On Dec. 3, the District 65 School Board took a look at the middle school literature and language arts curriculum, with a focus on its alignment with the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), text complexity, and the type of texts used as a basis for whole class discussions.

Demetra Disotuar, literacy coordinator for the District, told Board members, “We are in our second year now of implementing a fully-aligned common core reading curriculum and writing curriculum. It’s rooted in best practices that answer the demands of the common core in reading, writing, language, speaking and listening.”

“The Common Core State Standards reflect a rigorous set of expectations and goals for today’s learners,” said Ms. Disotuar in a report provided to the Board. “The standards focus on critical thinking skills through close analysis of text, intentionally diverse reading and writing experiences, and deliberate and evaluative discussions anchored within the text.”

Assistant Superintendent Ellen Fogelberg summarized three major changes brought about by the CCSS. First, she said the CCSS “talk very specifically about the amount of informational text reading that is supposed to be done within the language arts curriculum.” Ms. Disotuar’s report says by eighth grade, 45 percent of a student’s reading is to have a literary focus and 55 percent is to have an informational focus.

“Another shift, Ms. Fogelberg said, “is the elevation of argument writing and bringing that to the forefront.” The report says by eighth grade, 35 percent of the writing is to persuade, 35 percent is to explain, and 30 percent is to convey an experience (narrative).

“The third big change,” said Ms. Fogelberg, “is the role that discussions have. The common core raises disucussion up to being on par with reading and writing.”

“It’s getting kids ready for 21st Century skills,” said Ms. Fogelberg, “so they’re able to be part of a team of persons that is able to work together, talk together, solve problems together and develop common understandings.”

The Curriculum

The District’s core curriculum consists of six units of study that expose students to short stories and drama, fiction with a nonfiction research project, poetry and fiction, argument and research, and a differentiated novel connected to social studies content.

The units of study are built around essential questions that help students understand themes that commonly transcend all literary works, such as, “How does adversity influence us?” (6th grade), “How can a person’s decisions and actions change his or her life?” (7th grade), and “Is it more dangerous to stay silent or speak up?” (8th grade).

The students begin by reading a “mentor text,” which may be a short story, an article, a poem, a short story, an excerpt and the teacher instructs them in a class-wide setting on how to dissect and analyze the text. The text may be read multiple times to “extract deeper and deeper layers of meaning and also to look back at the author’s craft, and examine what did the author do really make the piece of text readable, or interesting, or engaging, or complex,” said Ms. Disotuar.

Rebecca Condon, an eighth-grade teacher at Haven, gave an example where students are asked to read an argument  from Time Magazine. “Students are asked to evaluate the author’s claim, whether the argument is fallacious, whether the evidence cited by the author is relevant or irrelevant, whether the argument is sound – which is pretty sophisticated thinking for an eighth-grader.” She said. “This is something I’ve seen a shift in.”

She added that teachers at Evanston Township High School “are actually having to change their curriculum a little bit and raise the rigor because their students are coming in with more knowledge and better understanding.”

Katie Lange, an eighth grade teacher at Chute, said another big shift is the extent of the literary analysis done through the close reading of the texts. She said literary analysis is done in five of the six units of instruction.

Students then use what they have learned in reading and apply it by writing in the genre in which they have read. Students “look at what the author is doing in [a text they have read] and then apply the strategies in their own writing” said Ms. Disotuar. “They’re trying to mirror the author’s craft in their own writing.” When analyzing a text, a big part of CCSS is for students to provide evidence from the text in their analysis, she added.

Another important part of the curriculum is independent reading, for which students set their own goals and teachers encourage students to read increasingly challenging and diverse texts. Teachers can work with students individually or in small groups to help them apply the strategies learned in the class-wide instruction to books they select for independent reading. See link below. 

The curriculum also seeks to improve grammar and sentence structure by examining the writing in the “mentor texts” and then asking students to apply the tools in their own writing. Grammar, sentence variety, punctuation, and spelling are taught more effectively when discussed in the context of reading and writing rather than through isolated skills instruction, said Ms. Disotuar. 

 “Students learn best when they have the structure of whole group, small group and independent learning opportunities,” says Ms. Disotuar in her report. “This way they learn from the expert teacher through modeling with mentor texts, build and deepen understanding through peer dialogue, and refer back to the text to clarify and support their thinking. These skills are transferred to independent reading … Ultimately, students demonstrate understanding through the literary analyses, argument and research papers they write.”

Common Novels

Board member Claudia Garrison asked about the use of common novels for class-wide discussion, and Board President Tracy Quattrocki probed further.  

Several teachers said that common texts, such as an article, a poem, a short story or an excerpt, were typically read and discussed by the whole class multiple times each week; one teacher said every day. They said the class might read and discuss one common novel a year. In addition, though, classes are  divided into book groups, they said, and the book groups might read two or three common novels in a year and discuss them.

On an annual basis students may thus read three or four common novels that are discussed either on a class-wide basis or in a small group.

Ms. Quattrocki noted that most of the texts that were used for the class-wide discussions were short texts such as articles, poems or excerpts, and said, “There’s a different skill set you need to go from the beginning to the end of a novel than an article,” and “that’s a particular skill you really need in high school.”

At ETHS,  Ms. Quattrocki continued, “Freshmen don’t have a choice what to read. No matter what their reading level, they have to stretch and read Shakespeare and Dickens and Homer.”

“What do we do about the students who are not close to that level in the middle school if we’re not directing them up to more challenging texts. How do we see that transition happening if we haven’t actually pushed them up to those very difficult texts which they are going to have to read in freshman year. That’s my concern. Without that exposure, are we setting these kids up to struggle in ninth grade more than they would if they had to struggle a little bit more in eighth grade with texts that are a little beyond them?”

Ms. Disotuar responded that teachers are pushing students to a “comfortable edge” in the independent reading program. “There are simultaneously the shared classroom texts. Those are more complex texts that everyone has to grapple with on some level.”

“The more challenging texts are the shorter pieces,” said Ms. Quattrocki. “What I’m wondering about is the leap from articles and excerpts to ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ Should we create more of a bridge there?”

“The push in the middle school is really to foster a love of reading,” said Kristin Utley, reading/language arts coordinator, and hopefully when they get to the high school and they have to meet the challenging needs of Shakespeare and “The Odyssey” and those complex themes, they’re ready for it and they’re wanting to read because we’ve instilled a love of reading in them.”

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...