By Adam Heenan
I consider most conflicts to be problems of design. As a teacher, my first task is always to design lessons that are engaging. Some teachers do this very easily with humor, or great storytelling. I do this by prioritizing relevant and valuable ideas shared by the students in the room, and I excel at that… or so my students and their parents tell me. If my designs are off, my lessons will not be engaging and my students will not learn. And, believe me, students are quite effective at letting me know when my lessons are not engaging.
In general, learning standards are implemented as a design solution for a problem that never was. In my nine years of teaching social studies and Spanish, I have had to learn and prioritize the Illinois Learning Standards – of which there are six different sets for the social studies ‑ along with socio-emotional standards, the ACT-aligned College Readiness Standards, and now the Common Core State Standards for literacy. (There are no social studies standards for this newest set, so by default, I am directed to use the non-fiction reading and writing standards.) As part of my evaluation, all of these standards are to be accounted for in my lesson plans, as if they add value that wasn’t already there in the lessons I’ve been teaching. Please consider the value and relevance of the following lesson currently happening in my classroom.
I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course for high school juniors in a Chicago public school. The first quarter, which just finished on October 31st, focused on professional skills; the second quarter revolves around money management. This week my students – who have just completed their mock interview for a future career – must go through the steps of determining a place to live on a fixed salary, and then present their decision to their peers in the form of a brief PowerPoint presentation.
To complete this project, the students must first determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (determined by scale based upon their grade from last semester, e.g. students who received an “A” earn $42,000, and performance in the mock interview), and then they must find a place to live. To do this, students scour the Internet for classified ads on webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that the students who did really well in the mock interview have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while the ones who didn’t do so well might have to find a classmate willing to be a roommate. Some even have to explain in their presentations why they are living at home in their parents’ attic!
Year after year, this is one of the most popular lessons I do with my students because they consider it both relevant and valuable to their real lives. Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually the first opportunity they have had to navigate their possibilities for determining their living options. This is an assignment that requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity. They love being able to compare who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.
They apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for the paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills both in the presentation of their PowerPoint and in the negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates for who get different sized rooms. Some of the students argue that since their partners/roommates are contributing unequal amounts money, than perhaps that person’s bedroom will be the size of a walk-in closet. We all get a good laugh, and then move on to budgeting in the real world the following week.
If I have explained the purpose of this activity clearly, the reader probably wasn’t judging this lesson based upon their determining what standard I was trying to teach. That’s because I’m not trying to teach a standard, I am teaching a valuable lesson to young people: how to find a place to live when you are on your own, something that most people have to do sometime in their young adult lives.
This lesson has changed very little over the years I have taught it. Neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards, and not even the Illinois Learning Standards have any bearing on the value of this lesson. The standards are inconsequential. The activities are not derived from or determined by standards; the lesson comes from the students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.
Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community. But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with the pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the assessments (read: standardized tests). What then happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve describes? They get relegated to “extra credit” instead of being the subject matter of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor classroom learning to the assessments that teachers most likely did not design.
This is not an appeal for more help in learning how to implement the standards better in my teaching. If I wanted support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I could get it. I could ask my administration or my union, and both would be responsive. I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for some webinars in my pajamas any night of the week. Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and Education Week is forever advertising a new solution system for my administration to buy. Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago. What if all that money went directly into classrooms instead?
No, I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we should not do it, because it does not prioritize the needs of the people in the teaching and learning process: students and educators. In fact, I believe we should actively resist its implementation, and provide educators with the autonomy, support and time to design engaging lessons in the ways they know best: by prioritizing the people in the room.