Teaching Opinion

‘We Can Do Better’ : An Interview With Jim Burke

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 29, 2013 6 min read
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I will be responding to the most recent “question-of-the-week” (What Are The Unique Challenges Facing Male Teachers?) in a few days.

Today, I’m publishing a special post -- an interview with educator and author Jim Burke.

Jim has written more than 20 books and is the founder of the English Companion Ning --the largest online community of English teachers in the world. He teaches at Burlingame High School, Burlingame, CA.

His latest books are The Common Core Companion:The Standards Decoded, Grades 9-12: What They Say, What They Mean, How to Teach Them and a similar one for grades 6-8.

LF: How would you summarize -- let’s say, in five bullet points or less -- the key strategies, goals or emphasizes that would be helpful for teachers to keep in mind as they move towards aligning their teaching to Common Core Standards?

Jim Burke:

Important shifts to focus on:


* Constructing One’s Own and Analyzing Others’


* Of the Text, Topic, and Task

Academic Vocabulary

* Tier Two Words (analyze, account)

Informational Texts

* 55% (8th Grade) 70% (12th Grade)--but a responsibility all must help to meet, not just English teachers!

Writing from Sources

* Range of Media and Perspectives

Increased emphasis on writing

* Argument, informational, and narrative, as well as to think

Literacy Demands Across Content Areas

* Reading and writing information and argument

LF: Some of us are not happy with how the Common Core Standards came about and the perspective that new “standards” are what public education needs, but have concluded that it’s the reality and we just need to adapt to it. Others counsel direct resistance to it, while other educators like them. Where do you fit on that spectrum and why?

Jim Burke:

I work for the San Mateo Union High School District and Burlingame High School as a public employee who is expected to teach students what they need to succeed after they graduate (I teach all seniors). I go to work in a public high school every day and have sent all three of my own kids to public schools in San Francisco Unified. The range of activities that I see makes it difficult for me not to see the Common Core as a benefit to kids, community, and country in terms of improving instruction. I have never seen my own school or schools around the country so engaged in the discussion about what kids need to know and how we can best teach it.

I would divide my response here between my perspective as a writer and that of a teacher. As a writer, I feel obligated to do what I can to help teachers understand what the document says, what it means, and how they can use it to teach their subject with integrity and creativity. There are areas in the CC, such as argument, that have not been part of many teachers’ curriculum. In the Common Core Companion, I tried to redesign the document in a way that would help us all use it more efficiently and effectively by consolidating the different strands--literature, information, history/social studies, and science/technical subjects--on one page so we can see what they want us to be doing, for example, on reading standard 1, across all those disciplines.

LF: What do you foresee as being some of the biggest challenges educators will face in the transition to Common Core Standards?

Jim Burke:

* People worry they will have to toss out all they currently do and start over.

* Teachers have a lot to learn in certain areas and schools struggle to make time during the year to address that need. Some schools are devoting the whole year to just learning about argument school-wide.

* Responsibility of non-ELA teachers to seriously incorporate content literacy into their subjects in preparation for the exams, which draw on that content area knowledge in ways English teachers simply cannot address. Even the few released examples clearly show the type of questions they will be asked.

* The questions based on Webb’s DOK model; they are profoundly more complex and demanding than any previous state exam questions.

* The logistics of the hardware for the assessments as well as schools’ follow up to the assessments. There are two phases to all this: Before the exam in 2015 and after the exams, when we see not just how students perform but how administrators respond.

LF: Can you see the Standards being modified in the future based on the real-world experience of educators? If so, how? If not, why?

Jim Burke:

I think this sort of revision is inevitable but we need to get the model and the system, including the technology used for the assessments, ironed out. I find myself looking on as the Universal Health Care program is rolled out this week and thinking if the CCSS exams have the same sort of glitches, it will be sunk. Also, as the world changes and literacy evolves, the assessments will.

LF: Based on what you know of the soon-to-come “next generation” of standardized tests based on the Common Core, what do you think of them?

Jim Burke:

What I have seen in my work with PARCC and in my role as a teacher I find to be interesting. There is no perfect test; there never will be. These tests make intelligent demands of kids, though; all the questions I have seen are the sort that kids should be able to work out if they are to be qualified for any sort of demanding work. It is the demands on thinking that intrigue me the most.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Jim Burke:

I come from a family where my dad and all his brothers dropped out of school and went into the trades (my father worked for the state printing office). My father supported his family by working hard, learning on his own, and advancing by examinations. They had several thousand applicants for two positions at the fire station near my school, and that began with a demanding multiple choice exam, then an oral exam, and finally, for the survivors, a written exam.

Both of my sons are in college, and the demands on them have been entirely consistent with everything in the Common Core. In this time leading up to the exams, I see a tremendous interest in teaching and learning that can only lead to something better than we have had in the last decade or two. I just read Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World and it’s hard not to think, as one reads that books discussion of other countries, that we can do better, can expect more when we have teenagers spending an average of 10,000 hours playing video games by the time they are 18. There are more teachers all the time earning near or more than six figures. A salary like that gives people cause to expect a great deal of us and, in turn, our students.

LF: Thanks, Jim!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Readers might also be interested in previous posts on this blog about Implementing The Common Core.

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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Look for the response to the most recent “question-of-the-week” in a few days. There’s still time to leave comments!

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