By Margaret Henderson
The Common Core State Standards are meant to be a revelation in the way students are taught.They are meant to support critical literacy and promote higher order thinking skills. At least that is how they are read (if you haven’t read them that’s ok, we are about to look at a sample). But the question remains whether this is how they are being implemented in classrooms across America. Throughout my first few years of teaching I have come to believe that two different approaches are currently coexisting within our schools: one approach belonging to the ideals of common core and one belonging to the pressures of accountability put on schools and teachers. Basically what the standards say and how teachers are being asked to teach just aren’t the same thing.
To get a clearer sense of what this looks like, let’s look at examples of some of the Common Core Standards as well as the real life execution. We will see how the common core invites broad critical thinking of big ideas and personal experience in juxtaposition to the way teacher lesson plans are forced to pick apart and plan every detail of the lesson until there is no room for critical thought or discussions.
Here are examples of two common core standards focused on 4th grade literacy:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.8 Recall relevant experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information and provide a list of sources.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.9a Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
There are some very key words and phrases in these two standards. They are, “recall relevant experiences” and “support analysis, reflection, and research”. The idea of a student recalling relevant life experiences and then incorporating them into their work is a tricky subject. Although the student is writing about a subject that they are conducting research upon, the standard suggests that they should have some type of experience in that area before they are asked to write about it. There is an educational theorist named John Dewey who wrote about education and teacher education in the early 1900’s. He believed that literature, and the reaction that students have to literature, has a lot to do with their previous social experiences. Therefore the child’s social life should play a significant role in the classroom activities. Common Core certainly encourages this. For instance, in a class where a student is reading the story Because of Winn-Dixie and is assigned to write a paper about how the main character feels when her dog runs away, the student may have a particular interpretation of that situation depending on whether or not they have had a dog. If they have had a dog who ran away that social experience may actually deepen their understanding of the literature. On the other hand, if they have never had a dog or any kind of pet, they may have a completely different understanding of what the character is going through.
Now let’s consider that second key word I mentioned, reflection. Let’s reflect on the word reflection for a moment.
Google Defines reflection as:
Meditation?! How are the standardized tests going to assess the student’s meditations?? But I’ll get to that (spoiler alert, they don’t). For now, let’s stay focused on what the standards are asking. This standard is asking the student to use evidence from the text to support analysis, reflection, and research. That means the student is not simply answering a simple factual question (i.e., Who is the main character in Because of Winn-Dixie?). They are being asked to answer a much deeper question such as “Why did Opal invite the Dewberry brothers to her party, even though they are always mean to her? Would you do the same thing? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.” That’s deep! These are fourth graders and they are exploring the boundaries of friendship and relationships and being asked to put their real life into their answers. This answer is also not a right or wrong answer, it is an opinion. We are now teaching the students not only to read the story, answer questions, and support their answer but also to have an opinion about it, and to ALSO use the text support their opinion.
Now you have seen the standards (well two of them, trust me there are MANY more) and how they support critical thinking and personal reflection etc., we can look at a lesson plan and see whether they are working hand in hand, or whether we have a divide happening between the standards and the pedagogy.
The Pedagogy (which is really just a fancy way of saying “the way teachers teach”)
Here is the way that reading instruction has consistently looked in the past when following the state standards. Reading instruction in the elementary grades was predominantly focused on the elements of a story. Usually students had a reading “textbook” full of stories written specifically to teach about text elements with questions at the end. Students were repeatedly asked to identify the main characters (the protagonist and antagonist), the plot (the problem and solution), the setting, the theme/main idea, and possibly a moral depending on the story. Those were the MAIN questions that were asked first and considered most important (occasionally there would be a more thoughtful question that was gotten to if there was time). That entire day or week or reading unit was not focused on a book or a story but instead the whole unit was spent practicing reading stories specifically to identify one or more of those text elements.
Can you imagine?! Picture reading Charlotte’s Web and never stopping to discuss all of the complex emotions that we all inevitably feel when we finally realize what is going to happen to Charlotte. We have been forcing students to read prescribed stories and saying “Ok, while you read this story make sure you are reading to figure out what the setting is.” THAT’S ALL. Students read entire books and never once discuss the nuances of what a character is feeling or how that character’s actions make them feel as readers. No wonder they don’t enjoy reading!! My point is, that is where we were and according to the Common Core website (www.corestandards.org), this is where we are trying to go:
This quote is explaining that the students should be reading to grasp more than just the elements of the text, they should be noticing the ideas that the author is trying to communicate and making inferences based on what they have read. Of course, the text elements will still be taught, but the idea is that they will be taught through a deeper more critical discussion of the text, after all, when the students grow up and are reading a news article about a new law being passed, sure they will need to notice the characters involved, but won’t it be far more important for them to be able to make inferences about the effect that the new law is going to have on their community? Here is a an example of how this would look. When reading Charlotte’s Web, a student would be asked to identify the setting, but that would be only a minute or two of a much longer discussion and it certainly would not be the focus. Directing a student to read for only one purpose means that they WILL only read for one purpose, they will read like a treasure hunter and notice nothing but the treasure that will get that check mark on their paper.
So, on that note, let’s return to one of my main ideas (<—-Look! A text element!). When I graduated from the College of Charleston we were the very first graduating class of teachers to have actually learned and studied the Common Core Standards AND to have had practice planning Common Core aligned lessons. When I took over my first classroom (I was a long term substitute who taught classes for three months at a time while teachers were on maternity leave) the school was in a bridge year, that means that we were slowly phasing out the old state standards and gradually using Common Core a bit at a time. So the lessons were a bit of a mix. But in my second year we were full on Common Core aligned, or so I was told. That year I took over for three different teachers, a fifth grade, a first grade, and a third grade classroom. I was shocked to notice that honestly, nothing had changed.
This is because the majority of lessons were still focused on reading a passage (rarely a whole book) and identifying whatever text element we were studying that week. Every lesson had to include sample test questions that were multiple choice. While reading the students were told to use their “test taking strategies.” This meant reading the question first and underlining key words in the question, then moving to the text and underlining and taking notes in order to answer that question. That’s it! Over and over and over and over. We did attempt to do a novel study but ended up not having time to finish (I found out that most of the other teachers stopped way before I did because it just wasn’t worth it).
But truly, think about what the long term goals of education are supposed to be. While the test taking strategies do seem so very important, they only seem so because of the tests that the student will be forced to take in the next few years (state tests, SATS, etc). But is that really why we put our children through 12 years of mandatory schooling? Think back to my example about a grown student reading a newspaper article. Are they reading to prepare for a multiple choice question? Even in college most finals are not multiple choice, they are usually either short answer or in the form of a paper or project.
While Common Core is not perfect, and there will still be state tests hopefully this has made it a little bit more clear what the overall goal of the new system is and has shown why our old system has been failing to prepare our children for life as adults.