What about the Common Core?

Is Adoption of Common Core a Mistake?

I have so much to say about the Common Core Standards it is hard to know where to start! There is certainly a “ruckus” being caused by this latest swing of the pendulum, which I find amusing. Having been a teacher for 27 years I have seen the pendulum swing before and it always causes an upset.

The Common Core standards have both positive and negative aspects, but on the whole they have to be better than the multiple-choice tests from No Child Left Behind. After all, there are no multiple-choice tests in real life. On the down side, the Common Core Standards have gaps. Looking at the specific standards from grade to grade, there are gaps and a lack of continuity. For example, the use of repetition in poetry is introduced in 7th grade, and never mentioned again. Is one to assume that teachers will automatically teach it again, or that it has not been introduced in earlier grades? Confusing to say the least. On the positive side, the Listening and Speaking standards are much clearer and more delineated than before, so that I have a good idea of what my kids will need to help them be successful.

The thing I like the most about the standards document is its emphasis on the ability and knowledge of the teacher. As this example from the Initiative for the Common Core State Standards says,

“Fact: The best understanding of what works in the classroom comes from the teachers who are in them. That’s why these standards will establish what students need to learn, but they will not dictate how teachers should teach. Instead, schools and teachers will decide how best to help students reach the standards.”

It is a positive message that gives teachers credit for knowing what they are doing, and having strategies that will help their kids succeed. Now if only the administration of the various districts would believe it! It does not help me as a teacher to be given a lesson to teach without training in the strategies I might use to teach the curriculum. Although I am an experienced teacher, I will be working hard this summer to re-learn and apply strategies to help students work collaboratively. Instead of giving me pre-packaged lessons I should be given planning time with colleagues, and instruction in strategies I might not know that can help me in the classroom. I know that some districts are allowing teachers at the same grade level to work together to create curriculum for the standards and this is what I think would be most meaningful.

I like the emphasis the standards places on analytical thinking and writing. Notice the use of word “analytical” as opposed to “critical” thinking. I recently heard or read (although I cannot remember from where), that the use of critical thinking emphasis in teaching essentially made no difference to final assessment of students. The common core standards is based on the old paradigm of reading where the text is key, contrary to later thinking about reading where understanding results from an interaction between the reader and the text. I understand that there was some thinking among those who wrote the standards that teachers were moving too far away from the text when allowing students to “make connections” between the text and their lives. I can understand the concern, but to say that reading is nothing more than what is in the text is an unacceptable dismissal of all we have learned about reading. As a reading specialist myself, I will continue to make sure that my students have a meaningful interactive understanding of text I use. Certainly I will make sure that “text-dependent” questioning does not mean only asking for literal level thinking.

Something else I like about the Common Core Standards is their focus on writing in terms of using short answer responses, because it includes a number of different skills and purposes. In teaching kids this kind of writing I can ask for differing grammatical structures, the use of formal academic writing, complete and polished sentences, appropriate vocabulary, and a number of other skills. The hardest aspect of writing for students is that it is not speaking. Although we talk about “voice” this does not mean the kind of language you would use in conversation with a friend. Academic writing requires the use of specialized vocabulary and sentence structures, and this is what is hard to teach to 8th graders!  Still, I like the emphasis on short answer responses as it can do a number of things for me the teacher. When I have a student write about what they are learning it is easier to see what they actually understand and where I need to fill in gaps. Of course, this is easier said than done with the numbers I deal with every day. Reading 200 exit slips every day is not really feasible. Finding a way to read all the writing that will be generated by students is yet another thing to ponder over the summer break.

In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times (June 17, 2013 – Was adopting Common Core a mistake?), the writer says, “…there are valid concerns about mandates to reduce the amount of fiction read in English classes.” The Common Core does require more reading of nonfiction but this reading is supposed to be spread among the differing subject areas, for example reading of primary documents in Social Studies. As a literature teacher I can see how to use nonfiction to support my reading of literature, using it to connect to theme, subject, events. This does not mean I will reduce my literature content, as this is the actual content of English classes. Literature is the content of English classes because Literature provides both mirrors and windows for our students, allowing them to learn how to live and grow. I will use more nonfiction in my classroom with the common core, but not at the expense of literature.

I hope that the Common Core will benefit my students. It will take time, training and hard work, but as I am committed to improving the learning of my students I will do my best to use the Common Core in the best ways I can for their benefit.

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