Have You Tried Making Common Core Lemonade?
By Amber Chandler
In the teacher community, no matter who I talk with about Common Core standards, it all comes down to one important thing: What can I do with this in my classroom, for and with kids?
That is the conversation starter, but many times the conversation then goes. . . sour. Teachers have become quite divided on the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS, as we have branded them here in New York State), but I tend to believe that is because when we talk about “the Common Core” that we are not all talking about the same thing (as I wrote about here).
I am referring to the actual standards themselves, not the implementation or the assessments which vary widely (and wildly) across states and school systems. If we zero in on actual standards, I think there is hope, even for those who are convinced that yours are lemons—like the car you want to give back because it doesn’t live up to what is promised. There are several ways to make the proverbial lemonade with the Common Core, despite the “sour” parts.
We can have powerful pedagogical conversations
As an ELA teacher in New York, I have found my own implementation of CCLS to be an awesome opportunity to re-examine my practice and instigate pedagogical conversations that have been neglected within my department.
One of the “sours” of our experience is the lack of funds to purchase materials that our state modules use. For example, the novel, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, is the central text of module one for 7th grade from EngageNY. It was laughable to even suggest that our district would purchase these books, as we were laying off teachers and have been for the last three years.
I proposed to our Assistant Superintendent of Instruction that we create our own modules—ones that are aligned with the CCLS but utilize materials that we already own or are easily accessible. This turned out to be a daunting task, but one that my department is proud of.
We met for 15 hours per grade level and used that time to sketch out the modules and agree to common assessments. I was a bit apprehensive to “lead” this charge, but I knew that if we were going to use the standards, which I think are actually quite good, then we’d need a starting place, and the released modules were definitely not a possibility.
A stroke of pure luck impacted our planning greatly. I joined an Edmodo group and struck gold. There I discovered a group called the “Anthology Alignment Project” that is open to educators, and amazingly, has written modules as a part of Achieve the Core’s ELA Literacy Lesson Bank. The resources and modules are written by teachers, and are provided free of charge.
For example, my anthology textbook uses “The Amigo Brothers” (a story about two young Latino boxers) as a part of a multi-cultural identity unit. The module (on this page) provided by the Anthology Alignment Project is amazing. When my grade level team met, we were able to use their module as a starting point. The most incredible conversations occurred about the work we were doing with curriculum.
Most of us have taught this story for years, but with the new teacher-created module, we were able to explore more deeply and create common experiences, as well as assessments, for our students. This experience produced more continuity than we’ve ever had and a fresh approach to the standards.
We can make sensible shifts
Three shifts the Common Core ELA standards make require teachers to (1) use more complex texts with academic vocabulary; (2) teach students to use extensive evidence to persuade and inform, and (3) move to a greater emphasis on non-fiction.
I’ll be the first to say that hearing “college and career ready” one more time makes me want to run screaming from my classroom. The caveat, of course, is that in large part the standards do make students more college and career ready. Having been an adjunct faculty member at three different colleges, I can confirm reports that freshman were not prepared for the “rigor” of college (another word that has become cringe-worthy).
The Lexile level of the reading that I had been using in my classes was literally hundreds lower than it should have been. This had, in part, been an adjustment to anticipate the needs of my inclusion students; however, I can now see that not using appropriately Lexiled texts is only setting everyone up for failure.
Though my fellow teachers all believed that there was no substitution for so many complex and worthy texts, when we looked at texts we were using, we found our resources were not complex, that they were unbalanced between fiction and non-fiction, and they Lexiled far below what we had imagined. Scholastic has a quick and easy “book wizard” that allows educators to find the levels of books. It groups them as well.
When we did an inventory of what we were using as texts, we found that we were extremely unbalanced. We, as it turned out, were definitely teachers of fiction and literature. Though I love teaching novels, can’t wait to discuss poetry with students, and enjoy their creative writing, the true answer is simple: in the “real world,” one does not write an analysis of Hamlet nearly as often as a document that needs to draw information from a variety of sources. Being able to discern between what is credible or biased and provide evidence from the text to support one’s assertions is a skill that translates to all career paths.
Am I ready to toss novels and short stories? Of course not. But, I am willing to take another look at our focus.
We need to be thirsty and work together
Do I think that all of the teachers in my department are sold on the CCLS? Absolutely, without a doubt, no. However, when handed this “lemon” of a situation — unfunded mandates, lack of materials, lack of professional development, overly ambitious and sloppy rollout, and assessing students and teachers too rapidly — it is helpful to consider how you and your colleagues can turn this to lemonade. There are several opponents to the CCLS in our group, yet we were able to work together as professionals to transform the raw materials into our own concoction.
When I think about the Common Core, it seems to me that if we can look to each other for needed conversations — often neglected — and if we can use the experience to grow as teachers, adjusting with the shifts to the reality of the 21st century, we can all “make lemonade from lemons.”
Did you ever notice that lemonade actually makes you thirsty for more? It isn’t enough to be satisfied with modules handed to us, decrees from on high about methodology or best practices or how to best engage students. We must not sit complacent with what some call a “lemon” and grow bitter and reticent. Rather, as the experts, we should be thirsty for the opportunities this moment in education has provided.
Amber Rain Chandler teaches 7th grade English Language Arts at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, NY, a suburb of Buffalo. A certified School Building Leader, Amber also teaches Methods in English Teaching at Medaille College and leads staff development on Differentiation for the Southtown Teachers Center. She blogs at AFT’s Voices from the Classroom and her own website. Follow her on Twitter @msamberchandler.