Thursday, March 21, 2013
Why I'm Standing By the Core
I've spent a lot of the past two years being very skeptical about the Common Core and the ad hoc full force shift that education in our nation has taken. At times, I've been miltant and strongly opposed, at times I've been panicked and guided by fear, but I am starting to break through all of those reactive stances to be able to bring myself to a place of really evaluating what we're facing and determining whether I can support what is being presented. I still have moments where my personal pendulum swings from skeptical to irrate on subjects like APPR, the flood of new testing that Common Core is ushering in, and what I see as the barely veiled agenda to deteriorate the public education system of America in favor of a for profit model dependent on charter schools and big business. But, when it comes down to the fundamental question of whether or not I can support the new Common Core Learning Standards, the answer is yes.
Here's what I have experienced in my own classroom this year as a teacher trying hard to adapt the Common Core to best meet the needs of my students. The work that we do is extremely focused. Before the Common Core, my curriculum was a mass of almost 200 disjointed performance standards. There seemed to be little to tie any of these ideas, strategies, and skills together, and the result was a kind of "teach by the wind" style that was fun, and worked most days, but never really lent itself to the opportunity to come back and do in depth work with any one idea or skill.
But the Common Core has changed that for me. I appreciate the clarity of a skills based approach to learning. By stressing the most essential skills for students to be successful, and then building on those skills grade by grade, I can see how to focus my teaching to get the most out of every limited minute. Every day in English class, we work on the same skills. We work on reading closely and carefully. We work on writing clearly and coherently, we work on bringing our reading lives and our writing lives together. This was what I wanted to accomplish as a teacher before the Core. The difference is that before I couldn't figure out how to put all of the pieces together coherently, and now I feel like I have a roadmap for how to do that.
One of the biggest concerns I hear people voicing about the Common Core is a fear that the core will standardize education so much that we will lose the art and skill of teaching in the work. I can understand this fear. With school districts quickly adopting modules, canned programs, and data tracking devices this is a valid concern, but one that I have not seen coming from the Core itself. Maybe I am simply lucky to teach in a district that is not shoving a program onto my teaching. That seems to be a failure of leadership rather than a flaw of the Core. The new standards are not a new curriculum, they are not a new program, they are simply a framework of skills that we expect students to work on. I have been able to adapt these new guidelines to help sharpen my teaching. I haven't abandoned my philosophy or my best practices. My students still write to learn, they still read voraciously of their own choice reading, they still engage in self-directed writing workshops, they still develop interesting research questions, but what they get from me is more intentional teaching. This is an improvement that I stand behind wholeheartedly.
Today I got into a discussion with a social studies teacher who was chafing at the idea of stressing the need of text based evidence and appropriate citations in every piece of writing that students do. He thought this the antithesis of authentic thinking, and didn't think it appropriate or necessary to be done on a regular basis. He could see the sense in something like a research paper, but hesitated to bring the expectation into regular practice. He expressed fear that teaching this way would create automatons incapable of independent thought beyond the text.
I get this, because I've been there. I've had those same fears, that a highly skills based approach will stifle creative thinking, but I've shifted my thinking. We owe it to our students to give them all of the skills they need to be successful learners. That means training them to think creatively and critically, but also teaching them to follow the rules of being a successful student. As I see it, the content, ideas, and big thinking of a curriculum are the nails, while the skills, just like those stressed in the core, are the hammers. One without the other is pretty useless.
I have a lot of clarity right now on the Core and the expectations it puts on teaching and learning, and personally I can stand behind it. We have work to do, and many of the effects of the Core are ones that I think it essential to examine, but from where I sit I can see with good sense and sound professional judgement how this plan could benefit education.