The Hechinger Report -
East Moriches, New York — On a morning in late May, the pace was slow and deliberate as seven students formed a semicircle around their teacher to work on a lesson about finding the main idea in a story.
“I have a surprise for you on my phone,” said Nicole Papa, before starting an audio recording of “Smart-Speak,” a nonfiction article about bullying and peer pressure. Pencils in hand, the third- and fourth-grade students followed along with the recorded voice.
“Now, let’s read it again, just a little bit closer, and think about the main idea, or gist, of each section,” said Papa, reading the first section aloud. “What’s it mostly about?”
After soliciting a range of responses, Papa wrote in blue marker on a whiteboard: “You should speak up and tell your friend, ‘I don’t want to do your homework anymore.’”
The seven students in Papa’s classroom at East Moriches Elementary School, located in a middle-class Long Island community about 70 miles east of New York City, have all been classified as needing special education services because of diagnoses ranging from autism spectrum disorders to learning disabilities to mood disorders.
Papa’s lesson is contained within the first part of the EngageNY English language arts curriculum for New York State fourth graders. Paid for and developed by the New York State Education Department, EngageNY is a set of curriculum materials aligned to the new Common Core State Standards, which aim to prepare students for college and careers by deepening critical thinking and enhancing problem-solving skills. School districts are not required to adopt EngageNY, but are encouraged to adapt the materials and use them as a guide. Though the curriculum is scripted, each district follows it to greater and lesser degrees, with some following it line by line and others using it as a general template that guides instruction.
“We’re overhauling the plane in mid-air. My son doesn’t fit into this one-size-fits-all model, so what are we going to do with him?” Mary Herrle, mother of two children with disabilities.
East Moriches follows a very scripted approach to EngageNY and that’s why Papa, an educator with more than 20 years of experience, was initially resistant to the Common Core. She worried that her students, whose reading is two to three levels below others their age, would be unable to handle the increased rigor along with a scripted approach to teaching and learning.
In fact, she has already had to go off script. Since the suggested passage was several years above their reading level—and her students were unable to read it independently while also making sense of it—Papa asked one of her colleagues to record an audio version of the text.