Published Online: June 18, 2013

Common Core: Diamond in the Rough?

Dina, a 7th grade language arts teacher, and Cheryl, a high school English/language arts teacher-turned-consultant, are long-time friends who recently got to talking about the Common Core State Standards and what they mean for educators. Here are some excerpts from their dialogue.

Cheryl: My work connects me with teachers in the midst of change. “First-order” change can be easy: It’s consistent with community values, has been generally approved, and doesn't require new knowledge or skills. “Second-order” change is tough. Maybe it’s not obvious that it’s for the best. Or maybe it requires new ideas, habits, and skills.

Many teachers are experiencing the common-core implementation as massive second-order change … even as eleventh-order change. Finding joy in this kind of change can be tough.

Dina: Along these lines, this terrifically difficult year seemed completely tied to the juggernaut at first: the Godzilla-like common core. And I’d be misleading you if I said I didn’t still have questions and concerns. However, my key realization was that the majority of those concerns were not based in the core itself, but in the way the core was being implemented (I could write a whole other article on that). Suffice it to say here that in the Dickensian worst of times, it was actually elements of the common core itself that buoyed my spirit and saved me from despair. And where I found joy, my students found joy.

See Also
Previous piece by Strasser and Dobbertin: “Four Myths About the ELA Common-Core Standards”

Cheryl: You are not alone in noticing joyful learning. I know of several classrooms, including one where 2nd graders dug into a deep study of snakes (of all things), where students are having a blast even as they are really striving. Kids enjoy a good argument—including, in my 2nd grade example, about whether or not snakes should be feared. That novelty in trying new kinds of writing as they look at interesting authentic texts is fun. And the 2nd grade herpetologists at Conservatory Lab Charter School and their teacher showed me that motivation and engagement get a lift when the kids communicate what they’ve learned to an audience outside the classroom.

Dina: I have another example: my 7th grade unit on bullying. A key part of it was a very flexible, powerful lesson often called a “Socratic circle.” In Socratic circles, teachers provide students with a higher-level thinking question, then cut them loose to talk about it as a class. If you’re thinking this sounds simpler than it is, you’re absolutely right.

I’d combed through multiple ways of approaching this lesson to target the first Common Core Speaking and Listening Standard (7.1), and combined the best of what I found.

Provide a crystal-clear discussion format. I used my projector to display three or four speaking guidelines throughout class (“One person speaks at a time,” “Talk to one another, not to me,” and “A full, contributing response is …” ). I distributed a list of questions on bullying. A time-keeper student made sure we limited our discussion to five minutes for each question.

On each student’s desk was a picture of Chuck Norris. When a student gave a full response, I collected their “Chuck.” After a certain point, I asked these students to step back and become “thoughtful listeners,” while those who still had Chucks carried the conversation forward.

Cheryl: The 2nd graders used a similar structure, called “science talks.” What other tips do you have?

Dina: Give students time to sift through their thoughts. I gave students five minutes before each question so students could take notes before they spoke.

Model—then get the heck out. Before your “real” discussion, run a quick circle on something fun, like, “Did you enjoy your lunch today? Why or why not?” Kids can practice adhering to the guidelines, but—as importantly—you can practice keeping your own trap shut. Honor the idea that this is their conversation, not yours. Aside from brief comments about following the guidelines, do not judge, prod, or dig unless absolutely necessary. Instead, take notes on the riveting points your students come up with on their own.

Make sure your questions are open-ended, debatable, and based in “how” and “why.” Bloom’s Taxonomy can help. Two examples: “Is fighting back against bullying ever necessary? Under what circumstances?”

Cheryl: After the circle, you hit them with an authentic text, didn’t you? And a purpose?

Dina: I used New York’s new anti-bullying law, “The Dignity for All Students Act,” passed in July 2012. Much of the act is indecipherable technical jargon, but here’s the good news: The common core does not require us to teach that stuff. Instead, it asks that teachers expose students, thoughtfully and with precision, to texts that deliberately challenge their thinking.

So we close-read chunks of the law that directly outline bullying and its legal consequences in New York. I asked juicy questions: “Why does this law make a distinction between ‘discrimination’ and ‘harassment’? Are they different? How?”

Then came the moment every teacher loves: when students spontaneously create their own relevant tasks. The law says that “plain-text versions” of the act must be available in schools. A student piped up: There was no plain-text copy of the law in our Code of Conduct. His peers agreed. He sent a polite email of inquiry to our principal. The answer was innocent—our Code of 2012 had gone to press before the law was passed—but the students’ joy in asking a relevant question was palpable. A typical multiple-choice or essay assessment on a standard piece of literature would never have brought us to this point.

As far as purpose goes, near the end of the unit, students created brochures on bullying. They selected one of three audiences: a bullied student, a parent of a bullied student, or a bully. A pithy writing tool called PASS (purpose, audience, subject, self) helped students frame their tasks. Then they researched, drafted, and revised. We then spent a day or two figuring out how we would put these products “out into the world.”

Cheryl: I’ve noticed that this is where lots of teachers get stuck. “Out into the world” does not have to be overwhelming. Start by making one student-created product accessible to one real-world audience. Maybe it’s as simple as photocopying students’ work, addressing an envelope, and mailing it. The key? Helping kids realize that someone really cares about what they have to say or how they are saying it. he more authentic the audience, the harder kids will work to craft quality work. How did you get your students’ work out there?

Dina: For the bullying unit, I encouraged kids to have a product go public in our school. After a brainstorming session, students voted, selecting their favorite of the top six student-generated ideas.

Cheryl: The 2nd graders were also excited to bring their learning to the world as you can see in this video. It’s good to hear and see that teachers—and kids—are continuing to be creative and joyful in the midst of second-order change.

Dina: Second-order change is tough work, no joke. But I would encourage teachers to look at the common core as a diamond in the rough. I think you can still “notice and wonder” about the core’s implementation without discarding the remarkable value within the standards themselves.

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