By Nancy S. Gardner and Rod Powell

Two highly skilled longtime teachers say the Common Core State Standards promise to improve teaching and learning without being prescriptive about individual state content standards.

M-ELA1312_Gardner_49We teach students. Not a profound statement, but it can be. After all, some would say we teach English and history. But we don’t think of our roles that way. We focus on teaching students rather than just content or skills.

So what does it mean to teach 21st-century students? What does it take beyond our content knowledge? Wisdom? Patience? People skills? Tech savviness? Naturally, we have personal strengths that we draw on, but the Common Core State Standards give all teachers a strong professional foundation.

Unlike some previous standards, the Common Core emphasizes skills that students will truly need to be college- and career-ready. This isn’t to say that we no longer teach content. No — instead, we use the content as context for teaching meaningful skills and teaching them well.

As practicing classroom teachers, we’re saddened (and, let’s be honest, frustrated) by the controversy brewing over the Common Core. Some opponents say the standards are dictating curriculum — that they are limiting and “too standardized.” Other critics politicize them as a government takeover of state and local educational agencies.

But, more than anything, it seems like those talking about the standards haven’t actually read them or they don’t understand what they mean in practice. Between the two of us, we have more than 50 years of classroom experience. When we read the standards, they just make sense.

Many opponents are reacting to the idea of a “common” or shared core of expectations and skills. But is it so crazy to think there are common needs for students whether they live in West Virginia, Oregon, Florida, or Arizona?

No matter their home state, today’s students have information at their fingertips. But if they don’t learn to assess the validity of this information, to read carefully and analytically, to support their ideas in writing with accurate information and textual evidence, and to listen and speak using appropriate, clear language, then we aren’t helping prepare them for life after high school.

What follows is a reflective, practical view of the effect the Common Core has on our students and ourselves — politics and rhetoric aside.

Clear, benchmarked standards

The Common Core not only helps students acquire the skills for success in life after high school, the standards offer consistency in a student’s educational journey and let employers know what to expect. Today’s student population is more mobile than ever, as families “follow the jobs.” Standards shared across geographical lines will help students develop increasingly complex skills regardless of what state, school district, or classroom they are in.

Meanwhile, because the skills are carefully scaffolded, teachers have a framework for understanding what students learned or should have learned before arriving in our classrooms. Regardless of the grade level or content area in which we teach and regardless of where we teach, we can use a common language to help students know and understand what they’re learning.

There’s another benefit of clear, benchmarked standards for the teaching profession. Most teachers aren’t afraid of being evaluated on how well we do our jobs if the purpose of that evaluation is to help us continue growing and the measures are fair, accurate, and valid. But first we need to clearly define what our jobs are and what our students need to know and be able to do. The Common Core standards are a good step in that direction.

Focus on literacy skills

In the past, state standards often have required teachers to focus on texts chosen by policy makers or to cover a specific number of texts. The Common Core is all about skills — not about the texts and methods we use to teach those skills.

So Gardner, an English teacher, no longer needs to make sure she “covers” 10 short stories, three Shakespearean plays, four to five novels, 10 to 15 poems, and various pieces of nonfiction over the course of a year. Instead, she can focus on helping students master skills while exploring literature.

With the Common Core in mind, Gardner can go deep rather than wide with her students. After all, is it inherently better for a teacher to “cover” a certain number of Shakespearean plays, or for students to read one with depth and sophistication? Is it a better education for students to read more books or to read fewer and use the time to struggle with words in the text, or to try deciphering meaning or multiple meanings, or to analyze the author’s craft, or research the historical context of the work? When Gardner’s classes read “Hamlet” or “The Merchant of Venice,” they spend a lot of time on the soliloquies — looking at specific words or phrases, even punctuation, to really dig down deep into Hamlet’s character or Shylock’s motivation. Gardner urges students, “Find textual evidence to support what you are saying,” and, lo and behold, they do.

In Powell’s class, as students compare Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois’ views on racial equality, students focus on the meaning of particular words and their overall effects on the speeches. They study the meaning and resonances of Washington’s charge to his fellow African-Americans to “cast down your buckets where you are.” Powell’s students examine how this speech laid the groundwork for racial conflict today. They investigate the effect of a single word in W.E.B. Dubois’ reply: “degradation.”

Teachers belong to a single discipline — literacy. In fact, the Common Core encourages teachers to pair fictional and informational texts. This means Gardner’s English students might read articles on Freud’s work on melancholia alongside “Hamlet” or research articles about discrimination and prejudice among different religions or cultures as they read “The Merchant of Venice.”

Here’s a more extended example: When Gardner’s students study Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, they closely examine Shelley’s language. She leads students in analyzing Dr. Frankenstein’s behaviors and the monster’s character, asking them to identify textual evidence to prove their points. Gardner also exposes students to articles from reliable scientific journals. The class extends its discussion beyond the novel to contemporary medical ethics — issues like body harvesting, cloning, and stem cell research. Finally, students write position papers with claims about medical ethics, using the novel and other texts to support their ideas.

Flexible connections to content

Of course, this focus on skills doesn’t mean teachers should abandon content. The Common Core standards offer a clear framework of what students should be able to do (the skills) not what they should know (the content).

Content is left up to state curricula, individual districts, and the teacher’s expertise. So it’s clear from the state standards what students need to know. The flexibility of the Common Core standards makes it easy to plug right in. But how? That’s up to teachers. In the past, new or struggling teachers might find themselves lecturing and quizzing when students could instead learn the content as they practice critical skills. We ‘fess up: Even accomplished teachers could fall into the trap of privileging rote memorization over in-depth understanding.

That’s where the Common Core comes into play. For example, Powell’s freshman World History class studies the social and economic effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain during the 1820s. The Common Core helps Powell marry literacy and analytical skills with content knowledge. As students critically read multiple documents detailing Parliament’s debates over the proposed Six Acts, Powell urged students to:

  • Consider how members of Parliament changed their points of view during the debate;
  • Identify words and phrases used to alarm, outrage, or sadden listeners; and
  • Research more deeply to understand each Parliamentarian’s background.

Powell will never be sure how many of his students became enamored of British history, but he’s certain his students gained skills that will come in handy when they pursue college or careers.

Powell remembers what it was like when his classroom was expected to be content-focused, as measured by scores on state assessments that measured recall. It was history — prepackaged and made uninteresting. Powell shared his students’ frustrations of having to cover World War II in a day and then bounce to the Cold War for two days. It was all about names, dates, and places. But what about deeper issues, human struggle and suffering, cults of personality, and simmering resentments?

Powell’s classes changed when he risked taking the Common Core seriously. In a seminar based on the Cold War, Powell’s class analyzed and shared their own ideas rather than swallowing a standard textbook treatment of the event. Powell covered state content but used a Common Core framework to implement it. And his students not only displayed more engagement with the lesson, but deeper understanding of the material. They demonstrated more insightful conclusions, showcased their ability to make connections, and exhibited an increased comfort level in public discourse and in using text to bolster their arguments.

Emphasis on rigor and student work

As you can probably gauge by our classroom examples, the Common Core State Standards mean increased rigor. Making sure students have refined the thinking skills that will serve them in other classes and after high school is a far cry from helping them ace multiple-choice tests.

We’ve noticed some disturbing trends over the past five years — and our work with the Common Core has shown us just how far students have slipped. Many more students lack the ability or desire to read difficult text, grapple with complex syntax, write, and rewrite. Instead, many seem to want to click to find, to bubble, to answer. As we connect virtually with teachers across the country by way of the Common Core Lab in the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory, we’re finding that other colleagues are noticing similar tendencies among students brought into relief by the Common Core’s focus on skills.

Of course, these are our qualitative observations, and researchers could identify dozens of reasons for the shift in student attitudes, including out-of-school factors. We can’t help but think about high-stakes, multiple-choice assessments that often take up several weeks of the school year. How have the importance of these tests influenced teachers’ methods, and what messages has the emphasis on testing sent to students about their learning? We know teachers aren’t the only ones who have such concerns — the American public also is fed up with standardized testing (Bushaw & Lopez, 2013). In contrast, the Common Core can help us guide students to take responsibility for their own learning as they become critical thinkers and problem solvers. The rigor of the standards encourages us to engage students in productive struggles rather than focusing on “what is on the test.”

The familiar last-minute miracle project or essay won’t fly. The Common Core is very specific about the skills and processes that students should be able to demonstrate — from developing and writing claims and counterclaims to the processes of planning, drafting, revising, and editing. In other words, it’s not about the finished product so much as it’s about the experience that led to that product.

Of course, this approach to teaching and learning takes time to develop. We need to be clear about the specific products — the evidence of their learning — that we want from students. We need to offer students clear rubrics aligned to the standards, so they know the quality of work we expect. We need to scaffold their experiences in ways that push them to build and sharpen skills.

After all, instruction based on the Common Core asks much more of students than what has been expected previously. And it’s been our experience that students rise to the occasion.

For example, Powell drew on the Common Core as he taught a unit on the American Dream of the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Students analyzed many primary sources as they worked toward an essay exploring how a certain socioeconomic group of their own choosing achieved their version of the American Dream. The standards offered clear direction as Powell guided students through the different stages of reading, research, planning, and writing. Gardner’s students analyzed the roles and relationships of men and women in various time periods using literary works as well as gender-related, sociological studies. After participating in a seminar discussion, students wrote analytical, claim-based essays using multiple sources.

A multiple-choice test simply can’t tell us what the Common Core prompts us to assess: the work that students do in the classroom as they struggle and wrestle with complex texts, assignments, and projects. Instead, we need checklists, informal assessments, simple face-to-face conversations about progress, and rubrics for written and oral products.

Instructional innovation

We are National Board Certified Teachers with years of experience. Suffice it to say that neither of us had reputations as “easy” or “boring” teachers — at least so far as we know. Our classes required lots of reading and analysis. But we have both found that teaching with the Common Core has ratcheted up the rigor of our instruction and changed how we think about engaging students. We joyfully dive deeper into texts — either written words or images — while coaching students to make their own discoveries.

Today’s effective teachers aren’t called upon to be dispensers of knowledge but Jedi masters at facilitating learning. We ask more difficult questions, but students are up for the task and actually seem even more engaged. As we refine and rethink our strategies, something interesting is happening. Teaching and learning are beginning to look very different from what many of us experienced as students or what we were trained to do in our teacher preparation programs.

We are hyperaware of the kinds of questions we are asking students — emphasizing those that require critical reading and thinking about specific pieces of text. (See sidebar, p. 52.)

That means that we don’t dispense as much up front. We focus on helping students learn how to savor their newfound expertise as consumers of knowledge — in being able to sniff out what’s suspicious.

Collaboration

Teaching can be an isolating profession. There are many reasons for this, including the lack of time, space, and opportunity to collaborate given tight schedules and the way roles are structured within schools. By and large, America’s educational system does not encourage teachers to work together to find better ways to serve kids. And wittingly or unwittingly, teachers often hoard our expertise, confining effective techniques, innovative ideas, and engaging lessons to the four walls of our classrooms and the limited number of students we serve. We struggle through problems alone or feel we can look only to others in our building for support. We have great ideas but never pitch them to colleagues because there’s just not time.

The Common Core won’t remove all the barriers to collaboration — more dramatic changes will be necessary. But the Common Core does offer a common language and common set of classroom challenges and opportunities to teachers in many states across the country, and many new opportunities to collaborate.

Believe us — we’ve found deep value and support in one of many venues where this collaboration is occurring: The Common Core Lab at the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory. We’ve supported and been supported by teachers from Washington to Florida to Kentucky to our home state of North Carolina.

This is definitely an opportunity for growth and a chance to elevate our profession. After all, collaboration and meaningful dialogue will strengthen our practice. And as we join the larger conversations about helping students meet more rigorous expectations, we will demonstrate the complexity of our work rather than hiding it behind our classroom doors. This may boost our efforts to be more involved in school, district, and state educational decision making about Common Core implementation and other instructional changes.

The Common Core language ultimately helps improve teaching, elevates student success, and encourages teachers to lead national reform through this sharing of ideas. Because of the emphasis on skills, the built-in rigor, the vertically aligned standards, and the expertise needed to teach the Common Core, this national focus will help elevate the teaching profession, and that excites us. What is controversial about stretching all students and helping them become productive citizens? What is intrusive about a sequence of skills on which students and teachers nationwide can focus? Yes, we do want to strive to improve our practice and to better understand what effective teaching looks like. Yes, it takes a clear understanding and continuous practice to get to the heart and soul of what it means to teach deeper and not wider. Yes, we will need to collaborate with other disciplines so that the focus on literacy is consistent. The Common Core gives us a starting point to do just that. We are excited about the possibility. Students will not only be college- and career-ready, but life-ready. Why wouldn’t we want this for our kids?

REFERENCE

Bushaw, W.J. & Lopez, S.J. (2013). The 45th annual PDK/Gallup poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (1), 8-25.

NANCY S. GARDNER (nancygardner@mgsd.k12.nc.us) is an English teacher, and ROD POWELL (rodpowell@mgsd.k12.nc.us) is a social studies teacher, both at Mooresville High School, Mooresville, N.C.

We never said this before the Common Core

“OK, how do you support that with textual evidence?”

“Yes, Shakespeare’s vocabulary was different from our own. But we’re going to struggle with it. And productive struggle is a good thing.”

Use of informational text: ”I am not just teaching content, I am teaching students and literacy.”

“Yes, you’re reading a history article in English class [or a science article in history class].”

“Support your claim with evidence from multiple texts.”

“What might that word mean here? How does it change the tone of the piece? What if the word had been _____ instead?”

“Work collaboratively or independently to find additional support for your claim. Make sure your sources are valid.” Students must not only be able to find sources online but also evaluate them.

Originally published in the December 2013 Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (4), 49-53.

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