This summer I gave my seven-year old daughter Aviva two goals. Learn how to swim and ride her bike. Both are skills that are important for personal safety and would teach her the rewards of perseverance.
By July, I knew she could swim. She’d advanced to the next level in her swim class and spent most of Independence Day jumping off the dock at the lake at my sister’s house. But, riding her bike proved more difficult. I took her to the local track and we’d practice balancing. She’d ride for ten seconds, then jump off her saddle, worried she’d tip over. Despite my positive encouragements, she wasn’t making progress. We both became frustrated.
A few weeks ago, I was away from home attending a Common Core Literacy Standards training presented by the Washington Education Association (WEA). On the second day, I received an email from my wife with the subject line “Mission Accomplished!” Attached was a video she shot with her phone. First, you see my two-year old running down my block looking for her sister. Then, Aviva enters the screen heading into the foreground, perfectly balancing on her bicycle. As she zooms in front of the camera she proudly looks directly into the lens and says “Hi daddy.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. All summer I worked with her to practice riding her bike and it was the week I was away she figured it out. Then, I realized what happened. Even though I had taken off the physical training wheels off Avi’s bike, she needed the psychological one’s taken off as well. I gave her the tools, but she needed space to gain the confidence.
This anecdote is an apt metaphor about instructing students to meet the Common Core. The WEA training focused on the three shifts in the literacy standards: regular practice with complex texts that have academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence; and building knowledge through content rich non-fiction. I attended a previous training in February where I first learned about the shifts, but after this training I better understood how to implement them. As my trainer put it: “By the end of this training, you will not be fully Common Cored. However, we will give you the suitcase so you know what to pack.” In essence, he taught us how to peddle and steer our way through the Common Core, but I’d need to figure out how to balance through the standards myself. After teetering on my own without my Common Core training wheels, here are my takeaways:
Student Vocab Lists vs. Students Collecting Vocab
The first shift in the literacy standards is having students doing “regular practice with complex texts that have academic language.” The architects of the Common Core believe the more you expose students to academic language, to better prepared they are for college and career readiness. This is something I know many English teachers have been doing already. Where the change is, however, is how we teach vocabulary. Like many teachers, when my students are reading a novel, I compile a list of about ten complex, SAT-esque words found within the text, hand out the list on Monday and then quiz them on Friday.
The Common Core believes this is the wrong approach. CCRA.4 says: “Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.” Basically, students need to understand not just the denotative, or dictionary definition of a word, but the connotative use of the word as well, or how the word is used in language. This requires a paradigm shift. Students need to data mine their own new vocab for meaning. How can this be done if students expect their teachers to tell them what vocab to study? An ELL teacher at the training suggested through categories. Foreign language vocab is taught by relevant categories: home vocab, school vocab, food vocab, etc. Teachers can teach vocabulary by asking students guiding questions: “What words or phrases does Huck use to describe Jim?” “What adjectives does Thomas Jefferson use to describe King George?” “How does Martin Luther King Jr. use tone words to persuade his audience?” Now, students have an overarching category, or lens, to search and define academic vocabulary using context clues, and are able to use that complex vocabulary in their own communication.
Becoming Terry Gross Generating Text-Based Questions
The focus on guiding questions leads us to shift two, which asks the students to “read, write, and speak grounded in evidence.” Textbooks and standardized texts of the past tend to ask students questions that may be loosely tied to a text, but could be answered on evidence completely unrelated to the text. I have always taught the theme of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby. Though the topic is engaging, students easily can write about the American Dream without quoting the novel.
Now, students have to refer directly to the text to answer text-based questions. If they don’t effectively read and annotate a text, this task is nearly impossible. How to get them to do this is a bit of an art. I think teachers need to become like NPR’s Terry Gross who interviews in a way that both challenges her interviewees while making them feel at ease.
The following video is a good example how do this. Watch New Orleans English teacher Kaycee Eckhart ask text-based questions of her students about the short story “The Lottery.” Pay close attention how Eckhart balances asking simple close-ended question to ensure all students comprehend what they are reading, while getting them to dive deeper by asking open-ended analysis questions that refer directly back to the text.
Now Serving Text Sets
I hope you have been sensing a theme that all the shifts change the role of the teacher from a director who gives direct instruction, to a facilitator who guides students’ learning. This is especially true in shift 3, “building knowledge through content rich non-fiction.” In this shift, teachers become text arrangers, assembling a collection of text sets related to a similar topic or universal theme. The idea is that students are given short, engaging, and challenging texts that students will gain background knowledge about a topic independently. Like many of you, I am always reluctant to release control of my instruction, but this is exactly the point. Students must be able to independently annotate and differentiate texts to prepare them for the informational-laden 21st century work force.
A good example how to do this is the New York Times website “Room for Debate.” Each week the Times asks a panel of experts a question related to a controversy in the news. Each experts respond to the prompt with a short 200 – 400 word editorial. I have taught “Room for Debate” having the students assume the roles of the experts, and eventually, letting the students choose their own topics for debate. But text sets could be used for a variety of different purposes: background knowledge of a novel, supplemental knowledge to an anchor text like a play, or allowing the students to create their own text sets for a research project.
From Balance to Fluency
After I returned home, Avi eagerly hopped on her bike to prove to me she could ride without assistance. I watched her joyfully make laps around our cul-de-sac. When I tucked her into bed, she asked me if I was proud of her accomplishment. I said I was, but, I had a new goal for her – learn to ride up and down the hills in our neighborhood. She smiled and said confidently, “OK, just let me do it myself,” and added, “I’ll tell you when I need help.”