Things I Know 192 of 365: There’s Opportunity to Empower Teachers in the Common Core

If we use these common standards as the foundation for better schools, we can give all kids a robust curriculum taught by well-prepared, well-supported teachers who can help prepare them for success in college, life and careers.

– Randi Weingarten

A thought that gets highlighted, underlined and annotated over and over again in its many iterations in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is the idea that we cannot expect creative business solutions or creative people if we maintain an education system designed around student compliance.

I’d add to that the idea we cannot expect to move away from a system built around student compliance if we don’t relinquish the idea of teacher compliance.

In a THE Journal interview with Westville, IL School Superintendent Jim Owens I found some hope:

One particularly effective training tool involved flip video cameras and a directive to create a project illustrating the impact that technology was having on the respective teacher’s classroom. This simple exercise frustrated a lot of our teachers, who didn’t know what we wanted from them or what the right answer was. We told them that there was no right answer, that we just wanted them to get creative and share how they were using technology in the classroom. Once they “got it,” the teachers really surprised us by coming up with some innovative ways of integrating technology into their lesson plans.

We did something similar this last year at SLA. Teachers formed their own PLC’s based on self-identified areas of interest for professional development. The areas ranged from understanding the Ethic of Care to exploring issues of education policy.

In the spirit of asking ourselves to do what we asked of our students, These groups were asked to develop a unit/project plan for the semester based on a set number of meeting times and the end goal of presenting to/teaching the rest of the staff.

While most groups took the task and ran with it, one or two groups of teachers experienced the same frustration Owens describes. They wanted the right answer.

We’d opened professional development to pure inquiry based on personal interest, basically said, “Learn what you’re curious about and then share with the rest of us.”

I was surprised by the response at first.

As I started to overlay the experience with what happened when 9th grade students entered SLA. The first few months (sometimes the first few years) are spent helping student to stop worrying about the right answer or worksheet withdrawal.

We had no reason to think teachers wouldn’t behave the same way.

Were I to do it again, I’d look more deeply into how or if the teachers saw their practice change and what possible increases of empathy they experienced.

It’s the kind of deeper analysis we’ll miss with the publication of the “publishers’ criteria” for the ELA section of the common core.

In an Ed Week post Friday, Catherine Gewertz wrote, “The impetus behind the criteria, Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman said in a joint phone interview, was to respond to teachers’ requests for support by helping them focus on the cornerstones of the standards and understand how classroom work will have to change to reflect them.”

It’s the problem Owens and the Westville leadership ran into, it’s the problem we ran into when asking teachers to plot their own professional development.

The best possible answer here is simple, “I don’t know. What ideas do you have?”

In navigating the Common Core landscape, lies the opportunity to have teachers experience the kind of high-impact learning the standards are designed to engender.

Instead of guidelines, I’m curious as to the essential questions.

If the DOE can track grantees and how they’re studying the methods and outcomes of teaching American history around the country, surely we can design a program to track, study and better understand the implementation of the Common Core.

Create a transparent, open access clearinghouse of information and ideas. Design grant opportunities that create teacher researchers around the country.

Let the teachers own the process if you want them to own the practice. I know it’s a far cry from how the CC were created and adopted, but there’s a chance to put teaching back in the hands of teachers.

One of my favorite passages in Gewertz’s piece comes from Gates Foundation Common Core Lead Jamie McKee:

[McKee] said that while the foundation “cares deeply about the quality of the [instructional] materials that come from the common core,” it hasn’t yet decided whether it favors a panel or process for validating such materials.

I don’t care.

ELA Common Core lead and Susan Pimentel said, “If we’re asking students to be able to look at text and draw evidence from it, it means they need to be given text, with good teacher support, but without a lot of excessive spoon-feeding up front.”

It’s time to want the same thing for teachers.

An amazing chance to empower teachers exists in how we begin to implement and appraise the Common Core. Handing that process and the design of those systems over to textbook companies and those with little skin in the game isn’t reform, it’s regression.

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Things I Know 190 of 365: At the core what’s common are people

They never really sorted out what the subject of these standards is. It’s rather remarkable.

Tom Hoffman

I recently had to help show how the activities of a teacher training program I work with align to the Common Core (PDF) as well as the National Board (PDF) standards for English language arts.

While I respect the general depth-over breadth approach of the National Board standards, the Common Core standards leave me sad and alone like a jilted prom date.

Still, the task at hand was alignment and align we did.

And everything fit.

Every single activity aligned nicely with at least two Common Core standards without any embellishment. Should Congress hold hearings tomorrow requiring me to defend the connection of each learning activity to the standard of English education to which I claim it moves participants, I would sweat choosing a tie more than I would sweat making my case.

By that measure, the program looks beautiful. It looks perfect. It looks complete.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We know the program requires refinement. We know work is yet to be done. We know that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard if excellence is to be maintained.

It is a standard specific to our mission and vision in serving the specific population of teachers with whom we work.

As forty-three states raced to the top of something or other, they adopted the Common Core. Along the way, they told those they serve those adoptions would improve education for students in their states.

It won’t.

I rarely dole out definitives.

The standards for teaching English language arts are now and always have been helping students to read, write, speak, listen and think.

Such was the case the day before Utah’s August 8, 2010 adoption of the Common Core or North Dakota’s June 20, 2010 adopt. Such will be the case long after the next go round when they adopt standards that are more common and more core.

It will always be the people that matter. A great teacher August 7 in Utah was a great teacher August 9 in Utah. A horrible teacher was much the same.

A child who arrived at school hungry or abused June 19 in North Dakota was likely still hungry or abused June 21.

In the movement to adopt standards;  in the debate (where time was allotted for one); in the funding to print, promote and publish the standards; a point was missed.

The point was people.

Tomorrow, I’ll be working toward a higher standard. No state legislated it. I adopted it.

Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.