Creating a Culture of Teacher Learning: Thinking about the Common Core Standards Systemically

The Common Core Standards create a new and very sophisticated vision for literacy teaching and learning in the 21st Century. Much attention has been paid to the new Standards, including analysis of how the instructional experiences for students need to be very different from typical instruction. Much less attention has been paid by the media and policymakers, however, to the resources and practices that will be allocated to help teachers implement them in their classrooms in ways that are authentic and meaningful to teachers and students alike.

I’m particularly concerned with the lack of attention in the public media and professional literature to the organizational conditions and professional learning structures that help teachers make meaning of the standards and develop strategies for (re)thinking classroom instruction.

Change is hard. It also only makes sense when people understand and believe in what they are expected to be doing and work in conditions that support that in happening. Changing practice requires deep attention to the kinds of professional learning experiences that teachers have access to as part of their workday. 

Time is only one of the critical resources. Teachers need scaffolds, protocols, and norms to help them learn to use collaborative time together as a tool to support reflection and inquiry on practice. The kind of talk that leads to changes in practice is rooted in questions about student learning and teacher practice. The vision for teaching and learning described in the new Common Core Standards doesn’t just happen because we provide a description of it or lay out tasks. It requires intentionally designed experiences and organizations that create the conditions and build a culture that supports inquiry, collaboration, risk-taking, deprivatization of practice, and creative, flexible, adaptive choices by learners who are supported in being in learning roles.  

NCLE doesn’t take a stance on the Common Core Standards. In one sense, that conversation has passed. (45 states and 3 territories have signed on.) What we want to ensure is that the conversation about implementation and the allocation of resources to support implementation pays equal attention to the learning needs of educators  as to the needs of students. We need to ensure that in creating new models of practice for K-12 students,  we are creating the conditions for teachers to experience literacy and learning in the ways that we envision for our students.

Are you an educator with questions about how to implement the Common Core Standards in the most meaningful ways possible?  The Literacy in Learning Exchange offers access to advice and resources you may find valuable:

  • Learning Literacy through Inquiries in a Multiage Primary Classroom— Freida Hammett says her whole philosophy of teaching can be summed up as: "Follow the child." In this chapter from Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts Grade PreK-2, Hammett describes an inquiry project that began with children's fascination with insects,  and shows how she guides children through the project in a way that meets the Common Core standards yet puts their interests first. "In my classroom," she says, "the children and I drive the standards, rather than being driven by them."   
  • Everything's A Conversation: Reading Away IsolationSupporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: English Language Arts, Grades 9-12 presents stories of teachers and schools trying to make the Common Core Standards real in their classrooms, and includes numerous examples of literacy instruction across a range of disciplines.  In this excerpt from Chapter 2, 2010 Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling describes a transformation she experienced in her teaching of reading, and relates it to her understanding of text complexity in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. She reassures other educators that regardless of their own teaching realities, "there is a place to begin." A vignette shared by Danielle Lillge illustrates how a team of English language arts teachers from Oak Park, Illinois, has come together around the Common Core Standards with the commitment to change their instruction and improve student literacy.
  • Standards for Professional LearningThese standards from Learning Forward, an NCLE stakeholder organization, describe a vision of the conditions, practices, and resources that educators need in order to teach 21st centuries students and skills.  They place strong emphasis on collaboration and professional learning communities (or communities of practice) as key elements in professional learning.
  • Representing Close Readings in Academic Writing—Close reading and argumentative writing, key concepts addressed in the Common Core English Language Arts Standards, are the topics of this book chapter and audio clip from Eileen Murphy, author of 360 Degrees of Text: Using Poetry to Teach Close Reading and Powerful Writing.

We would love to hear about approaches you’re aware of in your school or in organizations you work with that are doing a good job of building in time and support for teacher learning and professional development of the Common Core Standards.  Post comments at the end of this column to share specific approaches and tell how you think they’re helpful for building teacher capacity.


Most Recent: July 23, 2012
  • File Type: Text
  • Selected Literacy Topics: Common Core Standards
  • Jane Gangi

    common core



    Hi, KaiLonnie,

    First off I want to say I love your book, Bringing Literacy Home, and have recommended to doctoral students who love it, too. One of them will be using it as part of her theoretical framework in her literature review. In the fall I will be recommending it to my literacy classes.

    I know the train is out of the station on the common core (CCSS) but, to protect students, teachers need to know where to resist. I don't share your view that the CCSS is a "very sophisticated vision for literacy teaching." I think the CCSS actually limits literacy learning for these reasons:


    ·         The text exemplars on the elementary level are primarily White, thus privileging White children. The proficient reader research shows us that children must be able to make text-to-self connections and when classroom collections and curriculum choices are largely White, White children are advantaged. As Rudine Sims Bishop says, all children need mirror and window books. Too often, White children have many mirror books and children of color and the poor have mostly window books into a mostly-White and middle-class world. Teachers will have to resist the CCSS text exemplars

    ·         The CCSS make reading mostly an efferent, not aesthetic, experience. The word "aesthetic" does not appear until 11th grade; children need aesthetic experiences long before that. Teachers will have to push against the CCSS's predisposition to turn children into information processors. Louise Rosenblatt’s important work is not included in the CCSS

    ·         Privileging informational text--50% in elementary and 75% in high school--seems to have a research base pulled out of thin air. Einstein would tell you that fantasy and folklore are more likely to make students "college and career ready," and Darwin would tell you it is poetry. Teachers will have to resist forcing students to read 75% informational text. Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer provides a poignant story: Miller requires her sixth graders to read 40 books in different genres. Tommy, however, read 65 fantasy and science fiction books. Wisely, Miller did not stop him; she did not tell him to put down his beloved genres and read informational text

    ·         The CCSS say they are internationally benchmarked, but do not say which nations. I wish it was China. Shenzen, China, a city of 15 million, focuses solely on free reading and, as a result, has the highest university exam pass rate of any city in China. The Chinese government is, wisely, encouraging other Chinese districts to follow suit

    ·         The CCSS leave out the arts. The arts have a strong research base in forwarding literacy. Shirley Brice Heath, your lead author in Bringing Literacy Home, and I can provide you with that research. Teachers will have to make up for this harmful omission

    ·         The CCSS do not recognize culturally responsive pedagogy. Reading like a detective and writing like an investigative reporter is fine--some of the time. The "close reading" of text seems to emanate from the old "New Criticism" of the 1920s and 1930s. It's one way to read text, but not the only way. It's good the CCSS invites children to talk, but we have to be careful of disembodied learning. Culturally responsive pedagogy and the arts bring embodied learning and teachers will have to make sure to bring into the classroom experiences that the CCSS do not provide.

    I have other concerns with the CCSS, but this is enough for now. I am very glad my own children are out of school—the son who read more than 75% science fiction in high school, the other son who read more than 75% short stories in high school, and the daughter who got her first and only “A” in social studies when her teacher required the novel Across Five Aprils to teach the Civil War. Because her emotions were engaged with the fictional novel, she cared to learn the informational part. Teachers will have to resist that, too—the word “analyze” appears 94 times in the CCSS, the word “emotion,” twice, in a clinical sort of way. The word “affect” does not appear at all. For many children, emotional engagement precedes caring about information. Although I am glad for my children (who despite the lack of emphasis on informational text have proved themselves to be phenomenally college and career ready), I worry for the sixty million children who aren’t out of K-12 public schools yet.

    All of us will have to try to bring the train back into the station—and evaluate it very, very soon.

    Thanks for listening, Jane Gangi