

She and I did talk a fair amount about how she thinks the SRC's decision-making might make a difference in the classroom.  Here are some excerpts from her:

"I cannot give you an answer that is worthy of that question in an oral soundbite...

That’s part of this education thing, why its so hard. It's one of the most intimate things there is. But we do it big and publicly. But it's really intimately about one person and one other person and their learning...   

One of my great concerns is every time we get a generation of people who are taught to a test or who are not given the luxury of reading, we create a generation of people who grow up without an experience of that joy [of reading] that they then give to somebody else...
I think part of this business is to try to step down from the 'you must do this, you have to do corrective reading that everybody hates'…How do you reading everybody hates? It' s terrible...
It’s the joy in reading [that matters]... You give that skill and the people do with it what they want. I think that’s the thing we want to happen...If you get the joy in the reading, then you have this thing that can affect your mind, your heart, your spirit, your gut, your financial life...The more joy you have, the more engagement you have, the less you need to act out.
it matters that everyone along the chain believes in this and has some joy in it...I'm glad this group of people, the current members of the SRC, are people who understand that."   

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 3, 2012 5:04 pm

You see, there is hope for our children, their teachers and the profession of teaching.

Thanks Ben. Lorene's words warm my heart, and brings back so many fond memories of what it was like to teach small classes in the way we knew was best for children. It was an "intimate thing" and our best reading teachers were the ones who created "that bond" with their students through their teaching that had meaning and relevancy to the students and their lives.

I also appreciate the Great comments of teachers who want to teach the way they know is best. I hope to read 88 more comments to this much needed "collegial discussion."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2012 12:19 pm

Reading is great. I teach seniors in a neighborhood high school and I can say with complete confidence that less than 5% of my students have ever read a novel (Chapter book as they would say) yet they have been promoted to 12th grade and we are trying like mad to get them into college. Once in college they are going to fail because they cannot read at that level. I often think we do these kids a huge disservice by pretending they are college material. But I do not understand why in 12 years we never made them read a book.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 3, 2012 5:16 pm

One of my children is in a middle level Philadelphia magnet school. He has an long term sub for an English teacher. They have not read one book all year. I have spoken with the principal - she is not concerned. If the administration in a school is only obsessed with the PSSA - which is indicated in her letters to parents - then reading is book apparently is only for students in Central and Masterman. While I don't think students have to read a lot of fiction, there are many nonfiction books students should also be reading.

Submitted by hallettfan (not verified) on April 3, 2012 2:39 pm

The problem begins in Elementary School. I teach 5th grade and used to use non-fiction and realistic fiction books to help teach Social Studies and Science. It's the onkly way there is enough time on those two subjects. Concentration on Math and Reading takes 4 hours out of the 6 1/2 hour day. Another 1 1/2 hours are taken up by lunch and prep. That leaves 1 hour for any other subject, copying homework, walking to and from classes, etc.

Redently we were told that in order to make AYP this year, we would have to teach the kids with short passages and no novels or chapter books. This would supposedly make them score better on the PSSA. Gone went Bud, Not Buddy, useful for discussing children's lives during the Drepression, race relations in the 30's, and many other lessons. Gone was Ben and Me, which informed the students in an interesting and useful way about the contirbutions of Ben Franklin. Gone was the author study we always did on Raold Dahl, learning to compare texts, writing style and technique and character traits among other topics. Deliciously, delightfully disgusting stories always pulled the kids in and made them WANT to read.

We always brought thoughtful discussion and critical thinking into it that you cannot do with short passages. How can you get students to love reading longer books on their own if you don't teach them how to do it in school?

But even more important is not promoting students who are more than a year behind grade level. In the elementary schools only 1/4 to 1/3 of my class ever comes to me reading on level.

I hope the situation with reading changes drastically soon. This is one reason why I have decided to retire this year. I cannot teach effectively the way I need to.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on April 3, 2012 3:00 pm

Ben; I really appreciate the graphic "A Week's Worth of Reading". It would have been great to have seen “A Week’s Worth Reading” of other male students. 

I believe Zachary's reading interest says a lot about his identity. Of course to fit the identity of what it means to be male, Zachary, like many males in our schools, have to hide or dismiss reading.

Part of the problem in schools, is that many of the reading tasks do not match the interests or reading ideologies of many of our students, particularly our young men of color. 

Tougher standards that do not address students’ reading interest will not improve students’ outcomes. Hopefully, teachers will be allowed the flexibility to figure out  "how to” leverage the Common Core Standards to engage many of our disengaged students.

Submitted by Benjamin Herold on April 3, 2012 6:13 pm

Thanks Sam.  Really appreciate your insights.

Thought you might be interested in hearing a little more from Zach about reading for interest:

"I think at a young age, kids are trained to dislike read. Because when I was in middle school…we were forced to read. Me, I loved to read, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. But other children, I would hear that they hated reading, they thought it was boring, a chore. It made me feel like at a young age, we’re all trained to dislike reading. And no kids get the advantage of liking reading, unless they’re told by their parents…that reading enriches you and it can be fun. 
Nobody likes to do something when theyre forced to do it…teachers are forcing them to read materials they don’t want to...

When I read about a current topic, I really get obsessed about it if it really interests me a lot...
The whole hacking thing I think really got me..I've grown up on computers. Whenever something computerly comes out, it gives me great satisifaction to learn more about and be informed…I always want justification or answers."

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on April 3, 2012 6:17 pm

Maybe Zach can help us teachers figure out how we can "hack" education.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on April 6, 2012 2:45 pm

Check out this Teachers College Record article the explores the impact "Idenity Theory" has on Reading Instruction.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 6, 2012 6:36 pm

Now you're cookin' Sam! Great article. Good stuff.

Have a Great Easter weekend -- maybe we can start a Rebirth of teaching and learning and research.

Submitted by Joan Taylor on May 13, 2012 2:38 pm

I fear that Philadelphia is once again going to miss the boat when it comes to the Common Core. Until kids are competent readers, what they need to do is pretty simple for the most part: they need to read, and in volume. It doesn't really matter what they read. It's time on task. Practice. We have to relinquish the pipe dream that kids are going to do this practice reading on their own. It just doesn't happen until a kid has hit the point of being a committed reader. Kids need a lot of time to read in school, and they need to be reading books they can read independently when they are reading by themselves. We need to pay attention to the books that kids actually like to read and recommend to one another. That's not to say that we can't introduce new genres or help our students develop more sophisticated thinking skills...but we need to get past a lot of highfalutin nonsense we spout when we talk about expectations. If we ever gave kids the time in school to become good readers, they'd be receptive to a wider range of reading materials. I would suggest fewer reading "activities" and more time reading.

Submitted by Gloria (not verified) on June 5, 2014 3:02 am
The whole thing around reading among our youth is to make them curious about the world around them as soon as possible. Childhood is a great time to discover and learn things! gloria

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