New curriculum standards require independent learning

In an 11th grade English class at Stratford High, Elijah Caserta listens in as English Department Head Jill Veteri explains to Natascha Jean and Freddy Deleon a newspaper article on Salem witch hunts. Elizabeth G. Howard photo.

In an 11th grade English class at Stratford High, Elijah Caserta listens in as English Department Head Jill Veteri explains to Natascha Jean and Freddy Deleon a newspaper article on Salem witch hunts. Elizabeth G. Howard photo.

This article is the second in a series about the school district’s transition to Common Core State Standards.

It’s the right time of the year for Jill Veteri’s 11th grade English class to study Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

After all, the 1953 Tony-award winning play is about the Salem witch trials, right?

Ask a Stratford High student and the answer will be, Sort of.

Veteri, in her classroom at Stratford High School, is just one of hundreds of area secondary teachers using new Common Core standards to train her students to ask these kinds of “deeper” questions. Not just, What happened in The Crucible? but, What is The Crucible really about?

Supporting this line of thought are contextual readings to help the students understand the play not as a stand-alone piece of literature but as a part of deeper, cultural and political conversation.

This “deep” learning is a key part of the changes being made in the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which are being implemented in transition this year in Stratford Public Schools.

With this different manner of learning, “they want the students to be able to take evidence and a source and come to a conclusion,” Veteri said. “They will give you the research, but students will have to be able to read and to come to their own conclusions.”

In the past, she said, students might read contextual articles about the Salem witch trials, or poetry from the time, and be given articles about the Joe McCarthy era and Congress’s Committee for Un-American Activities, by which the playwright was questioned.

There would be content quizzes and tests. Teachers would explain the connections between the text and the political climate it was written in. They would learn how the play is an allegory of McCarthyism.

“We used to frontload that information to them, Veteri said.

Now, when you are doing Salem witch trials,” Veteri said, “the readings are considered a whole unit.” You are exploring how and why Arthur Miller used the Salem witch trials to express his dislike for Joe McCarthy and what going on during the 1950s.

“With the new curriculum, they want the students to come to the realization of the connections for themselves. We want our students to be more independent learners.”

 Analyze, compare and reason

The Common Core English Language standards for secondary students include requirements for students to independently complete “close” readings of text; to be able to analyze complex text content and structure, to complete comparative analysis of two or more texts; evaluate arguments made by authors; identify and examine the validity of the author’s reasoning; and assess point of view and style of writing.

The writing component, across all subject areas, requires students in upper grades to master the skill of developing a reasonable argument and to support it with research. That includes integrating authoritative source materials, interacting with text through analysis and inference, and ensuring proper citations.

These are real problem-solving skills that will help students transition to college and the work world, said Dr. Janet Robinson, Stratford superintendent of schools. But they are skills that have not been addressed fully in past years.

Preparing secondary students, in the past, for the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, or CAPT, meant a curriculum model that was often referred to as “coverage,” or teaching that was “a mile wide and an inch deep,” according to Robinson.

For example, Veteri said, on the nonfiction writing component of the CAPT tests, students were expected to read three or four articles on a topic, be able to answer content-related multiple-choice and open-ended questions, and then write a response.

“Students could make a personal connection but not really see how the text inspires the connection,” Veteri said. “On the CAPT test, you’d get credit for just making a personal connection.”

 New testing and skill gaps

The new Smarter Balance Field Test (SB-FT), which Robinson confirmed students will take as a pilot year in the spring, asks students to read articles and answer both open-ended and multiple-choice questions. The students then must write an original, argumentative essay in which they establish a claim, support the claim with information from the text, and include counterclaims.

However, in transitioning to this new curriculum, students may struggle, Robinson acknowledged. Skill gaps will exist, particularly in upper grades, for several transition years.

These skill gaps, along with student apathy, are some of the challenges middle and secondary teachers and administrators face as they transition to the Common Core State Standards. Independent learning is not the current mind-set of teenagers, Veteri said.

For students who experience skill gaps during the transition, Scientific Research Based Intervention (SRBI) tiers will kick in, and students will be given extra support in math and reading. Veteri noted that Stratford’s literacy program is already in place in schools, with reading specialists and literacy coordinators established already as part of school teams.

In fact, the goal to read complex text independently is a core goal in the new curriculum, which may be a tall order in a generation of students attuned to abbreviated text language and Facebook-length writing.

“It is going to be a real task to change culture from a place where high school students just sit and wait around and say to the teachers, ‘Miss, I can’t find the information! Show me where it is!’” Veteri said.

Parents and students may read more about the complete standards online at

About author
Elizabeth Howard is a Stratford-based journalist, blogger and poet. She writes on the arts, education, music, the environment, green lifestyle, American culture, travel and food. You can find her online at

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