Laguna school officials get a lesson in a new approach to reading comprehension

The new emphasis in the Laguna Beach Unified School District is on having students read more nonfiction texts and be able to assess them critically, come to certain conclusions and back up claims with evidence.

As in other school districts in California, Laguna educators have steadily been incorporating more advanced nonfiction books, news and journal articles into their lessons to align with the Common Core State Standards for English language arts.

The goal is to expand reading comprehension to include a more rigorous critique of a text and the author's intended meaning.

To demonstrate how the shift is playing out in the classroom, Assistant Supt. of Instructional Services Alysia Odipo, during a study session Tuesday night, had district officials engage in an exercise — analyzing three articles written about Phineas Gage.

Gage was a railroad foreman whose crew was excavating rocks to make way for a railroad near Cavendish, Vt., in 1848, according to an article from The Guardian. As he prepared for an explosion, Gage's tamping iron produced a spark that caused a blast that propelled the iron through his head.

Gage claimed he never lost consciousness, Slate reported in 2014. He merely twitched a few times on the ground, and was talking and walking again within minutes.

Questions arose as to whether, or to what extent, the trauma had altered his neurological functioning.

Odipo posed the question to her audience: Was Gage the same after the tamping iron incident?

Trustees, staff members and principals split into two sides, either deciding that, no, Gage was not the same, or yes, Gage was the same person after the incident.

"They did not have enough info on Phineas prior to the accident to really prove that he changed that much," trustee Peggy Wolff said, citing the Slate article. "It goes on to say that he had a job in Chile for seven years, pulling reins of horses and maintained routes for seven years.

"They did not have a lot of his emotional state, and that is a problem. But he was still Gage. He maintained jobs, moved around."

Laguna Beach High Principal Christopher Herzfeld referenced a story on Smithsonian.com to back up his claim that Gage was not the same after the iron went through his head.

The article contained an account from John Martyn Harlow, the doctor who had treated Gage for a few months after the accident.

"Gage's friends found him 'no longer Gage,'" the article said. "The balance between his 'intellectual faculties and animal propensities' seemed gone. He could not stick to plans, uttered 'the grossest profanity' and showed 'little deference for his fellows.' The railroad construction company that employed him refused to take him back."

"Personally, he seems to have changed dramatically, according to the doctor," Herzfeld said.

After both sides presented their cases, Odipo asked if anyone's opinion had changed after listening to the evidence. No one's did.

The lesson showcased one of the reading standards that requires students to analyze the work of multiple authors who have written about the same topic.

The Common Core standards, which the California Department of Education board adopted in 2010 and modified in 2013, dictate four areas that students should be exposed to in language arts: reading, speaking, listening and writing.

The onus is not only on English teachers. Instructors in other subjects such as history and science are being required to incorporate more writing and critical thinking in their lessons.

"The old standards, we built stamina all right, but never applied it," Odipo said in a phone interview, alluding to years when students might have read less complex texts and not been required to interpret their contents or defend certain conclusions about them.

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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