Great Texts!

Two exciting Harlem Link moments have come up recently that show the potential the Common Core ELA standards have for revitalizing curriculum. Actually, you can replace the standards in the sentence with “any coherent, purposeful and thoroughly researched set of expectations.”

We might have used the texts below at our school before we started transitioning to Common Core in January 2011, but because of Common Core, we know they or a suitable replacement will show up year after year.

  • At our assembly this week, two groups of fourth graders presented a “Readers’ Theatre” version of Greek myths. Even our kindergarteners were rapt with attention as Zeus and Hades debated the proper place of Persephone down below, or up above. And the lesson of Pandora’s Box, according to one fifth grader in the audience, was “Be careful of the consequences if you do something wrong.” I hope she keeps thinking about that one as she reads the story again later in her schooling—and I bet she will; like several classmates she’s headed for Mott Hall II, the Upper West Side’s most competitive and high achieving public middle school.
  • When our fifth grade went on its annual trip to Columbia University last week, one of the teachers reported to me that some of the kids simultaneously remarked upon seeing the quad for the first time, “Look! It’s the Echoing Green!” And a student (our two-time spelling bee champ, in fact) responded, “Where’s Old John?” We’ve seen our scholars taking this trip imagine themselves living the college life in dorms; now they are imagining themselves doing it in romantic poems too.

The idea of a flexible, expansive and rigorous canon is appealing. It has hit us with moments of genuine literary excitement this year in each grade:

In kindergarten, teachers selected the great contemporary author Mo Willems for their author study. Whimsy, life lessons on loyalty and trust, and great illustrations abound.

In first grade, next year the teachers will read aloud Little House in the Big Woods. This classic text came directly out of the Common Core, and unless Michael Landon was planning to visit me in a dream, would not have otherwise appeared in our curriculum.

Second grade. Charlotte’s Web. Enough said.

In third grade, we’re taking a leap by using the complex Russell Freedman photobiography Lincoln: An Autobiography, which won the Newbery Medal in 1989 as the best literature for teens. It is written at a sixth grade level, but we are challenging our third graders and giving them plenty of support to understand its theme and supporting details.

In fourth grade, it’s been celebrated author Louis Sachar (you may have seen the movie Holes, if you haven’t read the award winning book) who beat out Judy Blume for the author study designation. The kids actually got school permission to read cuss words in The Boy Who Lost His Face. Talk about provocative!

And finally, in fifth grade, so many incredible texts for our newly minted tweens. Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made (the first half, not the second which gets deeply into the politics of the 1960s and 1970s and would be a bit esoteric for our fifth graders) and Christopher Paul Curtis’s coming of age story, Bud, Not Buddy, show up on next year’s Touchstone Text list.

Just wait until next year, when in each grade we roll out our Common Core inspired, new and improved high quality nonfiction studies!

About Steve Evangelista

Steven Evangelista is the co-founder of Harlem Link Charter School. He is a native New Yorker with a bachelors degree in Psychology from Georgetown University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from Bank Street College.
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