Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On Implementing the Common Core State Standards

Today after school, I had a district ELA Lead Teacher meeting.  Last summer, in lieu of hiring a new secondary literacy person, our district hired one ELA teacher per grade 6-12, plus one MS & one HS special ed teacher, to form an ELA Lead Teacher group to forge the way for implementing the CCSS and creating/revising inquiry units of study. 

We generally meet twice a month after school & are out of the classroom one day a month to meet.  So far this year, we've worked at becoming a cohesive team to support each other in implementing the standards & inquiry units of study.  We check in with each other about where we are in the process, how it's going, questions/hard parts, successes. We have presented two half-days of professional development to our grade level peers and will move into a more active role in supporting our colleagues this summer and next school year.  All of us are full-time classroom teachers.

Today we started by reading two short articles.  The first was "NEA Calls for Course Correction on 'Botched' Common Core" (find it here.) The second was "A San Diego High School Used Schoolwide Essential Questions" (find it here.)

We are in an interesting position in relation to the first article.  Several passages stuck out:
  • "states and districts have 'completely botched' implementation...and must do a better job of listening to teachers..."
  • "there has been little to no attempt to allow educators to share what's needed to get CCSS implementation right.
  • "teachers must be given more time to grapple with the standards"
  • "more supports to introduce them into teaching and learning"
We are in an interesting position, because our experience is almost polar opposite. After reading articles like this, I couldn't be more thankful for our district's approach to supporting us in the implementation of the Common Core.  That being said, it hasn't been an easy process.

We began a new curriculum cycle several years ago, and it has been nothing like it had been.  In the past, we figured out which textbook we wanted after a series of meetings and presentations and then were given a dollar amount to order anything else we might need.  

This time around, things have been much different, and although it's been confusing along the way as details were ironed out, it is much more efficient and smart.
We aren't host to book companies trying to sell us their latest and greatest. Instead, we need to purposefully plan inquiry units of study, figure out which texts we'd like to go with them, and then place our order.  This means that the process isn't a one-time deal, but has been spread out over several years.

It has also led us to a deeper working relationship with a local library-builder, Mackin Books.  We are able to submit book list requests based on our inquiry questions, and Mackin's people will compile a book list for us to consider.  In the end, we can request some/all/none of the books listed, add from our own knowledge base, etc. 

Carly and I requested two lists, one for our current unit ("How do individuals and communities deal with conflict and tension?") and one for the unit we repurposed last spring ("How do individuals impact the community, and how does the community impact individuals?" mainly using the text Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman.) We are looking for alternate titles for our struggling readers for the current unit, as Witness is a sophisticated text--in the "productive struggle" range of independent reading for the "average" 7th grade learner in our school.  For the other unit, we are looking for tougher texts for our advanced readers; we want them to end the year in a productive struggle, and Seedfolks (in our opinion) isn't challenging enough for them. Our lists haven't come in yet, and I'm so curious to see what they come up with!!  

Anyway, back to the main we do this work, we are finding that it is tough. We are in constant flux, planning, trying out new concepts, trying hard to build the concepts through the year, working on new rubrics for writing that reflect the standards. We are constantly reflecting; most days, Carly and I touch base several times to share how each class responded, to see what we want to change for next year, to decompress, to find humor. We find ourselves planning and planning some more. We had intended on waiting until this summer to repurpose our Holocaust lit unit, but once you are rolling, you are rolling. Inquiry units of study and the Common Core aren't "something to do, to check off of a list as DONE." They are a way of being, a way of teaching. And how can we go back to a quiz that has kids match members of Anne Frank's family and the people in hiding with personality descriptions when we just finished a Socratic Seminar where kids spent about 15 minutes in one class (50/50 special ed/mainstream) discussing the difference in how Klansman Johnny Reeves dealt with conflict when the KKK kicked him out, how Merlin Van Tornhout dealt with conflict after he didn't follow through with the Klan's request to poison an African American family's well, and what made the difference in their choices based on their circumstances: age, investment and buy-in with the Klan, etc. All we had asked was how characters in the novel dealt with conflict!

When kids say things like, "Well, while I hear what you are saying Tyler, but I disagree. I think that Harvey Pettibone actually *was* loyal to his wife, Viola, after all, because in the end, he realized he was in way over his head with the Klan and they ended up fixing their marriage." Well, after this...knowing that Otto Frank worked for Opekta doesn't seem so relevant. To assess kids on whether or not they know a small fact doesn't tell us how they are progressing with their critical reading and thinking.  Why Anne's diary has resonated with readers so much so that it's the second most widely read non-fiction book after the Bible seems like a much more relevant question.

So instead of grading the research essays we both have waiting (and waiting loudly!) we did some impromptu down and dirty planning yesterday during our prep time because the new unit starts next Monday.  So we kind of needed to.

My point is that this process isn't streamlined. It isn't perfect. We still have a ways to go, looking at how to challenge our high-level students, how to work with our struggling students. How to build on concepts from one unit to the next.  How to incorporate effective activities back in so that the humor and fun doesn't disappear in our quest to up the rigor.

This is new territory for me, and I most definitely, most honestly couldn't do it alone.  This is my 15th year of teaching, and when I started I had no idea there were standards.  Even when we went through my first curriculum cycle in 2005-2006, I read the standards, but I just thought Yep, I cover that with this story...I think I cover that...check, check, check.

I planned with the story in mind first, then the activities. Standards didn't really enter in.

Carly's good at reminding me that now we need to start with the WHY. What's the point? What do we want kids to get out of this unit? 

Then we find ourselves moving to the standards and figuring out which skills kids need to develop and stretch based on the continuum of the CCSS.

Then we do a rough "How do we want to run it? What do we want it to look like? What routines have we done earlier in the year that we want to keep stretching them with? How do we put the learning in their hands and make it active and meaningful for them? What texts do we want to use, and if we are repurposing and I've used a particular text for years, how can we supplement so it's an anchor text vs a whole class novel?"

Yeah. It's messy. It's hard. I am exhausted. But I'm telling you, I haven't felt such a sense of purpose in my teaching ever.  And the best, most awesome part, is that we truly, honestly know that we are helping students grow in their writing and independent reading, that they will leave 7th grade much stronger critical thinkers, which is the BEST, most gratifying part.

So, back to the first article, YES!!!  "More time to grapple with the standards, and more supports to introduce them into teaching and learning." Sincerely necessary. 

  Last year our expectation was to plan and implement one inquiry unit of study (while implementing the CCSS), and this year two and on.  Carly and I agreed to be a Pioneer Team to forge forward faster, and I have that responsibility, too, as an ELA Lead Teacher.  We then can use our experiences and reflections to guide other teams working on implementation, to help with inquiry questions, ideas, our process for using things like Socratic Seminar in class, at the same time acknowledging that there is most definitely more than one way to do it, that we aren't the know-it-alls, that it's a never ending learning process, that teachers are at different places with their comfortability in this process. Heck, I still grapple to understand the standards. I still ask myself from time to time if we are "doing this right."  Well, you know, if we are in the ball park at least. 

Overall, I think I'm trying to say:
  • I love the Common Core and inquiry and what it's brought to my teaching and learning.
  • I've had an excellent (albeit overwhelming and exhausting) experience in implementation, and I think that's because we have awesome support district-wide and are able to grapple with the standards and implementation without being given a prescribed curriculum or mandates. 
  • As teachers, we are l-e-a-r-n-e-r-s!!
Well, after all of that, it's way past bedtime.  Crossing my fingers that mother nature warms our tundra tomorrow so we don't have a 7th day out of school due to cold or snow.  Too much of a good thing is getting to be, well, too much :)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of this--the CCSS, implementation, inquiry, how your district is supporting you, how your teaching has changed.  Please consider commenting :)

Happy teaching!