Common Core Literacy in the Content Areas

Common Core in the Content Areas: Balancing Content and Literacy
By Jessica Bennett
(Routledge, An Eye On Education Book, 2014 – Learn more)

Goodis-Orenstein_MiddleWeb avatarReviewed by Sarah Goodis-Orenstein

I can distinctly remember a true/false “Do Now” statement during a PD at one of my former schools. The statement read something along these lines: I believe it is my job to be a literacy teacher. All of the ELA teachers in the room happily checked off the true box and continued down the list. Not everyone else had the same ease. Cue the announcement of the year’s school-wide goals.

How many of us have been in a school with this same teaching objective?

cc in content routledge borderThe fact of the matter is that it is one thing to say that all teachers are literacy teachers, and it is quite another thing to provide all teachers with tools to actually teach, versus merely assign, literacy-related strategies and tasks.

This is where Jessica Bennett’s new book Common Core in the Content Areas: Balancing Literacy and Content delivers. It is a veritable treasure trove of ideas for actual teaching and implementation. Bennett is still a middle school teacher, which I think lends her an automatic badge of credibility, and she has obviously served her students under a gamut of standards shifts and testing pressures.

Assuaging fears with helpful tables & tools

For someone who doesn’t feel particularly assaulted by the Common Core Standards, I will admit that Bennett’s attempt in the first two chapters to assuage my fears of the Standards was a bit overbearing. She starts by explicating her distinct fear and dislike of change and then offers a laundry list of ways that we, as committed teachers, can pat ourselves on the back for the good work we’ve likely already been doing toward literacy development in our classrooms.

While I did find the tone at the outset of this book too “nervous Nelly” for my own tastes, I will admit that Bennett immediately impressed me with her delivery of readable tables of tricks.

In Chapter 1, she matches each of the History/Social Studies and Science and Technical Subjects literacy standards to a layman’s interpretation. In Chapter 2, she takes the same standards and lays out a supposition of what most teachers are probably already doing toward each standard. In other words, she shows how common classroom exercises around using graphic organizers, defending ideas with evidence, and writing summaries already get at the CCSS.

Reflecting and moving forward

After these first two chapters, the book really picks up speed. In chapter 3, Bennett shows us how to capitalize on the good work we’re already doing by suggesting some reflective practices, revising our objectives to include more rigorous verbs, and reconsidering our unit plans to make the space for more collaborative learning. She argues,

“The Common Core Standards call for collaboration among teachers, students and the community. What’s the reason for this shift? Collaboration is a must for college and career readiness” (29).

As per the first two chapters, Bennett offers a table that matches the standards with potential collaborative, non-generic learning experiences for students, as well as a unit-planning template that accounts for differentiation from many angles.

Chapter 4 continues to dispel the myth that reading strategies are the exclusive territory of ELA teachers and expounds upon the learning to read vs. reading to learn paradigm. Bennett presents a robust rationale for using pre-, during, and post-reading strategies, and, of course, pairs different strategies with the CCSS in a handy table.

Bennett stretches these strategies for textbook use, urging teachers to use their textbooks inventively and not punitively. One of my favorite takeaways from this chapter was a small reading-with-purpose bookmark template that I plan to pirate, adapt, and laminate so that my students have their purpose, literally, in front of their noses.

In Chapter 5, Bennett waxes philosophical for a moment to (re)define what a text is in a secondary classroom, and she provides a table of ways to use alternative texts, from recipes to ads, in different academic content areas. With this new definition in mind, she provides key questions to help students determine whether a text is a primary or secondary source, as that informs how they read. From there, she describes a sampling of exercises to help students understand the concepts of “author’s purpose” and “intended audience.” She even goes so far as to provide templates for close-reading and text-citation exercises!

Chapter 6 details Bennett’s “All A’s…process for teachers to use when planning a learning activity or unit and a process for students to use when taking in and demonstrating new knowledge” (78). Absorb, analyze, argue, and apply are the four steps that students must go through to truly make meaning out of content, and she illustrates a litany of ways to bring these steps to life in your classroom. Even better, she shows us how a unit of study can incorporate “All A’s” for any and all CCSS in one of her trusty tables.

Writing and project-based learning

In chapter 7, Bennett immediately confesses that writing is the under-mentioned character of her story, but she beseeches us to build out writing regimens with our students aside from the few she dollops out in this chapter. In general, she suggests that content teachers avoid grading most writing assignments aside from formal projects, as it’s preferable to have students consider writing a form of brainstorming rather than grade-grubbing.

Bennett also suggests that writing happens in short spurts in content classes, and that different purposes take the stage from time to time: writing to argue, writing to inform or explain, and writing for research. She offers the caveat that narrative writing can have a place in a content area course, and it may be best utilized as a scaffold toward other forms.

Chapter 8 revisits the value of project-based learning as a conduit toward authentic literacy skills development, and Bennett espouses the worldview that working smarter, not harder, will result in sustainable grading practices and well-managed classrooms. She provides lesson planning tools and general permission to allow students to direct their own learning at times, however messy it may feel.

Finally in chapter 9, before the wealth of appendices, Bennett concedes that “with teaching, there will never be an ultimate solution” (122), but she still sends us away with praises for the work we’ve done so far and tools to combat our “frenemies,” the Common Core Standards.

Mission Possible for all teachers

Overall, Bennett does a great job throughout the book of suggesting what skills and strategies should be owned by the ELA teachers and supported by the content teachers, which goes along with her overall mantra that the Common Core Literacy Standards are Mission Possible for all teachers. I am also pleased to be able to say that I found a bunch of teaching and planning tools, not to mention collaborative learning tasks, that I plan to experiment with in the 2014-2015 school year!

Sarah Goodis-Orenstein is a 7th grade ELA teacher and the middle school ELA/Humanities Department Chair at a public charter school in Brooklyn, NY. Earlier she taught English in a few public and public charter middle and high schools. She received her undergraduate degree in English education from New York University and her graduate degree in Adolescent Literacy from Hunter College. She has written a few articles for Ed Week Teacher, and she has recently started her own education blog.

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