The term "Common Core" is being bandied about like it is a brand name. We like the product or we don't. It has achieved popular recognition, even on talk radio shows. It is good that we are paying attention to it, but we may be limiting a valuable opportunity to implement a different way of teaching and learning. It is not just a thing.
In New York, Commissioner King has been heard to say that the methods of teaching in the Common Core are practices many good teachers have always used; this, in an attempt to comfort those who are pulling their hair out, while trying to implement all of the changes being asked of them. We do have teachers who have invited children to think, innovate, and create while making sense of the information being offered or discovered. But, here is the rub. Those teachers have turned themselves inside out to design these opportunities for students and forced them into time slots of 30, 40, or 45 minutes in order to yield to the demanding schedule.
However, as leaders, during this important shift into using the Common Core standards, we continue to listen to the conversations taking place among our teachers. The Common Core's successful implementation will require a change in scheduling to support this change in practice. Scheduling traditionally lies in the hands of a talented few, who accept their role and accomplish this enormously confounding task annually. But, this year we need to begin to take time to marry the curricular changes to the limitations of the clock.
On the elementary level, the fight for uninterrupted time continues. In the course of a day, students are given a period for lunch and a period for "specials" leaving the rest of the day for ELA, reading, math, science and social studies. In most cases, all of these subjects are taught by the same fantastic teacher who has worked to learn and integrate these topics into an interdisciplinary experience for her/his students. However, there are students who must be taken to a separate location for academic intervention, ESL, special education services, or to counseling of some sort. These students who face learning challenges are removed from the classroom, for periods of time, leaving the teacher to manage the task of either not introducing new information while these students are out, or doing so and then catching them up. Moving toward a method of learning that involves creativity, innovation, and discovery and demands uninterrupted time amplifies teachers' frustrations with the current system. On the secondary level, the master schedule is the behemoth no one can imagine revising. The time blocks remain static; the silos of instruction and content subjects endure. But what are the conversations happening among our faculty?
On the elementary level, a conversation recently shared with us included a group of music teachers who were working together to develop some grade level appropriate, worthwhile assessments of their students' growth. A behavior that is necessary for a successful performance group is the capacity to follow directions, and stand as a group, sit as a group, turn toward the conductor as a group, etc. It was suggested that this be shared with the other academic teachers and, perhaps, become a school-wide objective: to have students learn how to stand as a group, sit as a group, look toward the teacher as a group. Overwhelmingly, the music teachers felt their colleagues might respond that it is not part of their objectives. We create our own boxes. In many schools we have arrived at a place where teachers can have this kind of conversation with colleagues and expect a positive response. Yet, in others we haven't yet mastered a culture of collegial respect and cooperation. As instructional leaders we needs to assess the environment, and advocate for a shift from "that is your job," to "this is our job". It is only when everyone understands that all must play a contributing role in the best implementation of the Common Core standards, we can hope to be successful. On the secondary level conversations about who owns the teaching of reading and comprehension of fiction and non-fiction texts have increased. Here, the silos are even more entrenched. And, often we don't know where the leaders stand. Listen, and then lead. How simple is that?
The only way in which to implement the Common Core with fidelity to its intended purpose is to provide the structure it needs to flourish. We are hearing this from our teachers already. Can't all of us teach students how to follow directions as a group? Can't all teach academic vocabulary and increase the amount and level of reading we require of our students in each subject area? Can't we develop an interdisciplinary mind in which physics and trigonometry are taught with each other? At the very least, should we require students complete trig before taking physics OR can they be taught at the same time, perhaps even in the same room? School leaders who have taken on the schedules and beliefs about how courses need to be separated have done so successfully by involving large teams of risk takers with open minds and creative spirits.
Ask elementary teachers if there might there be a way to repurpose the entire faculty in order to be able to better integrate the subjects and program needs of the children? Rather than have content silos in our high school, each with a separate responsibility for improving literacy, vocabulary, and developing opportunities for creativity and innovation, why not work together, connecting subjects and having flexible schedules?
So, Commissioner King, most of us, even if we are very good, have not taught this way. The structure has not allowed us to do so. The State Education Department is responsible for much of that. But, sometimes, our own perceptions have limited us. For that we take responsibility. The Common Core cannot be successfully implemented until we free ourselves from past practices and allow the structural changes required for it to work. As the conversations arise and sincere ideas come forward, reject none. We must listen without bias or preconception of what can or can't be. As our teachers try to bend the Common Core into the current structure, they will be our best informants because they will see just how it doesn't fit. Then, we need to reverse the process. That is the leaders' work. We must be willing to dismantle the structure built upon our perceptions and rebuild an environment in which we can accomplish the work of the Common Core.
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