There are some that would have us believe that teaching using the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) can be “easy”. In some ways this belief has been fostered by the plethora of curriculum packages, websites and publications that seek to propose “quick” insights or answers in terms of teaching the CCSS. Unfortunately, this is an illusion. David Ruenzel recently authored an article in Education Week entitled “Teachers and Critical Thinkers” (March 26, 2014) that spoke directly to this point: the public often perceives teachers not as thinkers but as taskmasters who force-feed content to students. It is common to see CCSS training and materials that focus on new and improved teaching methods, and it is always tempting to simply use these materials without thinking about how this instruction fits into our teaching style or needs of individual students. If this is the way we continually teach then don’t we justify the public’s label of teachers as taskmaster? As teacher leaders, we need to shift the way we critically think about the CCSS. I offer three examples that have the potential to enrich our teaching practice and student learning.
Passion, rather than Engagement
A buzz word that is typically tied to student learning is “engagement”. Engagement is important, however, I often times hear teachers discuss this in terms of some type of game or activity. One of the most significant aspects of the CCSS for students is its focus on developing important critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills. While engagement is a part of this focus, a more important factor is passion. When a student has a passion for a particular subject the issue of engagement becomes intrinsic – a matter of introspection. This leaves the job of the teacher as one to continually foster and build that passion through questioning or the modeling of strategies that foster critical thinking. As Ruenzel points out, teachers cannot push students to delve more deeply into the standards unless they are willing to do it themselves. A teacher’s passion for the work they do quickly becomes evident to students.
Concepts, not just Themes
One of the anchor standards for the CCSS English Language Arts (R.1) is to teach students to “determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas”. This skill is a critical connection to college-based instruction; however, it should be extended to include conceptual frameworks. If you recall a philosophy or social science from your college days you probably remember having to connect your reading to a particular theory. Many social science theories are connected to concepts at the individual (i.e. gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status) or societal (i.e. equality, citizenship, democracy) level. These conceptual frameworks are critical for understanding research-based writing. In many ways they intersect with themes, however, they are different in that they also connect to a particular research agenda. Teaching students about the process of social science research and the ways in which concepts frame this work will assist them in college-level reading and writing.
Strategies, not just Choices
One of the methods that I was taught as a beginning elementary school teacher was to offer student choices in their reading. I still value this today, but with the CCSS it is important that teachers consider possibly shifting their thinking. Many of the CCSS advocate the use of particular strategies that must be modeled by teachers. In this case, teachers must be purposeful in selecting the text that students will access. I think about this as the Goldilocks theory: can’t be too easy or to hard – it has to be just right. In some cases this will lead to frustration for students who are use to choosing easier text. Students have to be shown that they can maneuver complicated text using a variety of strategies (I often refer to this as a toolbox). Teachers have to accept the task of modeling and consistently utilize these strategies throughout the instructional process. Certainly there is still time for pleasure reading – a time where choice moves to the forefront.
The CCSS offers us the challenge to create a new vision of teacher and learning (well, maybe not a completely new vision). To accomplish this we need to constantly reflect on what we do in the classroom. In planning our work we need to ensure that the tasks we ask of students involves more thinking than doing. The outcome of this action will translate to rich stories of the “real” work we do for students, and not simply the role of a taskmaster.
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