When I set out in June 2012 to blog through the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I was, as long-time readers know, a diehard standards avoider. To me, standards were nothing more than codified wish lists created by committee. They were useful for getting good grades on School of Ed lesson plans, and that was the extent of their value.
But as I worked my way through each standard during Summer 2012, I began to sense that, even though there are only 32 “anchor” standards in the entire CCSS Literacy/ELA document, there are actually way fewer that need to be taught in an in-depth fashion. In other words, even though the CCSS were vastly more focused on long-term student flourishing than their “wish list” predecessors (and thus, in my mind, they were vastly improved), I thought it might be possible to boil them down quite a bit further.
So I started to explore these questions: What if there was a way to teach the Common Core effectively without a 100% throwing out of any non-CCSS curricula? What if there were key, super-croosch standards that, when taught well and extensively, would not just increase engagement in my classroom, but would actually increase long-term student flourishing? (And let’s face it: engaging our students doesn’t automatically translate into promoting their long-term flourishing.)
A refusal to freak
As many readers have shared elsewhere on the blog, Common Core implementation throughout the USA has been largely accomplished with scarce amounts of grace and heaping portions of fear, stress, and ignorance. Too few teachers are given paid PD time to simply read and process the CCSS as professionals, and even less are being trusted to determine with their colleagues what from the Standards is worth our focus.
And yet, despite this generally dismal picture, there are pockets of teachers in every school who refuse to freak out about the Common Core.
I love these people. Freaking out doesn’t get us where we want to go.
However, among these calm folks, there are some who merely advocate ignoring the standards. Their mantra is: don’t teach the CCSS at all.
To me, this is just another brand of unhelpful extremism.
We can do better.
Investing in bang-for-your-buck standards
At the core of the core of the core of my teaching stands this one belief: schools exist to promote long-term student flourishing. Thus, it seems wasteful to wholly ignore a standards document that alleges to focus on college- and career-readiness. I’m all for giving students a love for subjects and an appreciation for aesthetic experiences, but I am not down for doing so at the expense of adequate preparation for post-secondary life.
In other words, I’m not content to see some of my students reading 600 pages of self-selected reading per week while being unable to grapple with difficult (even, dare I say it, boring) tasks. If I unreservedly praise such “lifelong readers,” I kill them softly, effectively saying, “Hey, all it takes to flourish in life is loving reading.”
Thus, when creating the list below, I simply asked this question: what Common Core standards are most likely to prepare science, social studies, and ELA students to flourish when faced with the demands of life after 12th grade?
1. Vastly increase the amount of grade-level complex texts that students are reading
Every kid should have the opportunity to struggle with texts that are appropriately complex for his/her grade level. Often, these texts should be chosen for the student, not the other way around. (This is basically R.CCR.10.)
Put down your weapons! I am NOT against choice reading, book love, or having students read at their “just right” levels. These are good things that make up an integral part of my curriculum. In fact, if it weren’t for the book love that develops in many of my students during the more choice-heavy portion of my curriculum, I would likely have less of them who were willing to grapple with the grade-appropriate complex texts that I teach them to read.
For example, I teach 9th grade, and yet some of my students can only read at elementary levels. While I encourage them to read choice books that they find enjoyable, I also require them to experience the same opportunity that I give my on-level and advanced readers: the chance to read the level of texts that 9th graders across the nation are reading. Even though we are from a small, working-class town, my students are motivated by having much expected of them.
the upcoming Part 2 for more on providing opportunities for reading complex texts and how to get students reading them, even when they can’t pick; meanwhile, check out “What’s the Big Deal about Text Complexity” and/or leave a comment at the end of this post if there’s something you’d like me to address!)
2. Teach the whole class how to closely read grade-level complex texts
Obviously, it would be pretty jacked up if I were to give Johnny “I-read-at-a-fifth-grade-level” Johnson a copy of Things Fall Apart or an article from The Week and tell him, “Yo, read this,” only to then go to my desk, put up my feet, and sip my coffee.
It’s pointless to give students grade-level complex texts if we don’t empower students with simple, effective instructional practices like modeling, vocabulary instruction, annotating, and checks for understanding (Mike Schmoker’s Focus is baller at explaining this). That’s why, to me, R.CCR.1 is the perfect complement to R.CCR.10.
I’m not saying that these instructional practices are going to magically make it so Johnny J. can read Things Fall Apart at 100% comprehension and enjoyment. I am saying that they are going to give him a shot to struggle and grow as best he can with a text that’s within reach of someone who’s on track to be college- and career-ready.
the upcoming Part 3 for more on close reading and simple, authentic literacy instruction; in the meantime, check out this post, and/or leave a comment if there’s something you’d like me to address in that post!)
3. Go big on argument
One of the reasons reluctant readers tend to read complex texts in my classroom is because we’ll be doing plenty of arguing during and after the reading, and, as my students can tell you, arguers with evidence tend to pwn the heck out of those without.
Far too few educators and administrators know the power of argument for developing an enjoyable life of the mind. For the last two years, I’ve sought to internalize and roll out the vision of Jerry Graff’s Clueless in Academe and They Say / I Say, and my (often flawed) efforts have managed to produce students who tend to freaking love arguing, debating, and discussing ideas and texts.
One key reason that so many undervalue argument is because they associate it with anger and discord. But argument proper is something that can actually bring us together and, as one author puts it, helps us collaboratively “get to the bottom of things.”
the upcoming Part 4 for more on argumentation; in the meantime, check out “A First Day of School Activity that Teaches Argumentation,” “Video: One Way to Rock Out CCSS-Friendly, In-class Debates,” “Why I Embrace Argument in My Classroom,” or simply “W.CCR.1 Explained.” Also, leave a comment at the end of this post if there’s something you’d like me to address in Part 4.)
4. Ensure that every student speaks, every day.
Before you feel like I’m pointing my finger at you and saying, “You’re a bad teacher because you don’t do this!”, let me confess that I literally just started requiring every student to speak last year (so for 5/6 of my career at this point, I have gone against what I’m about to say).
The soul of the Speaking and Listening standards can pretty much be satisfied by simply requiring every student to speak, every day.
I attempt to do this in two basic ways: with index cards, and with mandatory speaking assessments (debates and discussions). I’m certainly a noob in this area, but I’ll share what I do in
the upcoming Part 5: Every Kid Talks.
5. Write like there’s no tomorrow
When kids write a lot, growth rates increase. Kathy, an early commentator on this post, recommended adding this item to the non-freaked out list, and she is totally right. See the upcoming Part 6 for a discussion on writing more in ELA, social studies, and science classes.
6. Teach grit and self-control
I will be surprised if non-cognitive skills (my students and I refer to them as character strengths) do not gain a large share of the ed reform conversation in the decade to come. A big reason that most of my students are willing to tread the demanding paths of complex texts, close reading, and arguing is because they are growing in their skill at grit and self-control.
My colleagues and I explicitly teach, model, recognize, and speak as much as we can about these two high-power, non-cognitive skills. Grit is Angela Duckworth’s word for resilience, stick-to-it-iveness, and persistance. Self-control contains the skills of being prepared, resisting procrastination, paying attention, following directions, and controlling one’s temper.
The reason I add these to a short list of high bang-for-your-buck standards is simple: they hugely correlate to human flourishing, and, without them, the Common Core is infinitely harder and more pointless.
Because here’s the thing: Suzy “I’m a freaking genius” Smith might be rocking a 36 on her ACTs as a freshmen, but if she has a low tolerance for hardship or can’t find a way to manage her time, she’s got a great chance of quitting at life’s important obstacles.
(See the upcoming Part 7 for more on how I implement character strengths; in the meantime, check out Paul Tough’s awesome book How Children Succeed. Also, leave a comment below if there’s something you’d like me to address in Part 7.)
7. (ELA Only) Teach grammar/mechanics both explicitly and in context
All my social studies and science friends, you can scroll to the bottom now because the Common Core lays grammar instruction solely on the shoulders of our brothers and sisters in English Language Arts. These are what the CCSS call the Language standards.
There seems to be a growing sentiment in ELA that all explicit grammar instruction is bad. For example, when I tell folks that I teach my freshmen students seven rules for using commas and expect my students to memorize those rules, many of them look at me as if I’ve just defenestrated a kitten.
Instead, these horrified folks argue that grammar must be entirely taught in context or through the use of mentor sentences. In Part 6, I’ll advocate for a more balanced approach to grammar instruction.
(And again, if there’s something specific you’d like me to address in Part 8, do let me know in the comments section below. In the meantime, feel free to check out this Prezi, “Grammar for Life.”)
That’s it, for realsies
I’m fully aware that I’ve cut out wide swaths of the CCSS. As I’ll explain throughout this series of posts, much of the CCSS does fit into the above 5 standards, and I’ll argue that those that don’t just aren’t worth focusing on until we get really freaking good at empowering students with what I’ve laid out in these posts. And as a nice added benefit, by focusing on the standards above, we’re able to maintain room for much of the good stuff we’ve been doing all along.
Naturally, I welcome comrades, naysayers, well-wishers, and answer-seekers to the comments section below. Thanks so much for reading