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Approaching the Common Core at Tollgate Elementary School

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    Lauren Parent

Suzanne Plaut, EL’s director of curriculum, interviews Laurie Godwin, principal of Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado, about her school’s approach to the Common Core State Standards. Godwin and her staff see the instructional shifts required by the Common Core as a powerful tool for closing the achievement gap and preparing all students for college and beyond.

As a school leader, what do you see as the opportunity of the Common Core?

Specifically with close reading, the biggest thing we are seeing is that our students can do more than we thought they could. They are taking risks with challenging materials, even materials that are two grade levels above what they can read on their own. And once they get through the hard work related to reading, they are so proud, and feel successful. We are hearing students say, “Oh my gosh! I can read this! I read this hard text.” There is a different sense of pride when you are a struggling reader and you’re reading the same grade-level text that your classmates are reading.

Addressing the Common Core instructional shift around reading complex texts requires a different mentality [for teachers].

Students must have access to challenging texts right away; we can’t wait until they are “ready.” We have to build in the intentional scaffolds they need to reach success. We are already seeing an increase in students’ confidence level, believing that they can tackle challenging reading that they thought they couldn’t before. If students believe they can tackle difficult material, their engagement, passion for reading, and belief in themselves will propel their achievement.

What do you think is most important for other school leaders to understand about the Common Core?

I think the Common Core is the right direction. The more I dig into it, the more I understand that in order to close the achievement gap and ensure equity for all students, it is our responsibility to put meaningful, rigorous grade-level work in front of all students and, more importantly, to adjust our instructional strategies so they can access it. We can’t wait until they are “ready” because what happens is that students in poverty and students at risk never even get to attempt that kind of work. This makes the achievement gap persist. All students need the same access to academics that will prepare them for college and beyond. Even though implementing the changes required by the Common Core is hard work, I think it is the right work if we’re going to close the achievement gap in this country.

An Outward Bound Metaphor for the Common Core

At Tollgate, we take our students into all sorts of situations that are outside of their comfort zone—snowshoeing, high-ropes courses, hiking 14,000-foot mountains. We absolutely believe that all students will be successful. We have to translate our expectation of success to the challenge of reading as well. We have to believe that students can be successful with academic challenges the same way they are with character and physical challenges. We never say to students, “That’s okay, you don’t have to hike any further.” We have to transfer that to the academic setting. We know it works—when you put students in difficult settings with appropriate support, they will rise to the challenge. - Laurie Godwin