I have a confession. I’m a poser. Members of my English department see me as a Common Core expert. “Nathan, you have been to multiple district Common Core trainings, you’re aligning your lesson plans to the standards, you even blog about the Common Core, surely, you must be an expert.” It’s a flattering compliment. I never claimed to be an expert, but a novice at least. Well the truth is I am neither, just a lowly (gulp), Common Core expert poser.
Last month I attended a professional development sponsored by the Washington Education Association (WEA) with my PSTL colleagues Maren Johnson, Lindsey Stevens, Kelly Pruitt, and other educators across the state. For two days and sixteen intensive hours of training, we were vetted to see if we could hack it as Math or ELA Common Core trainers. I came into the training feeling confident that I knew the basics of the Literacy standards fairly well. I was wrong.
The WEA created four modules instructing its members how to implement the Common Core standards in their classrooms. Module #1 gave an overview of the ELA standards and I soon realized everything I thought knew about the Common Core was wrong. The trainer asked us, “What are the three shifts in focus in English/Language Arts from the Common Core?” I was 1 for 3. “What is the recommended ratio of fiction and non-fiction texts in 11th and 12th grade?” I was off by 10%. “What is the difference between qualitative text complexity and quantitative text complexity?” Difficult vs. challenging, right? Nope.
After swallowing some humble pie, I became a captive audience. If someone like me who considered himself a novice on the Common Core Standards didn’t know the basics of the standards, how in the world was I going to explain them to my students, their parents, let alone, my co-workers? Furthermore, in all the heated rhetoric over the Common Core, what is forgotten is there is a difference between the standards and the standardized assessments like the SBA. As my fellow blogger Tom White pointed out, we need time to get to know the standards and develop lessons plans to teach our students to meet them, before we can dismiss them. My ignorance about the basics makes me a poster child for Tom’s point.
The WEA created the modules to educate their members about the standards, rather than take a political stance on their merit. Thanks to the WEA for providing me this opportunity, the instruction of the four great trainers, and the support of my fellow trainees, I can now say I am emerging as an ELA Common Core padawan. Let me illuminate you the difference between my misconceptions and the facts.
Misconception #1 – Focus on Your Grade Band
Since my school began implementing the Common Core three years ago, our focus has been solely on the 9-12 Reading and Writing standards. Now with the implementation of the new teacher evaluation system (TPEP), the focus has narrowed just to the grade levels we teach. My PLC and I spend time finding standards that meet our lesson plans in order to show our evaluators that our curriculum is aligned to the Common Core. Why would I even consider wasting my mythical free time looking at the standards across the grade bands?
The WEA training had a diverse group of teachers across the state that represented all grade levels. As Mary Moser pointed out in an earlier post, when you track a standard using vertical alignment, you can see how it progresses throughout a student’s K-12 education. In fact we did this during the training. We worked in pairs and had to organize one standard throughout the grade levels. This allowed us to examine how the complexity of a standard changes from kindergarten to high school. More importantly, the standards give me a clear picture what my students are expected to know in elementary and middle school, where I need to get them when they enter my classroom as 10th graders, and where they eventually need to be by the time they graduate.
Misconception #2 – Informational Texts are Supplementary Texts
Last year I worked with my PLC to align Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the Common Core. We decided we would add “informational texts” to supplemental our students’ understanding of the Promethean myth and how that theme evolves throughout the novel. I asked my students to read a Time article about Dr. Kamrava the fertility doctor who transformed Nadia Suleyman into the “Octomom” and compare him to Victor Frankenstein’s quest to create his Creature.
After the WEA training, I realized what we were doing was not wrong, but misguided. We watched a video with a group of panelists discussing the Common Core including the standards’ chief architect David Coleman. Coleman said something that resonated with me: “We find evidence in the text because it allows us to be confused…it gives us a place to begin.” What I interpreted what Coleman meant was we need to ask students to focus on the text in front of them and unpack what it means, not add supplemental texts that bring them away from the primary text. In terms of teaching Frankenstein, I need to find literary criticism essays or historical documents that will enhance my students understanding of the novel, rather than taking my students outside of the text by focusing on the Promethean myth today.
Misconception #3 – Qualitative and Quantitative Means Challenging Academic Texts
One of the most illuminating moments of the training was when we compared two different texts for meaning. One was an excerpt from a dense philosophical essay by Emmanuel Kant filled with challenging vocabulary, and the other was a deceptively simple text with common vocabulary like “cement mixer,” and “pot” or “grinder” used in unusual ways that it was difficult to ascertain their meaning. The Kant piece was an example of a “quantitative” piece that is written at a college level with content specific vocabulary like “self-imposed nonage.” The cement mixer piece was really a narrative about surfing that is a great example of a “qualitative” text. While the text is easy to read, it is difficult to decode the meaning of the content-specific vocab without context. Our trainers explained this was a great example of a career specific text. Unless you were a surfer, you would be clueless about the meaning of the common vocabulary.
The implications for my classroom is I need to expose my students to both types of texts. I need to expose them to challenging literature like Frankenstein or difficult essays like Emerson’s “Nature” so they can grapple with the challenging vocabulary used in academia. Conversely, I need to invite them to share their “qualitative” texts with their peers to prepare them for the professional world. Asking a student who is interested in auto maintenance to bring in his owner’s manual for his Ford GTO can be an opportunity to conduct a close reading. It would be a valuable lesson for my students to see that each profession uses its own content-specific lingo.
At the beginning of day 2 of the WEA training, one of the trainers asked us if anyone could name the three shifts in English/Language Arts. After eating humble pie the day before, I sheepishly raised my hand. Suddenly, the entire conference room’s eyes gazed on me. My voice cracked. I said “Having students regularly read complex texts with academic language, reading and writing grounded in evidence, and building knowledge through content-rich informational texts.” I was rewarded with a round of applause. The trainer smiled, put her hand on my shoulder, and said, “Yesterday you assessed yourself as a novice Common Core expert,” then added, “I’d say you are well on you way to becoming an advanced expert.” Little did she know.