The Joint District 65/202 School Board Committee discussed articulation of the reading curriculum between eighth and ninth grades at its Nov. 15 meeting. Tracy Quattrocki, president of the District 65 School Board, framed the issue: “This came up about a year ago. We were talking in the Joint Committee about changes in the mixed honors curriculum [at Evanston Township High School] and what that would mean for eighth-graders.

“There were some concerns expressed about text complexity in the middle schools and whether or not that was aligned properly with the new, more rigorous standards for freshman year, where all the students participate in reading Homer, Shakespeare,  Dickens and other authors. It seems like a lot of work has been done.”

District 65 Assistant Superintendents Susan Schultz and Ellen Fogelberg and District 202 Assistant Superintendent Peter Bavis summarized some of the steps they are taking to align the reading curriculum of the  Districts. They said they have evaluated the curriculum at eighth and ninth grades, analyzed the required reading at each level, analyzed text complexity at each level, and discussed the idea of stamina, avoiding duplication, page goals, independent reading, writing rubrics and other topics.

Dr. Bavis said 24 Humanities teachers at ETHS met in small groups with District 65 teachers on Oct. 11 to discuss articulation.

Ms. Schultz said one way in which District 65 is aligning with ETHS is the District has “dramatically changed” the way in which independent reading is managed. Under the new approach, teachers work with students to set individual reading goals. When meeting with students, she said, “teachers work with them [students] to move toward increasingly more complex texts in their choice. It’s not a choice to continue to read something at a low level. They are challenged to increase the complexity of the text.”

As part of the process, Ms. Fogelberg said District 65 teachers analyzed the themes taught in the required texts in ninth grade, and they then analyzed the themes taught in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, particularly eighth, to make sure District 65 is covering the kinds of complex themes that are present in the high school texts, so that kids are not getting it for the first time when they get to the high school.

“I think they’re well on the way to increasing the rigor that teachers expect kids to be involved in,” Ms. Fogleberg said.

Ms. Shultz said that last year sixth- seventh- and eighth-graders read 35,000 books in the independent reading program, a “dramatic increase” over prior years.  She said this “will have an impact in their ability to handle increasingly complex texts.”

ETHS teachers said they “want kids to be able to stick with texts,” said Ms. Fogelberg. “They’re concerned we build that stamina and the ability to persist.”

Gretchen Livingston, president of the District 202 Board, said, “The texts the ninth-graders are reading now are at a higher level. How are we reinforcing quality? Are eighth-graders getting exposure to complex texts?” She said she was much more concerned about quality and text complexity than quantity.

Ms. Shultz responded that when teachers meet with students to set reading goals, they work with students to increase the complexity of the texts they are reading.

Ms. Fogelberg described the meetings as “managed choice. … The teacher is trying to up the ante so the next book students read is more challenging. … This would not have happened in the old system,” she said.

Ms. Quattrocki questioned whether students were being challenged enough.  “From what I’ve seen and in my experience talking to parents, I’m not sure students are engaging with as sophisticated texts as they need to. In middle schools, in my experience, they’re not stretching the way they do in freshman year.” She said, “I think there needs to be a little bit more scaffolding going up – I don’t know, maybe more common texts or limiting the choice.”

Ms. Livingston also asked if District 65 students read common novels that are then used as the basis for in-class discussions. District 202 Board member Jonathan Baum followed up saying the discussion experience at ETHS is an essential portion of the experience at ETHS. “There has to be some complex common texts [at District 65] in order for them to have the discussion experience,” he said.

Ms. Fogelberg responded, “There is a common text that’s read every day for the purpose of having a high level critical discussion around challenging themes that are important for kids to understand before they get to the high school. That happens every day.”

When pressed by Ms. Livingston about whether common novels were read, Ms. Fogelberg said the common reading might be an excerpt, or an essay, or a short story.  She said at least one novel is commonly read at each grade level.

Several members of the Committee suggested that the Districts publish a list of common or required texts on their websites. District 65 Board member Candance Chow suggested that District 65 students be required to read three out of 10 challenging books on a selective list, “so each student is meeting the next hurdle.”

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...