Promethean Plan: A Teacher on Fulfilling the Intent of the Common Core, Part 3

by Guest Blogger
August 20th, 2013

By Mark Anderson

Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.

In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 2, he discusses the problems with placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA.

 

Prometheus statue, Rockefeller Center

 

Mistake #3: Infantilizing teachers

Teaching is an incredibly dynamic and complex endeavor. Yet teachers are all too often managed as if it were a low-skill profession.

Calls for increasing standards for hiring, training, and retaining teachers, thankfully, are now in ascendancy. Yet we continue to treat teachers in the field like children incapable of independent thought. This is brutally evident in the manner in which the Common Core standards are currently getting rolled out in schools across our nation.

Rather than centering the hard work of implementation of the Common Core on teachers—the ones who will implement them and are ostensibly the most knowledgeable on matters of pedagogy and students’ needs—we instead see resources focused on external consultants and organizations who have a tendency to transmogrify the rich content and ideas of the standards into checklists and shallowly “aligned” materials. The end result is that schools and districts look over a quick reference sheet, check off a few boxes from the list, and determine that their curriculum and practices are “aligned” to the Common Core. It’s easy to pretend that something is aligned to the Common Core. Look, we have nonfiction texts! Look, we write essays that require online research! Such simplistic renderings effectively declaw the standards of any of their transformative power.

But none of this comes as a surprise: It parallels our decades-long push to infantilize our students by denying them access to real academic discipline and to systematic exposure to domain-specific knowledge. An unfortunate outcry against Common Core and the introduction of complex texts, such as we just witnessed in reactions to New York’s release of test scores, is that some students can’t possibly be expected to meet such rigorous standards. Students most desperately in need of access to knowledge and literature are too often denied that access, thus falling further and further behind. Those students need the Common Core—not some declawed facsimile.

Let’s be honest for a second here: no one really knows exactly what the Common Core will look like in implementation in a given classroom or curriculum. There are models, exemplars, and plentiful suggestions, many of them quite good (check out EngageNY, LearnZillion, and TeachingChannel) but much of that is based on an isolated standard or text, as opposed to a fully contextualized curriculum or scope and sequence (even Core Knowledge Language Arts, which is content-rich and brings history and science into the ELA block, is not a complete curriculum). And those curricula that are being developed can be vastly different, dependent on a given author’s pedagogical and theoretical standpoint.

So who are the “experts” here? Must we wait for the major textbook publishing companies to figure it out for us?

I have a revolutionary suggestion: how about we put our chips down on the scholarship of our nation’s teachers, and provide them with the space and time to immerse themselves deeply in the analysis and interpretation of the Common Core?

If our teachers haven’t fully contextualized the Common Core standards into their own understanding, then how else are they supposed to actualize them in their classrooms?

If our teachers haven’t steeped themselves deeply in the study of the content and texts they are going to teach, how else are they supposed to transfer knowledge and skills to their students?

There’s one answer to those questions, and that is the answer that most districts seem to have unthinkingly adopted: hand teachers a packaged curriculum and expect them to deliver it with unquestioned fidelity.

This is the wrong answer. Classroom practice will not be transformed if teachers are not treated as professionals and scholars. It takes professionalism to deeply engage with one’s colleagues on curriculum and pedagogy. It takes scholarship to carefully select and study complex texts that will build students’ domain-specific knowledge and understanding of literary history.

It takes a systematic, school-wide effort to then integrate and align practices, texts and content across all grade levels in a manner that builds knowledge sequentially and coherently. It then takes a systematic, district-wide or state-wide effort to integrate and align different school curricula such that core content is consistent, such that if a student transfers from one school to another, large gaps in knowledge will not be created.

Or alternately, it may require disrupting location-based integration altogether, and seeking to harness online collaborative resources to establish a measure of coherency.

The best professional development I have experienced on Common Core has been with LearnZillion. At first glance, LearnZillion appears to be just another Gates Foundation-funded edtech startup. But dig a little deeper beyond the surface, and you will begin to notice that the folks who are making those video lessons are actual classroom teachers (full and happy disclosure: I am one of them). Earlier this year, LearnZillion gathered 200 educators from 41 different states to meet, learn from one another and from “experts,” and design Common Core aligned lessons together. In other words, LearnZillion is doing something that almost no district is seeking to do, and to do it at scale: invest in teacher scholarship, expertise, and interpretation of Common Core. Most of the materials these teachers are creating are freely available, and other teachers can utilize them as they deem fit.

This is the model that districts and schools need to adopt if we are to actualize the Common Core with the true transformative intent and spirit that the authors envisioned. Give teachers the time and space to plunge deep into the Common Core and struggle with how they would teach to the standards in their classrooms. Then allow them to share, discuss, and modify their materials with one another.

The AFT has invested in TES’s Share My Lesson platform, and the NEA went with BetterLesson. I like to just use Google Drive. There’s great potential for harnessing online platforms to more coherently build a collective repository of curricular resources for the Common Core that can better refine and build our collective understanding of how it should be implemented. Personally, I believe (and have argued elsewhere) that since we have a system of public education, our curriculum should also be fully transparent and accessible to the public.

But such an investment in teacher expertise and scholarship is just the beginning. I’m not suggesting that teachers don’t need guidance, support, and direction from researchers, professors, organizations, and practitioners in other fields. A great place to begin for guidance would be to sit down as a school and look at the Core Knowledge Sequence together, in addition to Common Core’s list of text exemplars in Appendix B. I have also created templates (6th, 7th, and 8th grades), based on PARCC’s suggestions for a curricular framework, that has the text suggestions from both at the bottom, as well as suggested authors and texts from Massachusetts’ ELA standards.

My point is that the Common Core standards must be interpreted and understood by each teacher who is to teach to them. They must be contextualized. They must be studied and challenged and debated by grade level and content department teams. Only in this way will the difficult transition from rhetoric into practice be successfully enacted.

Otherwise, Common Core will remain little but a grand vision ossified in text.

Here’s one short-term measure we can take to ensure that we do not continue to infantilize our nation’s teachers:

  • Provide scheduled and paid time for teachers to work together to explore, interpret, and actualize the Common Core into either their own curriculum and materials, or teacher-selected curriculum and materials.

For longer-term measures, we need to continue to focus on raising the expectations and standards for the teaching profession, such as by requiring a national bar exam, as Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein have suggested, and raising standards for schools of education, as NCTQ has suggested.

The pitfalls for effective implementation of Common Core are legion, and we are already witnessing states and districts plunging straightaway into them. That’s OK. As any teacher could tell you, it’s part of the learning process. The question is not whether we will make these mistakes, but whether we will learn from them and move forward with a focus on what will take our students and our system of public education to the next level.

I can assure you of one thing. If we continue to perpetuate skills-based teaching, place the entire burden of teaching literacy on ELA, and ignore the need for teacher scholarship and professionalism, then Common Core’s transformative power and potential will not be realized.

 

8 Comments »

  1. [...] Teaching Fellow, and also, fellow LearnZillion Dream Team member, Mark Anderson speaks on this with aplomb on his blog. Have a look and give me your feedback. Share Away!ShareLike this:Like [...]

    Pingback by Mark Anderson & The Common Core | Eric Nentrup — August 20, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

  2. Mark,

    Granted, I only sampled a few modules related to “The Road Not Taken”, but what I saw on LearnZillion seemed focused on skills, not content. Make predictions. Read poem. Go back and reflect on your prediction. The poem itself gets subordinated to the apparatus of metacognitive strategies. Yuck. The bright young female voices narrating the videos seem to have swallowed Lucy Calkins hook-line-and-sinker.

    Comment by Ponderosa — August 22, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

  3. Thanks for your comment, Ponderosa.

    In the development of those lessons, LearnZillion is doing one critical thing right: when the teachers plan their sequence of lessons for a given text, they don’t begin with the standards–they begin with text-dependent questions. In other words, the foundation for the lessons commences in the text itself, in the content contained therein. Once a sequence of text-dependent questions has been developed, THEN those questions are paired with the Common Core standards, and further refined based on what skills would be needed to answer those questions.

    However, a big mistake which some teachers and consultants make is to begin their planning with the standards (or a skill), then develop lessons from there. That is skills-based, rather than content-based, curriculum.

    That part of it is admittedly hard to see when you just look at the surface and see the videos. But know that behind the scenes, teachers are putting in a lot of work that is founded in the text they are teaching.

    Ultimately, of course, as I said in the article, these are lessons based on isolated texts, not a coherent, sequential curriculum. So see this as a beginning, not as an end.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 23, 2013 @ 8:36 am

  4. Mark,

    I applaud your argument that teachers should not be infantilized if we are to implement the Common Core well. I would take it a step further and say that the Common Core is not a “deep” enough document to merit hours of close reading and analysis. Not only is it cast in generic language, but it has significant flaws. (We are seeing the effects of the scant attention given to listening in the Speaking and Listening standards. Everywhere I go, I read the mantra that the teacher should not lecture but should instead “facilitate.”)

    See this, for example: http://www.wnyc.org/blogs/schoolbook/2013/aug/08/teachers-prepare-another-year-common-core-now-curriculum/. A teacher quoted in the article expresses delight that Pearson’s ReadyGen curriculum package emphasizes that teachers are “facilitators.”

    Teachers should be at liberty to think and work beyond the standards. They are better off spending those hours thinking about the subject matter itself, developing superb curricula, and then looking at the standards to see how things match up. The standards can help define the progression of the curriculum (up to a point). They can also alert teachers to things they might have overlooked. Beyond that, they are rather humdrum, compared to a curriculum worth its salt.

    I am wary of much of the new and rehashed terminology, even “text-dependent questions.” Many good questions are not one hundred percent text-dependent and yet draw students into the text. For instance, a class reading Crime and Punishment might discuss whether Svidrigailov shows integrity at the end of his life. Certainly that requires thoughtful discussion of passages in the text–but it also involves a consideration of “integrity” itself–what it is, how it manifests itself, and so on.

    Or–to return to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” one of the trickiest poems I know, one could spend hours discussing the meaning of the final line, “And that has made all the difference.” There’s irony, play with a colloquial expression, and more. When interpreting it, yes, one should refer to other parts of the poem, but one can also toy with it a bit. I am afraid that the “text-dependent questions” (as conceived by many trainers and textbook publishers) are going to leave little room for toying.

    To stop infantilizing teachers, one must do more than put them in charge of implementing the standards. One must put the standards themselves in their proper place–and give teachers the authority to look at them critically, address them, and go beyond them.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 23, 2013 @ 11:33 am

  5. Diana,

    Thank you for your marvelous comment! You really get right to the core of the issue.

    “Teachers should be at liberty to think and work beyond the standards. ” YES! So very well said.

    Your point about not getting constricted by terminology, such as “text-dependent questions,” is well-taken. I think this goes back to what we had touched on earlier, about background knowledge that takes you into a text, as opposed to away from a text, and how such knowledge is necessary to establish. In your example, building knowledge around the word “integrity” is essential to take students deeper into consideration of the novel (“Crime and Punishment”, by the way, is one of my all time favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Love it).

    I can’t add anything more to what you have said here, so I will simply repeat, it is so good: “To stop infantilizing teachers, one must do more than put them in charge of implementing the standards. One must put the standards themselves in their proper place–and give teachers the authority to look at them critically, address them, and go beyond them.” Bravo.

    Comment by Mark Anderson — August 23, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  6. Thank you, Mark! You have started a worthwhile and enjoyable discussion here. Thank you for these three pieces and for all of your responses to comments.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 23, 2013 @ 1:10 pm

  7. One of the challenges of technology like Learnzillion is that they almost always are a skill application to content, the question with the Common Core is what is the content? I worry that too many districts will assume that as long as there is a database of lessons then they don’t need to think deeply about the actual content. I know very few new teachers that have deep bench of knowledge about literature or history for that matter. We need more of these databases to come from a content persective.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 23, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

  8. Another example of how exposure to content can be all the difference:

    South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal

    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-c1-cal-freshmen-20130816-dto,0,4673807.htmlstory

    They hadn’t known each other before the year began. Now they were like brothers, partly because they shared so much. Spencer was raised in a tough L.A. neighborhood by a single mom who had sometimes worked two jobs to pay the rent. Spencer had gone to struggling public schools, receiving straight A’s at Inglewood High. Spencer didn’t curse, didn’t party, didn’t try to act tough and was shy around girls.

    As much as they had in common, they were also different. Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 26, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

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