Thursday, October 17, 2013

Common Core Made Easy

Today I had a short but intense and heartfelt conversation with a colleague about the new common core state standards. He began by sharing his very short list of those in our ranks he felt could truly implement the standards in a way that developed a crop of students with the skills necessary to succeed beyond their high school experience. Although those identified came as no surprise, for I too had mentioned these same individuals in another conversation, I was disheartened by the stark reality that this list represented only 10% of our instructional staff. With this looming reality before me, I am reminded yet again, “You are the instructional leader. Now go fix that!”

Go fix the fact that there are so many who believe that common core is yet another top down idea whose lifespan will not live beyond the time and energy needed to make the behaviors called forth by the standards something that students do instinctively and not haphazardly. Go fix the fact that the profession is riddled with individuals who see the standards as an instrument used to highlight deficiencies and not strengths. Go fix the fact that the classroom is a place where every man is an island and that our schools are not living examples of the environments in which we say our students will one day work.  And last but not least, go fix the fact that less than 10% of your highly qualified teachers are prepared to make the pedagogical shift necessary to prepare our students for the intellectual engagement called forth by the new standards.  Yes, go fix that.

Although the realities presented above are personal and speak specifically to the truths present in my learning environment, I believe that one need not look further than the halls of their own respective institution of learning to see most, if not all of what I have just described. Nevertheless, it's not enough to be able to identify a problem; you must be able to solve it.

So how do you begin to address a problem that does not have a clear cut solution? Hmmm! This sounds awfully familiar. In fact, it sounds a little bit like Common Core Standard SL.11-12.2 which ask students integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems by evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data. In other words, we need to teach our students to do that which we do every single day. We problem solve, we create and recreate, we research, we analyze, we critique, we collaborate, we present, we publish, we attempt, we practice, we revisit, we revise, we study, we take risks etc.

Unfortunately, our students do not, at least not all of them for they do not live in a time that nurtures such behaviors. Instead, they live in a world where you can Google the answer to any question you may have, where sitcoms have problems that are solved within three commercials, where reality TV and YouTube have made instant celebrities of individuals with little to no educational pedigree, where the camera and record button on a Smartphone has made taking notes and or attending to the task at hand no longer necessary. These are the children sitting before us today and these my dear colleagues are the children we must teach to do what we do so instinctively.

So how do you do this? You do this by being intentional. Being intentional to the point that you slow down and take notice of the little things you do. For example, this summer I took it upon myself to read the original version of John Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress. After reading the first paragraph it soon became apparent to me that I would not be able to read this book like I had done so many others before this one. In short, I needed to come up with a strategy that would allow me to access the text. I wanted to not only comprehend it, but also learn from it. So what did I do? I went back to the very first word in the paragraph and began to read the text aloud to myself paying special attention to every single punctuation mark present. Pausing where I needed to pause and adding emphasis as indicated. Circling and looking up words that were unfamiliar to me and then rereading the passage with my new understanding.

Now ask yourself, would your students have done the same thing? Or would they have simply closed the text because it was too hard? And would you, like so many of us have done in the past, simply put on a tape recorder (so that they could at least hear the words spoken) and told them what it all means? If either one of these options above ring true for what may happen in your classroom then it's time to make a change. It's time to develop our students’ patient problem solving ability and it's time to show them how. This I believe is the charge of the new common core state standards: that we produce students with the ability to  problem-solve, adapt to change, take risk, communicate effectively, strategically analyze and manage information and ask the right questions.

"It is time to hold ourselves and all of our students to a new and higher standard of rigor - one that is defined according to 21st century criteria. It is time for our profession to advocate for accountability systems that will enable us to teach and test the skills that matter most. Our student's futures - and the future of this great country - are at stake." Tony Wagner, Co-Director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education