Design Lessons for Students, not Standards

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.

AHeenanAdam Heenan teaches social science at Curie Metropolitan High School. He participated in the VIVA Chicago Idea Exchange and is a member of the VIVA Leadership Center.


Common Core in 2013: Facts from Fiction

By Beth Hillerns

The Common Core Standards are making their way into more and more schools and classrooms, and their implementation seem to be causing nearly as much controversy as their adoption. One of those controversies is the requirement that by 12th grade, students should be reading 70 percent nonfiction and 30 percent fiction.

This surprises me — not the requirement, but the controversy. The goal of the Common Core is to have students be college and career ready by graduation. Most of the reading I did in college and now do for my career is nonfiction, so the percentages don’t seem out of line with the goal. Apparently, though, some people have interpreted the nonfiction/fiction split to represent what should be taking place in the English classroom and not across the school day. I think this interpretation is a serious mistake.

There is a lot that could be controversial in the Common Core, but the nonfiction/fiction split should not be. Instead I think this issue highlights some serious organizational problems in our schools.

Problem #1 – Our teachers are isolated. Often the only interaction teachers have with their peers is in the staff lounge or parking lot.

Problem #2 – Reading skills across the content areas are not adequately supported. Although the Common Core specifically addresses reading in the content areas (social studies and science in particular), many teachers still view them as just language arts and math standards – the domain of those teachers.

Problem #3 – There is a misunderstanding of textbooks as curriculum. Textbooks should be one resource for teachers, but other sources should be included and other texts read by students. Too often, teachers have to find resources on their own, with their own time and money, if they choose. This leads to dry, uninspiring reading.

As long as these problems persist, teachers will find it challenging to implement the Common Core reading requirements across the school day. To address these problems, school districts can do three things:

Solution #1 – Facilitate peer observations as an integral part of our profession. Teachers in one another’s classrooms should be commonplace. This will help teachers learn from one another and know more about how to work together to implement standards that are integrated, not isolated.

Solution #2 – Employ literacy coaches. Literacy coaches can provide knowledge and demonstration of reading strategies and instruction to teachers who are already experts in their content area. They can also provide opportunities for effective peer observation.

Solution #3 – Use texts in addition to textbooks. Give teachers (individually or through a curriculum committee) the time to find texts that address their standards and the resources to provide these texts to students. A literacy coach can facilitate this process.

As our world becomes more integrated, we cannot afford to let our schools remain places of isolation. We’ve got to pay attention to the big picture first. The fact is, teachers can work together to implement standards across the curriculum.

VIVA Teachers leader Freeda Pirillis in the New York Times

Fresh off being featured in our blog, Freeda Pirillis makes it into the New York Times, in quote and image:

 “You can continue to say you’re accountable for x, y and z,” said Freeda Pirillis, a first-grade teacher at Agassiz Elementary School in Chicago. “But if you don’t support teachers and students in that work, then that’s just an empty sort of thing.” She noted, for example, that “we continue to have textbooks in our school that show that Bill Clinton was our last president.”

Read the full article here.

VIVA Teacher Leader Jeanne Walker Breathes Life and Empowers

Originally published at the Chicago Sun-Times.

I breathe life into standards to empower students


In the midst of all the rhetoric about strikes, teacher evaluations and a longer school day, perhaps it is time to step back and ask: What is the purpose of education in urban Chicago?

I truly believe that education liberates each person to reach his or her full capacity and makes democracy possible. I know that each student can be an outstanding member of our community. This is why I teach.

Sadly, my passion and purpose appear to be the antithesis of our current “fixes” to the education of my urban students. The public arguments about test scores, time in school and teacher effectiveness are far from the actual needs of my students, who come from tough West Side neighborhoods and face challenges most middle-class people can’t even imagine.

Recently, I was asked to explain how I factor College Readiness Standards into my art classes. For kids who deal daily with violence, drugs, gangs, youth killing, teen pregnancy, poverty and racism, art is a big opportunity to express the unimaginable. And we want them confined and lassoed to College Readiness Standards that do not even exist for art? It is the round peg being forced into the square hole.

I see my job as using art to help my students explore what they need to know, the skills they need to cultivate. We concentrate on breaking down the issues and finding root causes so they can figure out who their allies are, how to make a plan and act on that plan and, ultimately, how to speak truth to power.

I see that sort of social justice and empowerment as the true purpose of education.

I build a great deal of service learning — connecting what is taught in the classroom to issues in the community — into my classroom because that helps students relate their reality to their education. This is authentic College Readiness. It teaches them to navigate the world they live in, and the world they hope to live in, how to be advocates for themselves, how to get along with others, how to think about root causes and solutions, how to think critically and how to believe in themselves as people who can bring about change.

But none of those educational goals seem to count. People don’t want to hear about my social justice curriculum. Instead, they ask: Where are my standards? What is my students’ growth on tests? How much value added can be quantified for each student I teach?

I breathe life into your standards, I want to shout. I make the standards more than a plate of dry data served up in heaps so high my students are suffocating, wondering, “Why do I need to know this?”

Everything I teach, everything I give to my students, everything my students give to me, I want it to be full of meaning and relevancy and what they desperately need to know to transform their lives.

They need to know how to talk to someone who knows 50 ways to say no. They need to know the language of policy and power and how to speak it and use it. They need to know how to make a plan, make it happen and sustain it. That’s the Life Readiness my students need.

Yes, we can and should measure how well they are developing those problem-solving skills. But first we have to agree that the goal of education is to liberate students with content and thinking skills so that they can be productive members of our community.

My bottom line is not about numbers or scores; it is about my students and their lives and do they leave my classroom believing in their ability to make change in a community surrounded by violence and drugs and guns?

If I teach them to be the change, then I can truthfully call myself a teacher.

Jeanne Walker is an art teacher at Orr High School and was a member of the VIVA Chicago Teachers Writing Collaborative, which developed 49 recommendations for better uses of time in school, many of which were adopted by CPS. Click here to read her op-ed on the Chicago Sun-Times website.