Three years ago, the mere mention of the oncoming Common Core standards left my head spinning. I was sure they were too rigorous, that they would upend teaching, that they wouldn’t work.
I was wrong.
Now, safely half way through the 2015-2016 school year, many of my fellow educators and I are taking a deep inhale, exhale…and relax. We’re surviving the transition. And to my surprise, I LIKE the Common Core standards and what it has brought to my teaching!
For those of you who are not teaching 5t grade English, I will try to help you picture what goes on in my classroom and how Common Core has enhanced our classroom activities to be more routed in critical thinking.
Five years ago, if I asked my students to read a short text and answer questions about the text, many of my students would just guess, oversimplify, or answer an entirely different question. Getting a student to restate the question in the answer and write it into a complete sentence, was a time-consuming and rather arduous task for many of my students.
Now, thanks to the Common Core’s focus on backing up your thinking with reasons and evidence, my students come to me from the 4th grade, ready to cite textual evidence for anything they say about a text, whether they are simply finding a detail in the text and reporting it back, or whether they are gathering several pieces of evidence from a text in order to support an inference or argue a claim. They come to me at ten years old with the habit of doing this!
Of course I have a wide range of ability levels in each of my classes, and some students are more sophisticated than others at crafting a claim and backing it up with text and analysis. But they are doing it! All of them–with different levels of complexity and success, but all are trying and demonstrating this habit of showing their thinking.
Five years ago, when I started in 5th grade, walking my students through how to read the social studies text book was, for lack of a better word, painful. We would read a chapter together, then I’d want them to re-read to and write the answers to the five review questions at the end of the chapter, something many adults take for granted. Many of my students were truly stymied by it, or else just in the habit of laziness. They’d guess at the answers or write something totally irrelevant. Then the majority of them would fail the test if I did not somehow spoon feed them answers on a study guide.
With the Common Core, came the focus on text features. I realized I needed to teach my kids how to use titles, subtitles, pictures, and bold text to quickly see the main idea of each section–so they’d know where to look for the answer–where to re-read more carefully. When the Common Core first became a major emphasis three years ago, I had to walk my students though this and practice it together a lot. It was a struggle, but well worth it. In comparison, the students I’ve had since then come to me already familiar with using text features as a tool to help them through the text. My students are much more independent learners now than 5 years ago.
You might be saying, “You’re a bad teacher! You shouldn’t have needed the Common Core to tell you to teach that way! It’s common sense!”
And you’re right. I wasn’t teaching in the best way I could have been, and many parts of the Common Core are common sense! But when the entire system, K-12, is focussing on so many different things, a teacher is facing an uphill battle to give students good habits. Now we teachers are all focussing on the same good-learning habits, K-12.
You may also be saying that all this work with the text sounds boring. But once a student has the habit of closely reading and citing from a text, that student has the tools to take any idea and run with it! (It is called College and Career Ready for a reason!) Unlike 5 years ago, my students tackle research projects, finding and utlitizing multiple sources to craft a claim and support it with reasons and evidence. My students have written scathing social commentary about bullying (if a 5th grader can be scathing!) and backed it up with facts and opinions from websites. They’ve written and created poignant presentations about environmental concerns and innovations, such as the global drinking water shortage and the LifeStraw. They write about what concerns them and what they are passionate about, from the history of baseball to civil rights history to facsinating fish species to Dr. Seuss. My students are empowered to explore their thinking on an issue, find out more information about it, analyze it, and write it all down. My students’ passion for learning is what keeps me teaching and keeps me smiling when the weight of high stakes testing and negative rhetoric towards teachers bogs me down. I attribute being able to be this kind of teacher to having the Common Core standards in my toolbelt of teaching tricks.
No one is more surprised about this than me.