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Response: 'How on Earth Will I Implement' Common Core for Language Arts?

(This is the second post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)


Mary Lou Baker asked:

"How can we best prepare our students for the common core in language arts?"

As I mentioned in the last post, I have been no fan of the Common Core standards (see The Best Articles Sharing Concerns About Common Core Standards). However, one of the key lessons I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career was that, though we should always recognize the tension inherent in "the world as we'd like it to be" and "the world as it is," living in the former seldom leads to success in the latter. The Common Core is the reality for most of us, and I've begun collecting the most useful resources for implementing them.

However, not everyone agrees with my position that it is unwise to put energy into trying to stop the Common Core. I'd encourage you to check-out a spirited discussion in the previous post's comments section to to see what others say (I've also included Stephen Krashen's thoughts later in this post) and my response to them.

Part One in this series featured responses from educator/authors Christopher Lehman, Amy Benjamin and Ben Curran. Today, teachers Alice Mercer and Dina Strasser and contribute their thoughts, as do many readers.

Response From Alice Mercer

Alice Mercer teaches 6th grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, CA. She blogs about education and her teaching practice at Reflections On Teaching. She has written several posts on Common Core, including Common Core Challenges for California, Five Questions for Common Core, and Reflections On Teaching: Common Core:

The roll-out of new standards put us in dual position of being both learners and educators. To prepare our kids, we need to prepare ourselves. Here are my six essentials to survive this with your sanity and professionalism intact:

1. Read and research:

Read about the subject. There are plenty of articles at the usual sources (Ed Week, ASCD, etc.) I'll mention a new favorite of mine, Burkins and Yaris, who doing daily blog posts on issues around Common Core. I appreciate their approach, which really helps to clarify the issues, especially around elementary reading instruction.

2. Reflect:

As you are reading, think about what you know, and what you're learning. Don't be afraid to challenge long-held beliefs, but you are a professional, so do not be afraid to stick to what you know is working.

3. Find good planning resources:

After looking at the "big picture" of the standards, you may be thinking, "how on earth will I implement this?" My suggestion is that you look at a really robust unit planning tool. My own fondness is for Understanding by Design for this. You may be a veteran who can "wing-it" but when doing something new, it pays to take the time to do some thoughtful planning.

4. Find critical friends, to bounce ideas off of:

Our profession can be pretty isolating. If you don't have folks to hash out your thinking on new ideas, you need to find them. Fellow teachers at your site will be going through many of the same challenges as you, and can be helpful. If you're an early implementer, develop a PLN, or personal learning network outside either through professional organizations or social media.

5. Trust yourself:

Trust others you can rely on, but ignore the advice of those who don't know your students, and don't seem to know what they are talking about. There are plenty of those out there claiming to have the "cure" for your Common Core problems. They don't, they won't, and what they have is snake oil, a form of poison to be avoided.

6. Understand the context:

New standards have happened before, but each time brings it's own challenges and improvements. This means this has happened before, but it never happens exactly the same way. Take what knowledge you and others have about the past, and put it to good use, not abuse.


Response From Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a 7th grade English educator in New York State. She blogs at The Line:

Prepare them for the joy of being uncomfortable.

If that sounds weird or snarky, bear with me for a minute while I dispense with what this statement is not.

It is not the joy of "reading frustration level." That is a real phenomenon of a mismatch between a text and a student's reading abilities, and it requires significant and targeted scaffolding and intervention.

It is not the joy of "inadequate background knowledge." That, too, is a real phenomenon that impedes reading comprehension, and requires thoughtful and targeted intervention. (Here's what it is: Vygotsky's sweet spot-- "the zone of proximal development." In second language acquisition terminology, we refer to Stephen Krashen's theory of "i plus one." It is where we present the student with enough unfamiliarity-- enough challenge-- to have them frown at the page, have to try an oral answer two or three times before getting it right, or have to think silently for a minute or two before writing an answer. (In my own classroom, this is usually signaled by my kids wrinkling their brows, saying "This is hard," blowing out a sigh, and then attacking the text again.)

For all its challenges, and for all my concerns about it, the Common Core honors and provides this necessary struggle.

For many of us, though, the experience of letting our kids struggle with text is just as uncomfortable for us as it is for them. We want to rush in, to make it better, to help. Yet when this moment happens in my instruction, I have only one job: shut up. Step back. Wait. In other words: let the kids experience being uncomfortable. Math guru Dan Meyer codifies this in his blog's catchphrase: "Be less helpful."

Once we do this, we provide the groundwork for real learning.

I'll conclude with a note on the essential nature of the word "prepare" in Mary Lou's question. It's not enough to train ourselves to let this moment happen in our classrooms. We also have to normalize it. We need to help kids looks forward to it, and treasure it. We need to explicitly teach them that this moment of discomfort is the best signal they have that their minds are working towards something wonderful.

Responses From Readers

chigginb:

For our students to be better prepared for the Common Core remains the same way we have continued to prepare them for any language arts task: READ! Have students read anything/everything they get their hands on. Reading will advance their vocabulary, illustrate ways to construct writing, and provide support for opinions. While there is an avalanche of concern by admin, teachers, and parents about the Common Core, student preparation can still be best done through "old school" reading skills.

danieljyoo:

In Common Core the expectations for what students are expected to do AFTER they've read a text are WAY higher compared to our California State Standards.

"Write an objective summary", "evaluate if claims have sufficient evidence", "analyze the impact on meaning and tone", "cite evidence" , "trace the argument", ...

Finding complex texts that present topics that students WANT to engage with deeply, will I think be the biggest challenge that teachers face.

lisabyrd:

I think administrators need to understand that their teachers need to be prepared to teach using Common Core. So many times we teachers are told we have to use this or do it this way without proper PD. We may be done with classes at the end of school but that is not the end of our day and finding PD in this techno world is difficult for most teachers to accomplish alone.

Erik Palmer:

We can best prepare students for the ELA standards if we teach the forgotten language arts of speaking and listening. We have long ignored these foundational skills that come well before reading and writing and upon which success in those depends. Most communication is oral, most instruction is oral, and digital tools and sites showcase oral communication like never before in history. Verbal communication is always at the top of the list of skills employers want in new hires. Unfortunately, we don't specifically teach speaking/listening and it is obvious when students discuss and present.

Stephen Krashen:

Yes, if the common core is instituted, help teachers and students deal with it. But that does not mean accept it. The train has left the station but it has not arrived. The arguments against the common core are very strong and clearly indicate that the common core will be the greatest disaster ever to hit education....Accepting the common core as inevitable has the effect of making it inevitable.

Thanks to Alice, Dina and to many readers for contributing their responses.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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