A typical day in my College Preparatory English III classroom in Illinois looks like this: Students work in small groups annotating passages from a novel. They highlight text that they feel is important so they will be able to quickly find it to use in discussion or in response to questioning. They note in margins those ‘aha’ moments when an idea became clear, or they write questions that the passage has provoked. They also place check marks or stars next to passages that relate to earlier works they read which apply to this new text.
The students are expected to remember and apply what they have read throughout the year. They strive to get the texts to “talk to each other.” After all, they aren’t just reading isolated works that they put away and forget about. They are reading as explorers. Everything my students and I do in English III is designed to prepare them for life – for college and careers.
If this sounds good, and it should, then it is important to understand that this is what the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) look like in practice in an English Language Arts classroom. This day represents a portion of what the CCSS mean by a “close-reading” activity. It is the way I have taught for years, because it makes sense – common sense – and it is the established best practice that I have learned from attending trainings on how to teach Advanced Placement classes.
Now, instead of reserving rich, close-reading activities for my gifted and honors students, this is how I teach all of my classes, including the one just described. A special education teacher and I even co-teach this way in a class which brings together special education students, English language learners, students with 504 plans, as well as my typical college-bound learners. This year all of these students have read challenging texts such as The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible without explanatory notes. We certainly do not avoid grade-level appropriate texts just because the students struggle. We take the time and energy necessary to dig into rich texts and search for understanding, even though it is often difficult.
When I think of the backlash against CCSS, which are called Illinois Learning Standards in my state, it is difficult for me to understand all the opposition to a set of high standards that are consistent across states. These standards provide “teachers, parents, and students with a set of clear expectations to ensure that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school, regardless of where they live.”
Recent articles in Education Week capture the skirmish raging against the CCSS. Battle-weary teachers like me who identify as “Common Core Warriors” are feeling fatigue, not from teaching but from defending the choices we make in implementing these demanding standards in our classrooms.
It is unfortunate that the standards use the word “common,” for that has allowed both liberals and conservatives to abuse the concept in the standards debate by claims that children are not “common” or “standardized.” In Illinois, we began referring to Common Core State Standards as the Illinois Learning Standards, which they are. Since the title “common core” has been part of the problem, I now refrain from using those words in meetings with policy makers, presentations at standards training workshops, and conversations during parent/teacher meetings. An Education Next poll found that support for common core increased by 15 percentage points when the words “common core” were replaced with the words “standards for reading and math that are the same across the states.”
Instead of dwelling on semantics, though, the discussion should focus on implementing effective teaching strategies for students. The CCSS is the current best practice for good reason. Last year, Cindy Long wrote what I agree are the “Six Ways the Common Core is Good for Students.”
- “Common Core puts creativity back in the classroom” because some of the content teachers had to cover in a single year has been taken off their already full plates;
- “Common Core gives students a deep dive” due to its emphasis on stressing understanding and taking time to explore and immerse themselves in the content;
- “Common Core ratchets up rigor” by including more nonfiction texts and often pairing them with literary texts;
- “Common Core is collaborative” by putting the curriculum back into the hands of teachers and encouraging them to collaborate between disciplines;
- “Common Core advances equity” because it challenges all students, not just those who are high-achievers or from wealthier school districts; and
- “Common Core gets kids ready for college” because of its emphasis on critical thinking.
This summer at the airport, I bumped into a parent of one of my students. She told me that she was opposed to Common Core and was glad I used the Illinois Learning Standards instead. When I told her that the two were one and the same, our pleasant conversation changed into a learning opportunity. I questioned her about her sources of information and I wasn’t surprised when she listed conservative websites. I asked if she thought I was a good teacher, and she answered, “Yes.” I told her about Common Core in my classroom. I may not have totally won her over, but at least she was willing to listen.
This post is part of a seven-part series, The Debate Over the Common Core State Standards.