Good reads

How one Nashville school uses classic novels to get young students ahead in reading

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

For John Little, the hardest part about reading The Magician’s Nephew as a second-grader wasn’t the book’s mid-century British vocabulary, or the fact that the C.S. Lewis classic is on a fifth-grade reading level.

It was the temptation to read ahead of his classmates at Nashville Classical Charter School.

“That would spoil it!” said the 8-year-old, referring to daily group book discussions that he enjoyed last spring at his K-5 school.

At Nashville Classical, reading the classics is foundational to the school’s philosophy on learning to read — and reading to learn.

“For us, it’s important for students to be reading across a variety of genres, a variety of cultures, for students to be reading across a variety of times,” said Charlie Friedman, the school’s founder and leader.

Magician’s Nephew is a really wonderful book,” he added, “because it’s full of all of these phrases that are sort of mid-century British phrases, and it forces students to step out of our time, culture and place and read something that really opens doors and windows to them.”

Nashville Classical was borne out of concern that 75 percent of its neighborhood public school students were behind in reading. Friedman and community activists partnered with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2012 to open the charter school with literacy proficiency at its core. It now has about 375 students.

While the world is changing quickly, Nashville Classical leaders believe that reading the classics is one of the best ways to prepare for college and career. Such texts are challenging to students and build their knowledge about geography, history and culture, they say.

The idea is that learning to read goes beyond sounding out words; it’s also about learning about different people, places, and ideas.

But that mindset also has critics. Much of classic literature lacks racial and gender diversity to the point that it’s sometimes characterized as stories about “dead white men,” especially concerning for a school that serves mostly minority students from low-income families.

Friedman says teachers at Nashville Classical draw from a deep well of texts and resources and strive to make the material relevant to their students.

“We really think about it more as stories and ideas that have stood the test of time and those come from a variety of cultures,” he said. “We think it’s really important that our canon represents our students. At the same time, we think that text selection should be a mirror and a window.”

During the first half of the school year, John’s second-grade class used the Core Knowledge curriculum, which was briefly used district-wide in Nashville more than a decade ago before being scrapped because it didn’t align to state tests at the time. The curriculum was designed by American educator and literary critic E.D. Hirsch to address “knowledge gaps,” a challenge that can be particularly acute for low-income children who have less access at home to books and other enriching activities. The second half of the year focused on reading and discussing novels such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, the Boxcar Children series and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing.

The novels for second-graders are selected to be enjoyable reads, but also to introduce students to cultural vocabulary that they might not encounter elsewhere, as well as geographical landmarks far from Tennessee, like Central Park in New York City.

Students are broken into groups based on how well they can do things like read aloud, write out their answers, or read to themselves. To an outside observer, it’s unclear how the students are grouped, or which groups are more advanced, but it’s based on scores from a literacy assessment designed for urban educators by the University of Chicago.

Kathleen Cucci reads "The Magician's Nephew," by C.S. Lewis, to second grade students at Nashville Classical Charter School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Kathleen Cucci reads aloud to her students during group time.

In John’s group with teacher Kathleen Cucci, students took turns reading aloud to one another, and were urged to read with expression.

“We believe really deeply in the power of reading aloud,” Friedman said. “It’s an opportunity to model joy, and to model reading as a social activity, which is really important to us.”

In another group, teacher Emma Colonna read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing aloud to students who were struggling to comprehend the material after reading it silently to themselves. Then they talk together about what happened.

Still another group was free that day to pick out their own books from nearly 500 volumes in bins lining a classroom wall.

“The purpose is giving autonomy and choice over what they read, and letting them read their favorite authors or series about their favorite topics,” Friedman said. “Reading for pleasure is how you develop that lifelong love for reading.”

Reading, especially in the early grades, is a statewide focus in Tennessee. State tests show that more than half of third- and fourth-graders are behind on reading skills. And on the most recent test known as the Nation’s Report Card, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders earned a proficient reading score.

But the state is also making strategic investments through Ready to be Ready, an initiative launched last year through the State Department of Education that highlights many techniques already in use at Nashville Classical. Those include an emphasis on reading aloud and picking material that’s fun for students to read. The goal is to get 75 percent of third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich/Chalkbeat
John Little reads a story at the 2016 kickoff of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Recognized as an exceptional reader, John Little was part of last year’s kickoff event for Read to be Ready. He even read a story to the crowd, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

On average, Nashville Classical students score better than 77 percent of students nationwide on the NWEA/MAP reading test required in many Tennessee districts. And according to to the STEP assessment designed by the University of Chicago, 91 percent of the school’s students read at or above grade level.

The school has some advantages over other Tennessee public schools. Parents have bought into the model and chosen to send their children to the charter school. While about 70 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and about 80 percent are of color, many families who are white and middle income are also choosing Nashville Classical, making it one of the most diverse schools in rapidly gentrifying East Nashville.

Eventually, the school is slated to expand to the eighth grade. And as it grows, literacy, with a focus on canonical novels, will be at its core, says Friedman. Next school year, all Nashville Classical students will take a daily “Great Books” class modeled after the reading discussions in John’s class.

“We want to push a love of reading from the moment they enter kindergarten,” said Colonna. “It’s not something you ever teach explicitly. It’s something we try to have as our culture.”

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.