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09.10.13A Few Minutes with Kathleen Porter-Magee

college boardThe premise of Teach Like a Champion you could argue is: When in a pickle, ask a great teacher.  All of the useful ideas in it, I borrowed from people who are smarter than me.  I’m not really a huge policy guy but really it’s hard to ignore policy when you’re in education. It’s everywhere.  So with policy I do what I did with TLAC. I find really smart people and adapt and apply their ideas.  One of the folks I admire most is Kathleen Porter-Magee.  I find her sensible, reliable, all about rigor and, while not the sort to go hunting a confrontation, she’s not afraid of being unpopular if necessary.  All of which is a fancy way of saying that I read her blog and often say to myself, “Yup, that’s what I think.”

Kathleen and I correspond occasionally to talk teaching and reading especially.  Recently she announced that she’s taking a new job so I asked her if I could “interview” her… basically ping her with a bunch of questions about literacy, teaching and the Common Core.  PS, as I noted in my chat with her, I am going to have t-shirts made with a quote from her blog about the Common Core printed on them: “Commonness is only a good thing if we have excellence first.” Lemme know if you want one.

Interview’s below



DL: Tell me a bit about your move to the College Board? What drew you and why?

KPM: Since I graduated from college, my career has straddled policy and practice, and I hope it always will. I started as a classroom teacher, and have been fortunate to work on both the policy side and to work directly in schools on curriculum and professional development. Each of these opportunities has broadened my perspective and taught me so much about how we can best serve students, particularly our most disadvantaged students. It’s funny, though: while I may be switching seats, the work I’ll be doing at the College Board doesn’t feel altogether that different from the work I was doing at Fordham. At Fordham, I was able to research and write about issues related to standards, curriculum, and instruction–and most recently to follow the Common Core adoption and implementation very closely. At The College Board, I will continue much of that work, but will be able to link it more directly with classroom-level instruction. And that is where my passion lies–at the intersection of what’s happening in the classroom and how we can craft policies that encourage excellence without stifling teacher and principal autonomy and flexibility.

DL:  But you’ll still be blogging right?

KPM: Absolutely. I’m really grateful to be staying on at Fordham as a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow. I didn’t appreciate before I started blogging how personally useful I would find it. Being forced to put pen to paper really helps me clarify my own thinking, and it encourages me to research and read more widely so that I can really stay on top of a breadth of issues. I’ve learned a ton from the experience, and I hope to continue it for a long time.

DL:  A few months ago you told me you were yearning to be in the classroom again. Can you talk a bit about your time in the classroom? What do you remember about it?  What makes you want to go back?

KPM: I’ll always miss teaching, for lots of reasons. First, I just love kids; always have. And there is nothing like being able to work with students every day. They ground you and keep you connected to what’s real and what’s most important.

I also crave going back into the classroom because I want to reconnect the policy work I’ve been doing for the past several years to real-world implementation. I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some of the most effective and committed educators, and they’ve really helped push my picture of instructional excellence. I have a different–probably a more mature–approach to planning and instruction. And I look forward to the day when I can go back to the classroom for another round.

DL:  So let’s talk about Common Core a bit.  If you were (still) an English teacher, let’s say at the middle school level, what are 2 or 3 concrete things you’d do to align to CC?

KPM:  If I was an English teacher in the Common Core world, I would do (at least) three things differently. First, I would work to make sure the text was the center of my planning and instruction. For too long, and in too many classrooms, we’ve let great books take a back seat to reading skills and strategies. We’ve believed that we can help students improve their comprehension by mastering the habits and practices of “good readers,” hoping that mastering those skills and using the same strategies would make them more proficient readers. Of course, learning skills and practicing strategies is useful, but the Common Core usefully pushes us to put skills in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, rather than as an end in themselves.

I think one of the most powerful statements in the Common Core comes on page 8 where the introduction explains: “The Reading standards place equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read.” In other words, yes, great readers do employ specific strategies and do demonstrate mastery of particular skills. But, it’s not the skills that make us better readers, but rather by practicing those skills in the context of complex texts—and texts that are worth reading—that we can help students expand their vocabulary and push their comprehension.

Second—and relatedly—I would focus far more time and attention to writing great, text-dependent questions. I worry that we don’t spend enough time writing questions for our literature lessons. We focus instead on things like finding engaging (and hopefully effective) activities. But I think the Common Core challenges us to think more deeply and explicitly about the questions we ask. Do they push students back into the text, or do they take us away from the text? Will answering the question enhance and/or require student comprehension of the book—the character’s development, the vocabulary, the setting—and specific passages within it.

Finally, I would think more carefully about text sequencing. I think that, when we think about how to help students understand a text, we often think about how to scaffold individual texts. The Common Core acknowledges the essential link between content knowledge and reading comprehension and, in doing so, challenges us to think about scaffolding differently. Because we know that a student is better able to understand a complex text if s/he is familiar with the topic discussed and the vocabulary used we need to think much more deliberately about how to carefully select and weave together texts within each unit.  For example, if I plan to use a very complex novel as the capstone for a unit, I can use what I know about my students—how much they’re likely to know about the topic being addressed, how familiar they’ll be with the vocabulary, etc.—and work to carefully select a series of shorter essays, poems, and passages that introduce students to the topics, themes, and vocabulary that they’re most likely to struggle with later. And, more than that, as I plan my questions for each piece, I can be more deliberate about drawing students’ attention to the vocabulary and content that I know they’ll need for the capstone text.

In my view, thinking about planning, instruction, and reading comprehension this way is a game changer. In the past, we’ve thought about reading comprehension independent of content and vocabulary—and we’ve spent inordinate amounts of time trying to identify student reading levels and practice reading strategies. And, while well-intentioned, I worry that these activities have distracted us from what should be the most important aspect of reading and literature class: actually reading great literature.


DL: A lot of the design principles behind the Common Core are actually intended to be teacher friendly—having fewer standards, for example.  Looking at it rationally, what’s potentially good for teachers here?

KPM:  Before the Common Core, so many state standards suffered from the “everything but the kitchen sink” problem. They were hundreds of pages long and included anything and everything you might possibly consider teaching. The problem, of course, is that including everything is as good as including nothing. In order for standards to be practical, they have to prioritize what’s most essential and they have to be teachable. I think the fact that the CCSS are written in clear, jargon-free, teacher-friendly language, and the fact that it’s possible to actually teach what’s included within a school year makes it far more likely that teachers will use these to drive instruction.

DL:  I read your blog all the time and especially loved your assertion that commonness is only a good thing if we have excellence first. In fact I’m having a t-shirt made up with that phrase on it.  Can you discuss that idea bit?

KPM:  Ha! What a compliment.  Thank you!  I guess, my worry is that the “commonness” of the Common Core has become the focus of a lot of the conversation. But, as we know, this is not our nation’s first attempt to adopt a set of common standards. In the early 1990s, as we know, there was an attempt to create “national” standards. Because the goal was for the standards to be national, quality suffered. The resulting standards were watered down and low-quality. And, they were uniformly rejected by the states.  While there are many supporters of the Common Core who also support the idea of national standards, the goal here was to create a set of clear, rigorous, quality standards. The fact that so many states adopted them is, in my view, great for kids and teachers, but it wasn’t the primary goal. At least not from my perspective.


DL:  One of the key tenets of the CC that I know we both agree on is the idea that it will create incentives for students to read harder, more rigorous, more challenging texts.  Why is that so important to you? And play arm chair quarterback- what are some of the texts you hope get read more often.

KPM:  In the end, the “content” of reading and literature class is not the skills that students use and learn, but the texts that they read. There is no point in helping our students become “good readers” if we don’t read together, carefully, and with reverence, great books. And more importantly, there is simply no way to become a good reader without reading great books, articles, essays, poems, and so on. There is abundant research that demonstrates that reading comprehension depends not on mastery of isolated skills, but on knowledge of vocabulary and content. Yet, over the past several years, the idea that we can improve reading comprehension by feeding students a diet of “just right” texts and by teaching them transferrable reading skills and strategies has gained popularity. And in our push to improve reading comprehension through skills-driven instruction, we’ve slowly marginalized the texts themselves; we’ve made the texts students read secondary to the skills they practice.

The reason I’m so bullish on the Common Core is that they seek to right this wrong. Unlike just about any of the state standards they’ve replaced, the CCSS explicitly “place equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read.” In other words, the CCSS seek to bring the text back to the center of reading and literature class.

What books do I want to see more of in the classroom? It’s a very personal decision that needs to be driven by teachers, parents, and school leaders—which is precisely why the Common Core doesn’t dictate what books students should read at each grade level. But, I certainly hope that the Common Core brings a renewed focus on classical literature. And, as a lover of literary nonfiction, I hope that we see a more intense focus on things like America’s founding documents and some of our nation’s greatest historical speeches and essays. These are works that not only have the benefit of teaching important content, but that also bestir a love of reading and push critical thinking. That is, when we let our conversations be driven not by our interpretations of what these documents mean, but by what the texts actually say.

DL:  You’re also a mom to a couple of budding readers. How do you think about the Common Core as a parent?

KPM:  You know, I live in Virginia, one of the few non-CCSS states. I wish Virginia had adopted the standards because I think they’re a force for good, particularly in Reading, where I think the time has come to refocus our attention on what’s most essential. But, at the very least, I hope that the movement to put prioritize and focus, and to put great literature back at the center of our curriculum and instruction will impact what’s happening here as much as anywhere else.


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