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Grapple Points and Deeper Learning

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This post is by Bill Day, who teaches at Two Rivers Public Charter School and serves as a master teacher with Math for America.  He is the 2014 District of Columbia Teacher of the Year.  Reach him via email: [email protected]

During my middle school math classes at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, I seek to create "grapple points" for my students: a stage of learning where students are between comfort and frustration in their problem solving.  Working through these points leads to enduring understandings for students in terms of both math content and performance character. Outside of class, I attend to my own grapple points--and I have many. 

Currently, my major grapple point is reconciling the Core Practices of Expeditionary Learning--the inquiry-based model of teaching and learning used at my school--and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics.  Both of these ideals serve as invaluable guideposts for my teaching.  Their influence dovetails in many ways but diverges at times, creating plenty of opportunity to grapple over the ensuing dilemmas.

Expeditionary Learning Core Practices delineate an approach to schooling that puts students in active meaningful roles as investigators, analysts, and advocates in their communities.  My colleagues and I at Two Rivers have embraced this approach and made it come alive in our school.  The hallmarks of the approach are learning expeditions, which are long-term (up to 12-week) studies that engage students in research, critical thinking, problem solving, and creative communication.  As a result of learning expeditions at Two Rivers, I have had the pleasure of learning about the geological origins and characteristics of rocks from third-graders, seeing demonstrations of the mechanics of global warming by sixth-graders, and debating the ethics of genetically modified foods with eighth-graders.  Expeditions, both in their process and their products, are a powerful learning experience for students because they position students as experts.

The Common Core State Standards, on the other hand, are an effort to provide focus and coherence to schools across the country. Essentially, they propose an answer to "what should an nth grader know and be able to do?" In mathematics, the Standards articulate grade-level content (e.g., eighth-graders must explain a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem and its converse) and Mathematical Practices (e.g., make sense of problems and persevere in solving them) that span the entire set of K-12 standards and act as curricular through-lines that are applicable to my entire syllabus from the first topic to the last.

In many ways, the EL Core Practices and the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics complement each other.  Both emphasize depth of learning over breadth.  Both frame learning as a process of knowledge acquisition and of becoming a practitioner of the discipline.  But here is the conflict: despite the Common Core's consolidation of standards, there are many standards to cover and each standard comprises a significant chunk of content.  The number of standards makes it difficult to spend the time to implement EL Core Practices consistently.

Our school community knows that committing to EL Core Practices prepares our students for success on high-stakes tests--this is supported by historical results, as our school is a district leader in student achievement. But the tests have changed, and we're not sure what the new tests will emphasize. As a result, I feel the need to cut units shorter--to sacrifice depth and real-world connection--to address more standards before the test administration in April. 

The Common Core State Standards are tighter and narrower than previous standards, but it's still not possible to go deep on everything. So this is my grapple point: how do I balance the quality of our investigations into topics with the quantity of topics that our standards include?

I'd love to hear from you:

Since we can't go deep with everything, we need to make smart choices about what matters most. In your content area(s), how do you decide what standards to prioritize and go deep with--deep into real-world projects and deep into opportunities for critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration? 

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