By Mark Anderson
The Common Core standards have provided rich fodder for outrage and tendentiousness throughout 2014, and will likely continue to do so in 2015. But why do we endlessly debate and polarize policies, instead of seeking to implement them in a way that best helps the citizens they were crafted to serve? (See early education, healthcare, etc., ad nauseam).
While folks are still arguing over whether Common Core is the hellspawn of all evil, educators at my school are working to revamp our curriculum and practices, using the new standards as a guide.
Last year, my ELA department elected to try Expeditionary Learning’s Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum, which has been made freely available on NY Engage. We found much to admire, but we also realized we had other areas of study we would like to explore further. For example, this year, all grades (6-8) are reading a dramatic text by Shakespeare, and each grade has dedicated a unit to studying poetry. We’re balancing the materials we developed around EL’s curriculum last year–along with curriculums we’re developing on our own–using the Common Core to steer our planning and assessments.
The standards are vague on details, so there’s a lot to unpack. What does it mean to “read closely”? Annotation must be an aspect of reading closely, so what expectations for annotating do we communicate to our students? And how do we assess them?
And that’s just the basics. Then there are the real doozies, like Reading Literature Standard 5 for 7th grade: “Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.” How do we teach students to conduct such an analysis? What knowledge and vocabulary do students require to understand the structure of a sonnet or a soliloquy? How will we prepare our students in each grade to understand how structure conveys meaning, across all different types of texts?
To support our understanding of the standards, I decided to draw on other resources to fill in the gaps. For example, I like the approach and guidance that the Massachusetts ELA standards have provided, so I used Sandra Stotsky’s ELA Curriculum Framework as a guide for content and knowledge specific to poetry. And to better determine the discrete skills specific to the standards and how they might evolve across grades, I reviewed ETS’s CBAL Learning Progressions. Using these and other resources, I tried to break down the knowledge, skills, products, and scaffolds of each standard across the grades that I teach (I co-teach 6-8 as a special education teacher). So far, I’ve only barely gotten through the Reading Literature standards!
My analysis document was useful for my own thought process, but difficult for planning purposes, so I condensed the potential products for each standard, trying to visualize what would be most concrete for both teachers and students. For example, for Reading Literature Standard 5 in 6th grade, one method of both assessment and scaffolding would be to utilize a narrative arc graphic organizer to track the development of a story’s plot.
By engaging in this process, I began to establish how I and other teachers could assess and teach the standards consistently across grades, as well as how we might sequentially build on the knowledge and skills taught at each level.
We just completed our units on poetry across all grades, and are now immersed in Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet). As we plan our units, I refer back to my standards analysis to assist our thinking in how we will target and assess our instruction. For example, we decided to focus on Standard 5 in our poetry units. Across the grades, we consistently taught concepts and vocabulary based on poetic structure, such as stanza lengths like quatrain, cinquain, or rhyming couplet. Our current 6th graders will now be equipped to build on their introduction to enjambment and caesura, so that by the time they get to 8th grade, they will be much better equipped than our current 8th graders with cumulative knowledge and skills.
To see how we assessed Standard 5 across grades and get an idea of how we view each grade building successively on the other, you can examine our 6th grade, 7th grade, and 8th grade culminating tasks.
I present this process not to imply that my school’s analysis and curriculum development is better than anything else out there, but rather to suggest that time spent digging into the standards will yield resources and knowledge that will be of benefit to students. I encourage educators who may find themselves caught up in political currents to engage in a similar process to keep our focus on what really counts: the content we teach our students.
In 2015, I’d like to see less bickering about politics and ideology, and more resources and knowledge shared by professionals about how we can better support our students and teachers in exceeding the targets of the Common Core standards.
Mark Anderson is a 7th and 8th grade Special Education teacher in the Bronx, NY. He participated in the VIVA New York Task Force.