In the front of my classroom sits a full-sized picnic table, the kind with the built-on benches. I use it mostly for my morning reading groups and afternoon math reteaching, but now it was transformed into a stage. My fourth graders were taking turns, three at a time, performing their readers’ theater presentations to their classmates. Each group had a narrator, a member of the Puyallup Tribe and a member of the Yakama Tribe. Their job was to compare and contrast eastern and western Washington and the native people who lived there by depicting the trading of goods between representatives of each tribe.
It was, quite frankly, an ambitious project, but exactly the kind of teaching and learning that we need to be doing; assignments that integrate content mastery with reading, listening, writing and speaking. This is the type of assignment that the Common Core is all about.
CCSS, of course, is not a set of assignments, but a set of standards. But standards drive assessment, and assessment drives instruction. If my students are going to be assessed on their capacity to “Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences,” as well as their ability to “Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience in an organized manner, using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace,” then it is incumbent on me to get them there. I’m guessing that eventually we’ll all be using curriculum and materials that are specifically designed for CCSS, but until that happens (and hopefully even after it happens) we need to come up with learning activities that get our students from here to there.
Fortunately there’s help. Which is great for for teachers like me, who aren’t particularly creative and who don’t have hours and hours of unclaimed time. One resource is the Literacy Designed Collaborative, an organization that “empowers teachers to build students’ literacy skills and understanding of science, history, literature, and other important academic content through meaningful reading and writing assignments that are aligned to the CCSS.” Another, related resource is a book by Eleanor Dougherty called Assignments Matter that explains how to start with the standards, write a “prompt” or description of a learning task, a rubric that defines that qualities of the work your students will produce, as well as the learning activities you plan for your class as they progress through the assignment.
And that’s exactly what I did. I started with the standards quoted above and wrote a prompt and rubric for my students. I introduced it, however, a week before I wanted them to start working on it. I used that week to introduce the content knowledge and build the comprehension skill of comparing and contrasting. Once those pieces were in place, I assigned groups and got the class started. But I was still teaching, still scaffolding them as they completed work on their assignment. We had a mini-lesson on how to “show what you know;” how to naturally infuse content knowledge into a script. There was a lesson on how to build suspense. I had my kids working in groups of three, so we had a mini lesson on “how to compromise.” And toward the end, I taught them a lesson on how to find evidence in your work for each item in the rubric.
If this sounds like the Backwards Design Model devised by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, it’s because it basically is. You decide what you want your class to achieve and then plan out everything you need to do so that they get there.
And it works. My students were awesome! Group after group got up there on that picnic table, opened their notebooks and performed. Every single group accurately compared and contrasted the two sides of the Cascades and the two groups of Native Americans and the goods they produced. Every single group wrote a compelling story with a problem, a solution and a compelling plot, and every single kid read clearly and with expression.
And that’s what teaching and learning is all about.