George Knights and Dr. Kirk Bauermeister •

Estancia High School • Costa Mesa, CA

Using Close Reading to Kick-Start Your PLC and Start the Shift to the Common Core

George Knights, PLC at Work™ associate and Director of PLC and Assessment in Newport-Mesa Unified School District; with Dr. Kirk Bauermeister, Principal of Estancia High School, Newport-Mesa Unified School District

Math teachers using an article on airport runways and angles, students utilizing the technology tool of with cell phones, Dr. Baumeister

Moving to the Common Core can be daunting and admittedly overwhelming to both administration and staff, and anxiety is only increased when educators ask the question, “Where do we start?”  One high school in Southern California has discovered a key to seamlessly make this move and it is easier than you might think. Estancia High School, which serves a school population of 77% minorities and 71% free and reduced lunch, asks teachers to use a College Readiness model of Reading, Thinking, Speaking and Writing (a hybrid of David Conley’s book College Knowledge and Michael Schmoker’s work in Focus).  They started by training staff to be experts in the instructional method of “Close Reading” and reached consensus to practice it with all students in all classes.

The real challenge is to create a mindset that moves teachers past the current model of “beat the test” instruction and regurgitation of endless information to ensuring students have a solid grasp of content that is deeply rooted in conceptually relevant knowledge.   While you might think teachers would be chomping at the bit to be freed up from standardized testing driving their instruction, they are hesitant in this high accountability environment to give up CURRENT practice even when it is not BEST practice. Principal of Estancia High School, Dr. Kirk Bauermeister, takes Michael Fullan’s advice in All Systems Go seriously as he builds the collective capacity of his staff and focuses on only a “small number of key priorities” (Fullan, 2010).

For example, the first three Anchor Standards in the ELA 6-12 Common Core are directly related to Close Reading. What better place to start? The staff went through some brief internal staff development, and it is really an easy model to follow as you will see below, and reached consensus that this would be the year’s focus.  In fact, Dr. Bauermeister is known to quote Samuel Johnson, “People need to be reminded more often then they need to be instructed.” Estancia High School’s team of 6-7 teachers responsible for twice a month, 45 minute staff development focused almost exclusively on how to implement the method of Close Reading in every subject area, including physical education and math. The following are the collective commitments they made to this initiative:

  1. It is the responsibility of the English teachers to teach students the technical details of Close Reading; yet it is the obligation of ALL other teachers to daily practice Close Reading in their class.

  2. Every teacher closely reads at least 15 minutes a day, mostly non-fiction text.

  3. Pre-reading includes a short explanation of difficult vocabulary in the text and address a few, very brief guiding questions.

  4. Every teacher models “pen in hand” literacy (using a document camera or overhead projector). Specifically, how to annotate in the margins, underline/highlight key ideas, and develop an argument by “thinking out-loud” so students can experience how a college educated thinker formulates academic ideas and arguments.

  5. Students are instructed to read while the teacher circulates in the room, engages with students, and encourages their efforts.

The above commitments leave off the “Thinking, Discussing, and Writing” components of the overall college readiness approach encouraged of the staff.  Teachers were free to incorporate the remaining elements any way they saw fit (although they did agree to produce one writing piece a month in EVERY class. That’s more than 60 in a year!).  The results were amazing. “Teachers began seeing first hand the benefits of kids actually engaging in discussions, and connecting ideas to an argument using evidence from the text,” Dr. Bauermeister explains, “In the past, the kids would simply parrot the main idea or regurgitate some basic facts to get the teacher off their back.”

I had the opportunity to walk the halls at Estancia High School and see first hand this process happening everywhere. I saw math teachers using an article on airport runways and angles (photo 1), a science teacher exploring the pros and cons of nuclear energy, a PE class reading articles on steroid use, a history teacher contrasting cultural perspectives of “Guns, germs and steel,” and many others.  Some teachers ramped up their interactive discussions with the use of methods such as Socratic Seminars or utilizing the technology tool of with cell phones (Photo 2) and allowing students to text in their opinion.

The role of Dr. Bauermeister’s leadership should not be overlooked. In line with his insistence of reminding rather than instructing, he is relentlessly focused on the message, the data, and with his presence in classes. At staff meetings he starts every gathering with a chant that goes like this:

Dr. Bauermeister: Does reading matter?

Staff: YES!

Dr. Bauermeister: A little or a lot?

Staff: A lot!

Dr. Bauermeister: Where do students get their reading instruction?

Staff: In my class!

He is known to carry around a baseball just to remind the staff of a story he tells from when he was a baseball coach (Photo 3). He believes that the most critical skill in baseball is catching the ball and if your team can be the best at that “one thing” (think of Curly in City Slickers), you will win.  He visits classes everyday for 20-30 minutes at a time and when he gets back to his desk he spends an additional 5-10 minutes typing out an email that celebrates the Close Reading he saw on his outing. This, of course, is an opportunity to remind the staff of their collective commitment to Close Reading and provides an opportunity to add any further nuisances to the method itself. He sent this last year:


To: Estancia High School

From: Kirk Bauermeister

Subject: FW: Close Reading and Note Taking

Dear Team;

I was in Jen's class today as they were going over this lesson and I asked her send it to me. It incorporates close reading with notetaking (Schmoker and Marzano would love it!!!). Look at her notes, it explains the lesson very well. Reading, critical thinking, and writing...AWESOME!!!

I was in Rachel's bio class and they were going into a close reading activity. Mark Cygan was going over vocabulary with his Earth Science students and had a great format that I asked him to send me. I will forward it on to you once he sends it to me. It incorporated those things that Marzano says you should do when teaching vocabulary.

Denise Moore was doing a pre-write activity with her freshmen to help them organize their thoughts before they began the writing process.

Great work guys!!!


So what are the results? State testing scores came back with gains in all but one grade level in the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced in English Language Arts. They were assigned a score of 9 (10 being best) in 2012 for schools that are similar in demographics in California.  The local data is even more encouraging. Last year’s D and F percentages dropped considerably in Math (-22%), English (-25%), Science (-15%) and even dropped with the 400+ English Language Learners (-14%). Only History/Social Science showed a single digit gain in D’s and F’s (+9%).  Of the students who were three or more grade levels behind in reading, and participated in the year-long reading program, increased their reading grade level by 3.7 grades on average.  It is important to note here that nothing good or bad happens in isolation. The instructional focus at Estancia High School is coupled with a focused reading intervention model/RTI effort to address almost half of the student body who are at least 3 grade levels behind in reading.  This only reinforces the importance and effectiveness of a strong emphasis on all tiers of the educational pyramid.  It is also critical to note that Dr. Bauermeister gives timely updates of the above data to his staff.

Finally, the real power in Estancia’s success is twofold, alignment and simplicity.  Clearly, Estancia High School is, as Patrick Lencioni would say, “Rowing in the same direction.” The momentum and staff ownership is evident in every meeting and in every conversation at the school.  The simplicity of the focus of the school (Reading, Thinking, Discussing, Writing) is similarly key to their success. Dr. Bauermeister explains,  “Close Reading is a good place to start because it is simple, everyone can do it, and there is no requirement to have the Common Core Standards memorized or ‘unpacked’ to begin.”  I read over and over in the educational literature that transitioning to the Common Core Standards is, at its fundamental core, a mental shift to higher order thinking. I can think of no better way to make this happen then to start with Close Reading. As I have watched the progress of Estancia High School, I am often reminded of the words of H. Jackson Brown, “Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.”

Posted in: Lay the Foundation, Apply Results to Practice, Apply PLC Concepts to the Classroom

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Ayesha Rushdan

Awesome. Some great ideas on how to align instructional focus to the Common Core and the current use of purchased curriculum.

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