In another, two dozen classmates trade observations on what Lois Lowry’s novel "Number the Stars" says about secrets, courage and growing up.
Explosive growth has grabbed headlines at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s largest elementary school (see story on page 9B). But the real business here is teaching children, and reading lies at the heart of that mission.
Last school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolled out Open Court, a phonics-based reading program, in all elementary schools. The highly standardized approach drew grumbles from parents and teachers across the county. Many feared it would bore advanced readers and squelch creative teachers.
This year has brought new flexibility. Hawk Ridge elementary school is using the curriculum to group students by reading ability.
That means the best readers, including the school’s 172 gifted students, spend 45 minutes a day analyzing novels, doing research and tackling other ventures that stretch their skills.
But even at curriculum Hawk Ridge, where test scores are high and parents tend to be well-educated, some children struggle to read. Fifty-two have learning disabilities; others just need help mastering basics and learning to pull meaning from what they read.
This year’s approach to reading includes new help for them as well.
Principal Rosemary Sheppard says no school can coast toward the state’s End of Grade tests this spring. The reading exam is being revised, and the federal No Child Left Behind Act changes the ways schools must report their scores.
Starting this year, all schools must show that all types of students are making progress. State officials say even schools such as Hawk Ridge, which has celebrated high state rankings since it opened in 1999, could be pulled down by the new system.
"We can’t take anything for granted, and I don’t think any school can," Sheppard said.
Former CMS Superintendent Eric Smith saw Open Court as the ticket to closing test-score gaps between black and white students. The curriculum, published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, breaks reading into steps that all children are supposed to be able to master.By insisting it be done exactly as written by every teacher in every school, Smith intended to make sure every child would learn to read. Open Court consultants made sure teachers followed the manual during each day’s two-hour reading sessions.
Fourth-grade teacher Siobhan Beam was among many CMS teachers who weren’t crazy about teaching from a script. She understood the need, with everyone trying to master new material, but it didn’t seem natural.
This year was different, she said. With a year’s experience under their belt, teachers could meld the Open Court curriculum with their own style.
On a recent afternoon, Beam launched her lesson by dotting a student’s hand with a marker. You’ve been infected, Beam said, and that infection is turning into a disease. She dotted more hands — an epidemic. She made students die — a plague.
She picked three boys to act like germs, then killed them with imaginary hot water — sterilization. The children giggled and cheered, barely aware they were doing vocabulary review.
After a game of ESP — "I’m thinking of stomach flu and 15 people have it. What am I thinking of?" — Beam told her students to turn their Open Court books to "Medicine: Past and Present." She began reading to them, veering off every few sentences to talk about everything from infected cuts to wormy meat.
The discussion sounded free-form, but Beam was carefully working in the Open Court themes posted in front of the class: Visualize. Make Connections. Predict. Ask Questions. When questions arose, students jotted them on a notecard and posted them on a bulletin board for further research.
Among the day’s queries: Did George Washington die from leech treatment? How does mold help infections? If you can only get chickenpox once, why do we keep getting strep throat?
That hourlong session included everyone in Beam’s class, from the learning-disabled to the gifted. Earlier in the day, the class had split up for 45-minute sessions with others reading on the same level.
This year, CMS required all schools to use Open Court as a foundation but gave schools flexibility to try other approaches, as long as children mastered the skills. Just before Thanksgiving, Hawk Ridge started using about half the reading time to group third- through fifth-graders by reading ability.
As fourth-graders in the highest group read "The Secret Garden," a novel set at the turn of the 20th century, they researched the toys, fashions, architecture, music and historic events of each decade of that century. They shared information on Monopoly and the Great Depression, "The Simpsons" and the debut of video games. When they were ready to write, students tapped their reports into AlphaSmart laptop keyboards.
Emily Hein and Tanner Blanchard, working on the 1940s, swapped stories about relatives’ experiences in World War II. They agreed this is more fun than doing Open Court with the whole class.
"You don’t get to do a lot of the fun stuff like you do here," Emily said.
Fifth-graders in the top group read "Number the Stars," the story of a 10-year-old girl helping sneak her Jewish friend’s family out of Nazi-occupied Denmark. Hawk Ridge teachers have started using Paideia seminars, a learning approach featured in some CMS magnet schools, to stimulate high-level discussions.
Teacher Joye Cauthen asked the group about the kinds of courage displayed by various characters and why heroine Annemarie withheld information from her best friend.
"Sometimes when you know stuff that other people don’t know, it makes you grow up and not be a child," one girl responded.
In one of the midlevel groups, fifth-graders gathered in small groups to discuss "The Sign of the Beaver," a novel about a pioneer boy who learns survival skills from an Indian friend.
"When you’re doing this, you can really get into the book and you can really explain your thoughts and your feelings," said Melissa Aldana.
Students who need help with basic skills use Corrective Reading, another SRA/McGraw-Hill curriculum being picked up in many Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
Here, teachers literally read from a script, which is designed to reinforce skills, boost comprehension and make sure the group doesn’t move on until everyone has mastered the lesson.
For a recent story about a baseball pitcher, the lesson started with a review of the ou sound in shout and pound and the tch sound in catch and pitch. Then the students took turns reading paragraphs out loud. If they skipped or misread a word, the teacher corrected it and asked them to start the sentence over.
"A lot of times they will rush to read," explained teacher assistant Pam Jones, leading a fourth-grade group. "This helps them focus on the text on the page."
Every few paragraphs, Jones read questions from her manual to make sure the kids had understood. What happened to the first batter? What kind of pitch did Art throw to the second batter?
Becky Kelly and Carrie Stoehr, Hawk Ridge’s reading specialists, marveled as they listened, hearing children who used to flounder read with confidence. The fifth grade started with two Corrective Reading groups in November; one group has already advanced to the next level, the "intervention" group.
Beam, a former special education teacher, takes one of the intervention groups when the fourth grade splits up for reading. When everyone stayed together, it was tough to focus on the kids who need a little extra help. Now she can prepare them in advance, rather than helping them catch up if they fall behind.
For instance, she introduces new vocabulary words to these kids a few days before she rolls them out for the whole class.
"These kids who never said a word before are the ones who will volunteer in class," she said proudly.
Sheppard says it’s too early to measure the effect of ability grouping, but she’s getting good reports from teachers. The proof will come in May, when students take their tests. As required by federal law, their scores will be scrutinized not only on school and grade-level averages, but on how racial groups, children with disabilities and non-English speakers fared.
"It’s certainly a little bit of a different ballgame this year," Sheppard said.