My wife surprised me for my 40th birthday with tickets to see a traveling production of the Gershwin brothers’ Porgy and Bess. She knows I adore the music. I get chills every time I hear Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version of “Summertime.” The counterpoint between Fitzgerald’s cheerful trill and Armstrong’s gravelly howl is a match made in musical heaven.
Seeing Porgy and Bess live was exhilarating. Set in 1930s Charleston, South Carolina on “Catfish Row,” the Gershwin opera tells the tragic love story between the crippled Porgy and the cosmopolitan Bess. [SPOILER ALERT!] In the closing number, Porgy bravely heads to New York searching for the runaway Bess, despite the impossible odds of finding her. He enthusiastically sings: “I’m on my way to a heav’nly land/I’d ride that long, long road/If You are there to guide my hand/Take me to that promise land.”
Porgy’s undying optimism that as long as he has faith, he can accomplish anything, reminds me of my fellow Social Media Teacher Leaders and myself implementing the Common Core in our classrooms. We have the impossible mission of familiarizing ourselves with the standards, instructing them to our students, and having faith our students will meet the standards on their formative and summative assessments.
In my last blog post I discussed the “radical acceptance” the teachers in our group embraced implementing the Common Core. In this post I will focus on the reflections of the instructional coaches Kelly and Lindsey, and the librarians Chis and Mary and how they have embraced the chaos of Common Core implementation to help guide their students to reach the Common Core “promised land.”
1. The Teacher as Interlocutor: One of the big mysteries of the Common Core are the speaking and listening standards. How are teachers going to assess their students speaking and listening skills? Even Smarter Balanced has yet to create a speaking/listening rubric. What are teachers to do? Instructional Coach Kelly Pruitt address this issue directly in a blog post where she describes the steps for students to engage in “collaborative conversations.” First, she has her students read and annotate a common text, then she has them answers questions regarding the text on a response sheet, next she preps her students for the discussion using question stems, then she has her student discuss the text using the inner/outer circle fishbowl approach, or have the students work in small discussion groups. Finally, she has her students return back to their response sheet defending why they still agree with their original answer, or why their opinions may have changed because of the class discussion. Kelly’s instructional process is definitely practical for educators. But, what Kelly does that is really clever is she uses the standards to guide her instruction. In this way she is prepping her students to meet the standards throughout her entire lesson.
2. Countering “Dead Data” with “Live Feedback:” While Kelly uses the Common Core to guide her instruction, instructional coach and humanities teacher Lindsey Stevens uses the Common Core to guide her feedback to her students. Lindsey discusses the work of teacher, author, and consultant Billie Donegan. Donegan argues the importance of consistently using data to give feedback to avoid “dead data,” or sporadic feedback that has no relevance to the students beyond a specific assignment or unit. Lindsey discusses how she uses “live feedback” with her students by constantly giving them feedback on formative assignments so they can see how well they are performing in meeting the Common Core. Lindsey adds: “I believe even more now that the more teachers can align ourselves with the standards and use quality feedback to hold students to high expectations, and create a culture of continuous improvement the less we will hear the ECG machine flat line when we look at our students results.” In other words, the more feedback we give students, the more the data becomes relevant to help students assess themselves how well they are meeting the standards.
3. Survey Says – How are Students Comprehending the Common Core?: Lindsey collects students data to help drive her feedback on formative assessment. Librarian Chris Gustafson, on the other hand, likes using surveys to have students to reflect on their own progress. Being a librarian allows Chris to survey students without any emotional attachment. The students are surveyed about her co-workers classrooms, not her own. Considering the survey was given at the end of the school year, the students were rather candid about what they learned. One student wrote when finishing the sentence knowing the standards helps my learning because… “If I know what the standards are I can try to exceed the expectations of that standard in order to get a better grade.” The student clearly recognizes that to earn a good grade, she has to master or exceed the standard. Surveys allow students to voice their comprehension of the standards honestly and objectively.
4. Creating a Classroom with a Growth Mindset: Kelly, Lindsey, and Chris’ have used the Common Core to guide their instruction, feedback, and student surveys. Librarian Mary Moser reminds us that our students are human beings and also need encouragement to be successful. Mary advocates for using a “growth mindset” in the classroom. A growth mindset believes that we all have the ability to grow and persevere to meet our goals. This is opposed to a “fixed mindset” that believes there is a cap to our growth and everyone’s potential will eventually plateau. But, creating a growth mindset goes beyond this. It guides how teachers use praise. Instead of saying “good effort” to a student, a teacher with a growth mindset will specifically point out how the student has improved and what he still needs to improve on. Mary makes the point this mindset can go beyond the classroom. Parents can be coached how to question their children to help them grow as learners:“By relating the help to questions about effort, grit, and perseverance, the parent gets to have a conversation that fosters student growth.” All parties need to take responsibility – teachers, students, parents – to create a growth mindset culture that ensures all students meet the Common Core.
The Promise of the Promise Land: Before Porgy departs on his impossible quest of finding Bess in New York, the people of Catfish Row have a choice: either dismiss Porgy as a fool and shun him from the community forever, or despite the odds, give him their unwavering support and hope for the best. They decide the latter. Kelly, Lindsey, Chris, and Mary embody this optimism. Kelly uses the standards to guide her instruction. Lindsey uses data to provide constructive feedback. Chris uses surveys to allow students to objectively reflect on their learning. Mary uses a growth mindset to create a “can-do” learning environment. Porgy may not know if and when he will ever see Bess again, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. We don’t know if our students will meet the Common Core or how well they’ll perform on the SBAC. But, that won’t stop us from believing they can achieve whatever they put their minds to.