Five Questions For New York Times Education Reporter Javier Hernandez
On The Common Core, Building Narratives, and Negotiating Access
For an in-depth feature on the Common Core State Standards, New York Times education reporter Javier C. Hernandez told the story through the eyes of a 9-year-old student: Chrispin Alcindor, one of a family of triplets in Brooklyn.
I had the opportunity to speak with Hernandez (via video conferencing) during a recent workshop in Chicago for reporters focusing on the Common Core, which EWA co-hosted with The Poynter Institute. Hernandez talked about the challenges inherent in reporting on the new standards, making the most of a four-month reporting window, and letting students speak for themselves. The following Q&A is excerpted from our conversation:
1. Why focus on a child who was struggling, rather than his sister, who appeared to be thriving under in the new learning environment of the Common Core?
The national storyline was about kids struggling in the face of the higher standards. This was reflected especially in New York State – one of the first states to adopt the Common Core. Also, it was about access. The other triplets were in separate classrooms. Because I had such extraordinary access to Ms. (Trisha) Matthew, it made sense to focus on her student, Chrispin.
It took a long time to find a school that would grant me access. This was a particularly tough year: New York was implementing a new teacher evaluation system, the Common Core exam was coming in the spring, so people were already extremely stressed. I called a dozen principals – none of them wanted a reporter hanging around. Fortunately a nonprofit group connected me to a terrific principal in Brooklyn.
I wasn’t sure at that point what story I wanted to tell. I just hung around and observed. At the beginning I thought Ms. Matthew would be a good focus – a young, idealistic teacher who really understands the Common Core. But then the question became is the story about the teacher or is it about one of her schoolchildren? That was a hard choice to make. Ms. Matthew for me was really a strong protagonist who could carry the story. But then I could see so many of her kids were really struggling to meet the higher benchmarks. The better story was about those struggles, and what the constant sense of failing was doing to these children over time.
2. What ground rules did you set with the family regarding access and quoting the children?
At first there was a huge language hurdle. I didn’t speak Creole or French (the mother’s primary languages). With an article like this there’s a real ethical question about making sure the subjects understand what you’re doing and what the impact might be. We wanted to be crystal clear that we would be using very personal details about Chrispin and that he understood as best he could what we planned to do, and that his mother fully understood.
The mother’s cooperation started out of a sense of obligation to the school since the principal had asked her if she would cooperate. But over time it developed more in to a relationship where she felt more comfortable speaking about some of the private details about the family. She was present in the room for most of the interviews with the children. There wasn’t a lot of confusion over what they had told me. But I did make sure to go back to her at the end and give her a broad overview of the piece and that it would be on the front page of The New York Times and everyone would know who Chrispin was. Ultimately she was comfortable and they thought it was a fair piece. I was happy about that.
3. Looking back, what would you have done differently?
While Chrispin’s family cooperated on the whole, there were moments when they sought privacy, and I totally understood that. For example, they didn’t want me come to their home in the morning and accompany the family on the way to school.
I also felt a bit of reporter’s regret: I think I could have spent more time with them. I really wanted to go with the family to church one Sunday, but I wasn’t able to work that out. Ideally, I would have lived in that Brooklyn neighborhood for a period of time and absorbed all that was happening. I would have this kind of guilt when I would be in midtown Manhattan thinking about all the great scenes I was missing in Brooklyn that day.
4. Do you think the story changed anyone’s mind about the Common Core?
I got a lot of reader feedback. Most of it fell into the category of people with very fixed views who saw the story in one particular light. Some people thought it was an apology for the Common Core, others thought it went too far and attacked the Common Core and testing, and confused the two issues. But I also heard from people in the middle – or who weren’t even in the debate – who said they had felt they understood what Common Core was about because they had read so much about it, but never really understood what it was actually going to change in the classroom or why people were so worked up about it. I was really appreciative of that.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, liked it – but so did Arne Duncan’s folks. So I felt it was a good middle-of-the-road piece that didn’t really try to tackle the politics but rather was a warts-and-all explanation of what this looks like two years in (to implementation) and what kind of conclusions we might start to draw, what we don’t know, and how students and teachers are reacting.
5. What surprised you about the project?
I wasn’t really expecting it to be such a long-term project. I thought it would it would be over within a couple weeks, actually. I initially was skeptical of the idea. I thought it would be too difficult to tell the story of how things are changing.
It was a little hard to get my bearings: pre-Common Core, post-Common Core, what’s actually different and what’s the same? I think that’s because I never really understood this as a reporter. I was used to writing the typical: “the Common Core standards, which encourage more critical thinking and less rote memorization.” That was how I left it in my reporting. But I hadn’t read the standards. I did that, and if you haven’t done that, I really recommend it. It took a lot of targeted questions and spending a lot of time isolating what was new in the classrooms. I’d say to the teacher, “I see you have pictures of the Greek gods on the walls; did you have that last year, or is that new for the Common Core?” That was a prerequisite to telling the entire story of Chrispin.
In the early stages, the story was a series of vignettes about Chrispin’s life in school, without much dissection of the Common Core or its origins. But it became clear we needed to write a section explaining the history of the Common Core. I worried it would bog down the narrative, but we were able to make it work, and we kept Chrispin’s voice by starting each section with raw, unedited samples of his work.
It broke up the piece, which ended up at 4,600 words. When I saw Chrispin’s poem (“I am a 9-year-old who struggles with math”), I thought what he thinks about himself is more important than anything I was writing.