Friday, August 24, 2012

An Urban Teacher's Notes on Common Core...

I am excited about the Common Core State Standards.

… there I’ve said it. I know there are 1001 concerns about them, but based on what I’ve read and read, I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that they will encourage a focus on critical thinking and deep reading (not filling in bubbles), hopeful that they will revitalize reading and writing across the curriculum and hopeful that they will push critical thinking (not regurgitation of facts) as a way to recognize and measure success in schools.

My introduction to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) came in June when my principal announced at a staff meeting that the SDP (School District of Philadelphia) is placing a new emphasis on CCSS and our observations would be based on them.
 [I should preface this story with the fact that my principal is very supportive and I respect and admire her very much. I do not hold this initial response against her, as the SDP has rolled out many “initiatives” and she had not reason to see CCSS as anything different]
She continued with, “I know many of you use personal connection and students’ lives heavily in your instruction, but CCSS says you can’t do that anymore. You need to focus on the text and specifically you need to have them reading nonfiction texts. 

Before I could even voice my concerns about this shift, my principal addressed them. She recognized our specific population and the fact that we needed to engage our students in any way possible, but this information was what she had been told at the “Principals’ PD on CCSS”… I remained skeptical, not of her, but of this explanation of CCSS. Turns out I was right.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve shifted my attention to the myriad resources about the CCSS that exist for teachers, specifically Pathways to the Common Core (if you’re thinking about CCSS, GET THIS BOOK) Common Core360, and the ACSD Common Core webinars (which are awesome, by the way).

Those who have explored CCSS with an open mind have found that many assumptions have proven false.  There is no mandate to study nonfiction texts. No one is rejecting personal response (though they need to be based in close reading) and students have plenty of opportunities to write narratives.  One of the realities that I found, however, is that CCSS has almost completely ignored POETRY. Though it isn’t my “comfort zone”, I am confident that I can integrate plenty of great poems in my CCSS aligned lessons. 

What follows are my notes and reflections on integrating CCSS across an ELA, Social Studies, and Science curriculum at my school. 

**Remember that I teach at a small alternative school serving older students (16-21) who are returning after “dropping out”. These notes are not in any way a prescription; rather what I handed out to my colleagues to support the standards and help to integrate them into our quarter plans.  

- I welcome and encourage discussion & debate about my notes.  Let me know if you feel that I got things right, wrong, or otherwise.  

To Be Fair:  
If you aren't a practicing teacher or administrator, what follows (my personal reflection on a document that has little to do with you) might be totally out of context and I recommend that you jump to other posts that will be of much greater interest and relevance... 


Common Core Implementation & Alignment Plan: 
ELA, Science & Social Studies

CCSS doesn’t touch PEDAGOGY (how to teach) or SPECIFIC CONTENT (within subjects).             
            - Instead, they are a system of higher-level comprehension & writing skills that should be at the heart of instruction across the curriculum.

*Renewed focus on reading & writing in all subject areas (not just ELA)
            - Across ALL classes, students should read 30% literary texts & 70% informational texts
            - Push students to read INDEPENDENTLY to develop skills & confidence

1.     Citing textual evidence as they explain what the text teaches
            - “READ within the four corners of the text”. Meaning, focus on what the text says.  All responses, reactions, & reflections should come from the words on the page. 
            - “As students investigate language, delve into themes and analyze possible morals and meanings of stories, they’ll develop insight into the text and insight into themselves” (Calkins 52).  BUT it must emerge from a close reading of the text, not a summary or the gist of the text… the actual words on the page.

2.     Reading as a 3 step process (understand key ideas & details -> recognize craft & structure => integrate knowledge & ideas)
            - Step 1 is all about literal comprehension, but stay “on the page”. If a student says, “this reminds me of…” or “This makes me think…” redirect back to the literal details in the text.  Try the phrase, “what in the story makes you think that” to keep students in the text.
            - Step 2 moves from what the text says to HOW it says it.  Look at words & phrases, tone, structure, point of view, etc.  Try starting with: “Which words really catch your attention?  What do you notice as you reread the sentence/ paragraph?”
            - Step 3 connects outside texts, ideas, and information.  Push students to understand theme, moral, & argument within the text then connect it to other readings or texts.  Compare the validity of argument & the approaches that different authors take. 

** It is essential that we as teachers demonstrate these 3 steps, provide coaching as students work independently, then provide timely feedback!
* Give students choices on what to read and work to select texts that will be of interest and relevance, as well as align with curricular concepts. 

3.     Reading Nonfiction texts - Follow the same process as reading literary texts.
            - Focus on reading primary source documents, not strictly textbooks that often summarize and are on an inappropriate level. 
            - Remember: the focus is on textual analysis, NOT personal response. Don’t be afraid to refocus students on what the text says explicitly. 
            - “Move students away from reading to accumulate information, to reading to discern ideas and concept sand analyze texts critically for their reasoning and perspective” (Calkins 99)
            - Pay attention to how texts are written, which means paying attention to craft and structure.
            - “Introduce that nonfiction is not necessarily the truth, but rather someone’s perspective or side of the truth” (100). 
** In reading nonfiction, students’ work diligently to understand precisely what an author or speaker is saying, but also question the author’s or speaker’s assumptions and premises and asses the veracity of claims and the soundness of reasoning” (CCSS 7). 

4.  CC Approach to WRITING>>> 3 types: Arguments, Informative/ explanatory, and Narratives
 - Develop and strengthen writing skills through planning, revising, & editing routinely… not once in a while.
 - FOCUS on lucid, clear writing that shows development & organization that are appropriate to the task, purpose, & audience. 
  - Strike a balance between on-demand writing & planned, published writing.  BUT always give clear expectations & feedback. 
** STUDENTS should have an opportunity to return to their writing… revise, edit, reflect… Give them feedback!!

5. Writing ARGUMENT texts.
 - “Argument writing is a BIG DEAL in the CCSS” (Calkins 127)
             - University is largely an “argument culture” (Graff 2003, 24)
- CCSS has STEEP expectations for argument writing… use as a guide based on students’ entry levels.
            - Just like in reading, PUSH and ELEVATE their skills
- Implicit in argument WRITING skills are also evaluation & crucial judgment skills
            - Students need to show logical thinking & REFUTE COUNTERARGUMENTS
            - “ If we assume that this is true, then doesn’t it suggest that… And if we agree on that, then can’t we also say that…” (131)
            - Push students to anticipate counterarguments…. this does not always need to be FORMAL (try informal debate to teach the skills)
- Students need to integrate, evaluate, and ANALYZE sources to support arguments. 
            - Use nonfiction-reading texts to DEMO these skills.  Tie reading & writing together… as we become stronger writers through reading!!

*Remember: Argument matters! It is what gives us voice in a democratic society and can be applied to any subject or topic. 
            - Focus on skills before content.  Allow students to practice argument skills with topics (books, movies, issues) that they are comfortable with before pushing them to apply it to complex and new content. 
** Students know how to argue… draw those skills into the academic realm. 

6.  Informational writing: Conveying facts
- Includes: summaries of texts, descriptions of movies, field trips, books, interviews, experiments, lab reports, math records, applications, instructions, and resumes.
* MAIN IDEA of Informational writing in CCSS: Students should bring the same standard of craftsmanship to informational writing as they would to memoirs, essays, short stories, etc.  Emphasis on using specific information, details, examples, and citations and synthesizing and analyzing that information across key ideas and themes. 
 - Students need to know how to sort, categorize & elaborate on information. 
            - Emphasize “logical structure” & organization in informational writing.  -- Ideas should build within a writing.
            - Think about guided notes, modeling using outlines, then writing reports that require students to organize that information into a logical flow. 
            - DO NOT let students just “plop facts on the page”.  They need to ORGANIZE & ANALYZE those facts. 
**Students won’t just do this naturally… YOU need to DEMONSTRATE, Guide practice, give instruction & feedback… just like with reading.

7. Speaking & Listening and Language (a CCSS afterthought)
 - Speaking & Listening standards focus on COMPREHENSION & COLLABORATION and PRESENTATION
            - speaking includes nonverbal communication, listening includes interacting with media
            *Oral presentations (formal & informal) are crucial to development. All types of writing & reading included
            - Focus on a facilitator not leader role in discussions.  Push students to engage each other. 
- Language should not be taught in isolation (and not only in ELA)
            3 main topics: Conventions of standard English (grammar), Knowledge of language (craft & structure), Vocabulary
            - Focuses on USE IN CONTEXT, rather than memorizing rules. 
            - Consider language as a tool to deeper understanding and stronger arguments
            - Consistency and repetition of skills is crucial! (need to use and be expected to use skills across all classes)

Again, remember that these notes are made in reference to an “alternative population” of older (16-21) students.  Please share your thoughts, arguments, disagreements, and concerns about CCSS. 

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