Making It Work—First Steps to Common Core Integration

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  • Selected Literacy Topics: Common Core Standards
  • Claire Wick, literacy coordinator for one of Wisconsin's Cooperative Educational Service Agencies, has been immersed in the Common Core State Standards for the past two years. She's excited about the positive changes she believes are in store, but is also aware that there are likely to be difficulties as schools begin using the new Common Core guidelines in the classroom. This interview with Wick and other educators appeared in the Council Chronicle (Sept 2011).

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    “I think it’s going to be mucky before it gets really clear”

    Claire Wick has been immersed in the Common Core State Standards for much of the past two years. As literacy coordinator for one of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA 7, serving 38 districts), she has helped develop detailed breakdowns of the standards; electronic reference tools to guide lesson planning; teacher training tools; and a complete curriculum based on the English language arts and math standards.

    Her verdict? She’s excited about the positive changes she believes are in store, but is also aware that there are likely to be difficulties as schools begin using the new Common Core guidelines in the classroom. “I think it’s going to be mucky before it gets really clear,” she says.

    Her view is echoed by teachers, administrators, and others around the country who are working to smooth the path for full-scale adoption of the standards. There is both enthusiasm for the Common Core’s potential and recognition that— as with any transformative change—hard work will be needed before the promise can be realized.

    At Chicago’s Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, for instance, principal Anna Alvarado has a team of teachers working on an integration plan. The team includes teachers from all core content areas at the K–8 public school, plus the technology and special education departments.

    Late last year, the team adapted a Common Core- aligned lesson found in Scholastic Scope magazine, based on the theme of courage. The lesson used multiple texts to foster discussion and written analysis—including an article about the US Navy SEALs and the killing of Osama bin Laden; an interview with a young teen whose father died in the Twin Towers attack on 9/11; and the Rudyard Kipling poem “If.”

    The team first presented the lesson to educators at a networking session, then to other Hawthorne faculty.

    “They saw how the different texts all addressed the same theme, but how your thinking process changed over time by what you read,” says Alvarado. “The teachers who  were in the audience were very engaged.” After seeing its power, seventh-  and eighth-grade teachers brought the lesson to their students.

    Alvarado says she has never been so excited about curriculum before, but recognizes there remains much work to be done. The CCSS require more and different skills from students, and teachers must be prepared for new ways of teaching and learning. At the beginning of the school year, the Chicago Public Schools system tested students based on the CCSS. The normally high-performing Hawthorne students averaged in the 71st percentile for ELA and 55th for math—lower scores than they typically would achieve on state tests.

    Most schools face this challenge. The Center on Education Policy (CEP) found in a national survey last year that almost three-fifths of districts in CCSS-adopting states (44 as of August 2011, plus the District of Columbia) view the CCSS as more rigorous than the standards they are replacing.

    Alvarado’s teachers also took the assessment test so they could see what will be required by the CCSS. The team realized that they will need to make several shifts in teaching strategy in order for the core standards to be met. Among them:

    • In K–5, where fictional texts and literature are now taught more than nonfiction, they will work to achieve more balance between these and informational texts—bringing the ratio to 50–50.
    • Teachers in all content areas, not just the English language arts, will build literacy.
    • Teachers need to advocate for complexity in text as well as skills, making sure the levels of content and materials align.
    • Students need to better understand texts and be better able to answer text-based questions; teacher modeling can help. “Kids need to read like detectives and write like they are investigative reporters,” says Alvarado.
    • After fifth grade, students need to be able to go beyond experiential narrative and write opinion-based pieces.
    • Teachers need to build academic vocabulary, teaching words that connect across disciplines.

    Grade-level teams at Hawthorne are working together to analyze specific standards. For example, says Kathleen Martin, literacy resource teacher for grades K–3, third-grade teachers have been examining expository writing and how it is addressed in the standards: “We’re looking at what we are doing with expository writing and what our expectations are and how we can bridge that with what the Common Core is asking.”

    Using Common Core before Standards Are Formally Introduced

    For Rodriguez Leonard, the Common Core is not yet officially in place in his school in Birmingham, Alabama (a late-adopting state). But he is consciously letting the new standards impact his classroom, especially in the area of technology integration.

    “Our school just went through a major technology overhaul, but it wasn’t until the Common Core conversations started that I decided to start using more technology in my class,” says Leonard, who teaches eighth-grade reading and language arts at L.M. Smith Middle School. “My students have started doing more projects online both as a result of the technology overhaul and as a result of me being more comfortable with the Common Core standards.”

    In Leonard’s class, for example, students studying plot elements and using Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” as a resource created their own plot elements in interactive presentations that made use of video clips and other visuals, which were then put on a wiki page.

    For a unit on social justice, Leonard had students in the urban, largely low-income district find issues in their community they had been affected by, such as homelessness, crime, and obesity. Students researched their topics, took photographs (sans people) that illustrated the topic in symbolic ways, wrote about the photos, created a plan of action to address their issue, and then put the material on wiki pages. One student who wanted to get sidewalks for the school wrote to the city council; putting her letter together required her to interview residents, gather facts, and present a reasoned argument.

    “Students really got into it with creating these wiki pages,” he says, and found it motivating that “even at their age, they could become agents of change.”

    In addition, the inquiry-based style of teaching changed Leonard’s role to that of facilitator—another factor that Leonard says has resulted in “100 percent student  engagement.”

    Leonard’s school is project-based and uses cross-disciplinary teams to plan projects that cut across content areas. “The framework and methodology of our school is such that it supports the Common Core,” he says, even though the state as yet has provided little information or guidance about how or when the standards will be implemented.

    Using Cross-Disciplinary Teams to Teach Content Literacy

    Cross-disciplinary collaborations can help teachers meet CCSS goals for improved literacy in non-ELA content areas.

    Carolyn and Johnny Lott of Oxford, Mississippi, are retired education professors, with Carolyn specializing in English and Johnny in mathematics. The pair train teachers to integrate the CCSS in both math and English. (If you happened to attend their packed session at the 2011 NCTE Annual Convention, “Language Arts and Mathematics via Common Core,” you know that their joint presentation style—in which each smoothly interjects examples and comments to support the other’s points— is both informative and lively.)

    “The standards are not the same for English and math, but the processes and practices are very much alike,” says Carolyn. For example, both sets of standards call for the development of reasoning skills and for using technology as a tool, while math proofs can be likened to a well-organized paragraph by using an introduction, supporting statements, and a conclusion.

    The Lotts recommend teachers work together to plan lessons using shared resources (or, in the case of elementary teachers, to use one text for both subjects). For example, a math teacher might present passages from a Harry Potter book describing the complex monetary system used in J. K. Rowling’s fictional world. An ELA teacher (or an elementary teacher teaching both content areas) could teach the same text, but focus instead on character development and theme.

    Similar collaboration should occur between other content areas as well, say the Lotts—and will result in deeper student un- derstanding and greater literacy gains.

    Piloting the Common Core in the Classroom

    Some states are piloting Common Core curricula in the classroom this year, in advance of more widespread adoption next year. In Wisconsin, Wick’s agency is involved with a pilot group to test the ELA and math curriculum it developed. Early reactions from teachers include appreciation at seeing a uniform road map with clear grade-level expectations replacing the broad, nebulous standards of the past, says Wick.

    One challenge pilot teachers discovered was that under the Common Core, lessons are planned based on standards students must master, not on a topic, theme, or book.

    “You’re starting with assessments first and then planning activities,” Wick says. “It was hard for pilot teachers to move that way; they were used to thinking about a resource or a theme first.”

    Wick’s team also learned that including a glossary was important, because not all teachers understood terms in the same way. “Text,” for example, can refer to many types of material, including snippets of digital content, but teachers may automatically assume the word refers only to a book, says Wick. She also received requests from teachers to define terms such as “fairy tale” and “figurative language.”

    The CESA 7 curriculum uses inquiry modules, rather than units, and is resource-neutral, allowing districts to 
    choose their own materials. Wick expects other states to make use of the curriculum, which is being released in March 2012.  Other Common Core resources that CESA 7 has produced are being used by districts in Iowa, Alabama, and other states.
    Katie McKnight, a literacy expert, author, and education professor at Northeastern Illinois University, worked with CESA 7 to develop the curriculum. She says the organization is “farthest along out of anybody I’ve seen.” Other states, such as Illinois, are still “trying to get their heads around” the Common Core and don’t have classroom-ready curriculum or trained teachers yet.
    McKnight travels frequently to introduce CCSS to schools and teachers and says most districts are still in an introductory phase. “Most states are going to roll it out and talk about it this year, then in 2012–13 districts are going to figure out what they need to do.” The following school year is when national CCSS as- sessments are expected to begin.

    According to CEP’s August 2011 survey, just two-thirds of Common Core-adopting districts have taken steps to implement them.

    Implementation  Hurdles—New Curriculum and Funding Challenges

    In Delaware, instructional support specialist Renae Worley is working with the Milford School District to map the current curriculum and align it to the CCSS. She works with five content-area cadres, or teams, which have discovered many differences between state and Common Core standards. Some elements, such as the teaching of fractions, for example, have changed by two grade levels (continuing under state standards through grade seven, but being primarily completed under CCSS by grade five).

    This presents a challenge for students currently enrolled at all but the lowest grades, since they may not have had the foundational training required by the Common Core, says Worley.

    “It’s difficult to take kids and say all of a sudden you have to know this, when they haven’t had some of the foundational instruction.”

    Other elements that have been taught in fifth grade now need to be taught in third grade, but are only discussed in fifth-grade textbooks.

    For these reasons, the district is considering buying new textbooks that are aligned to the Common Core. The financial impact on the district will be huge, says Worley. But Delaware has Race to the Top funds that might be used to support the transition—provided the purchases are made before the funds are depleted.

    Indeed, money is an issue for many states as they ponder how to adopt the CCSS. The CEP survey found that 76 percent of districts considered inadequate funds to be a major challenge in implementing the new standards; most believe new curriculum will be needed. Another problem, cited by almost two-thirds of the districts, was inadequate or unclear state guidance. On the plus side, most saw the CCSS as likely to improve skills in math and ELA.

    In the short term, Worley is concerned that kids may experience dips in test scores during the transition years. The challenge is compounded by Delaware having only recently shifted to a new statewide, computerized assessment, which will be replaced by the Common Core standards in coming years.

    Literacy expert Lucy Calkins—coauthor of Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement—recommends teachers  read the standards themselves, rather than accepting what outside consultants, publishers, and others say about how the Common Core should be implemented.

    Calkins says some are misinterpreting the Common Core, to the potential detriment of students.

    It’s up to teachers and districts to use the Core as it is intended; when done so, she says, “the actual expectations for what kids should know and be able to do are really exciting if you care about critical literacy and you care about writing and you care about an emphasis on higher-level comprehension—not just basic skill-and-drill curriculum.”

    Of course, how the Common Core ultimately impacts education remains to be seen.

    “The Common Core’s effect on schools is still to be determined,” says Calkins. “The standards themselves have been written, but the effects they will have on teaching and learning have not been constructed. That’s the work we have ahead of us.”     

    Lorna Collier is a freelance writer and author based in northern Illinois. She can be reached at lorna[at]lornacollier[dot]com.