Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Elephant in the Classroom: thoughts on the Common Core and why they aren't all that bad.

So I am a little irritated and I’m going to go on a teaching rant. I usually save my blog for things writing related, but since this has to do with the Common Core and reading in general, I feel like this is a good place to post it.

This is going to be a bit of a mash up of things. Common misconceptions of what the common core is, as well as what I see is the purpose of the Common Core.

To begin with, let me state for the record that when I first began teaching, I completely disagreed with the idea of standardized testing and general standards. They, I argued, went against how people develop at different rates and styles.

And indeed that is still true, but that is not what the Common Core attempts to do. What it tries to do is give sort of milestones where students should developmentally be at certain times in their lives. For example, as babies grow and develop, they are expected to hit different developmental milestones. Crawling around age 5-6 months, surfing at age 8 months, walking by 12-16 months. If children, who all develop at various speeds, do not hit a milestone within a given time, it usually happens eventually. But, if they never begin walking after 2 years, as parents we need to know that something is off.

I say this because this happened to me. I wasn’t walking at 2 ½ years old and my mom was worried. Why? What was going on that I wasn’t even motivated to do so? Well, it had to do with the fact that I couldn’t see. I was almost legally blind. But this hadn’t been figured out yet. Once doctors identified the problem, it made sense. I was too scared and unfamiliar with my environment to master that milestone. Had there been no target, how long may it have been until someone realized what was wrong?

This is the purpose of the Common Core. To develop a common standard of where students should be as determined by the cognitive abilities they have at a certain time period. For instance, you can’t expect a child who has not mastered ability to recognize that words have symbolic meaning and that symbols stand for sounds to learn to read. A child who has not yet learned to use different ways of solving a problem will have a hard time understanding math. It’s simple, yet complicated. And often, when criticizing education, people forget these basic understandings. Therein lies the problem in education.

What parents and the public see as trying a “one size fit all” education, is really just trying to identify the appropriate stages at which students can best learn. And standards, and the controversial standard based grading (which I do) is meant to be used as a guide to telling parents “hey, your kid isn’t walking yet” (metaphorically speaking). But it’s misinterpreted.

Myth #1: Common Core deemphasizes reading

·         INSTEAD it makes reading of ALL texts of primary importance. What’s more, it states that reading needs to be done AT GRADE LEVEL OR ABOVE, instead of what happens now, which is most of the reading material is far below grade level. While I am not saying things like picture books and lower reading levels can’t be used in a classroom in middle school, I AM saying that it should be used in CONJUNCTION with higher level material so students are exposed to vocabulary and the more sophisticated sentence structures found in higher level text. Because it’s not JUST about content.

Myth #2: Common Core emphasizes non-fiction reading

·         INSTEAD: It emphasized MORE nonfiction reading in specific content areas.

o   I am going to be honest and blunt here. There is a SEVERE problem in this country’s schools. And it has to do with a lot of things. It’s not a one problem issue. And parents…listen up.

§  Problem 1: Elementary schools aren’t doing a good job of pushing students. It’s a hard job, being an elementary school teacher. You have to know a little about a lot. And you are responsible for teaching science, reading, writing, speaking and listening, math, health, and more ie. social skills and penmanship. It’s crazy how much they do. And most elementary school teachers have a generalized degree. In all areas. So no single content is very specific. So it is up to the teacher to decide what and how they're going to teach. And up to now and the introduction of the common core, teachers have taught “what they like and know”. Which results in a phenomena I call “the Dinosaur Unit”. It represents a teacher’s favorite topic. And it goes like this:

·         “We’re gonna read about dinosaurs (nonfiction), then read a picture book about dinosaurs (fiction), then do dinosaur math, science about dinosaurs, make an art project about dinosaurs, cook a dinosaur muffin, you get the idea. And hey, who doesn’t love a good dinosaur lesson? I do. But the inherent problem is …what the hell do dinosaurs have to do with anything? Not a lot. And while they are pretty cool…next year when the teacher wants to teach about ladybugs, there is no real connection. Common Core will get rid of that. Because instead, the focus will be on something like this:

·         Compare information from multiple sources on a topic and evaluate which source contains less bias

Which one do you think is more rigorous? And hell…use a damn dinosaur book to do that. Yay dinosaurs. But do you see how the focus shifted? THAT’S WHY THE COMMON CORE EXISTS. So no matter where your kid is, if they are in a certain grade, they're all cognitively doing the same thing. And guess what? The materials are still (for the most part) at the teacher’s discretion. So there still is room for individuality.

·         Problem 2: The truth is, statistically, by the time a child is behind in 3rd grade, there is a 30% chance that the same child will be behind in middle school. If the child is still behind in middle school, chances increase that the child will drop out by tenth grade. The fact is, that by the time they hit middle school (which is where I teach) there is little TEACHERS can do to make the jumps they need to make to get to grade level. I simply a) do not have the specific background and b) do not have the time to teach students how to learn phonemic awareness consecutively while teaching kids how to comprehend a book like Night for theme and analysis. So the kid in my class, who reads at a 3rd grade level (books like Beverly Cleary or Captain Underpants) is expected to also be reading Night by Elie Wiesel.

So how did that kid make it to 8th grade without having the skills to be successful? Again, being blunt. Because we're so worried about their feelings and what they might feel like if we hold them back, that they get pushed forward. So, they weren’t successful in 3rd grade, they feel dumb in 6th because they still don’t have the skills to do what everyone else is doing, then they develop behavior and avoidance problems to cope. Then they are in 8th grade and completely feel lost and dumb, and like they don’t like school. Because who likes something when they feel like they fail at it every day? By the time they hit high school, they've already decided school is not for them and they drop out. It’s sad. So have we really saved them from anything?

Part of that issue is that most schools can’t legally do any kind of special education and developmental testing until…second grade. That’s right. They won’t diagnose a kid with reading or writing problems until second grade. But guess when most reading problems occur? That’s right…kindergarten. So by the time they can be tested, they already are behind. That needs to change. And if a parent doesn’t advocate for testing AND a teacher doesn’t advocate for testing, guess what? That kid could go through ALL OF SCHOOL with NO ONE EVER KNOWING WHY THEY MAY HAVE STRUGGLED. It’s both sad and discouraging when I advocate for testing for a kid in 8th grade and find out they had reading development issues that could have been helped in third grade had they been tested earlier. And sometimes, we teachers have to ARGUE against administrators, counselors, and specialists who don’t think they need testing. It’s ridiculous how hard it is to get a kid tested. Most struggling readers missed something in kindergarten and first grade…ie. they missed a critical understanding of chunking or phonemes, or fluency building, etc. If identified in first grade and if there were programs and extra help in first grade, it would be easily fixable. So, why aren't we doing that? Why do we wait until it becomes so difficult to fix? I don’t have an answer.

·         Problem 3: In middle school and high school, there is prevalence in the thinking that teaching reading is for ELA teachers (English Language Arts). To me, this is the problem that pisses me off the most.  I can’t tell you how many times students have come to me and said, “My PE teacher told me to write this paper and give it to you to grade? Or my science teacher said you would look and edit our science papers?” My reaction: Uh…hell no. I already grade my own assignments thank you. Your science teacher is completely capable of correcting your work. They even went to college.

And now, ELA teachers are buying into that line of thinking. They are being sold the message that it is now an ADDED responsibility to teach nonfiction texts to all we have to do anyway. Think of it this way, while before science teachers only were responsible for science content, ELA are and continue to be responsible for reading standards (non fiction and fiction), writing standards, and traditionally speaking and listening standards. So for every one standard science or math had, ELA had three. And now people think we need to add more to an already overtaxed load? No.

 Now that we have Common Core, there are many reactions from the ELA teachers (AND principals and districts, etc that are driving the reation) which is this:

“Oh no, there is an emphasis on nonfiction. We need our ELA teachers to teach more nonfiction and stop teaching and reading so much fiction. YIKES.”

Then there is this mass rush to read nonfiction texts in English class based on an incorrect assumption.

BULLSHIT. Math teachers are expected to teach math. Science teachers are expected to teach science. Guess what Literacy and literature teachers are supposed to teach….any guesses? That’s right. Literature. As in fiction. As in if I stop teaching metaphor and hyperbole and theme and symbolism and parallelism and idioms, who is going to teach it? Science? Nope. Math? Don’t think so. So, that’s my curriculum. And I should not be expected to nor does the Common Core expect me to stop teaching those. In fact, there is a HUGE strand of ELA standards specifically for literature that, for sure, won’t be taught anywhere else. So, if I don’t teach that, who will? So, to say, that the Common Core is making me, an English teacher stop teaching literature is bullshit, and anyone who tells a parent different is speaking out their ass. And should be directed to the ELA Literature standards. Period. Which FYI are here:

So, then how…do we get more nonfiction? Guess what….that means every single teacher in this country, regardless of what content they teach…are now responsible for teaching reading and writing. Novel concept. And people (teachers who aren't English teachers) will have a fit. But I don’t care. Because according to the COMMON CORE…it is now in their standards. So now, science has nonfiction reading standards IN SCIENCE. AND HISTORY has their own set. Which means, THEY need to pick up the slack in nonfiction reading skills, not dole more out to the ELA teachers who ALREADY carry the lion's share of standards. Because at the secondary level, they too…are teaching the infamous “dinosaur unit” just in a more developed way. Let me illustrate:

o   Science teacher Joe says: I can’t be responsible for teaching writing and grammar and reading. I have all my content to get through. I’m not a reading teacher. (if I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be Oprah.) YES. YOU. ARE.

o   Instead of say teaching cellular respiration, you are now giving students a text on cellular respiration, then asking (AND TEACHING THEM HOW) them to analyze charts, pictures, graphs (nonfiction reading) and perhaps teaching them how to read a cause and effect text structure to glean information. Or sequential text structure. Because WE READ NONFICTION DIFFERENTLY than FICTION. And THAT MUST BE TAUGHT. And where better to teach that, then in a class with NONFICTION CONTENT. The STANDARD/SKILL is what you teach, the CONTENT is what you use to teach that standard. And usually in science and history, the way most students are taught…are taught through…ding ding ding…nonfiction text. So, history teachers need to stop lecturing about all the things they know about (called the sage on the stage syndrome)…and instead have students read personal accounts, historical records, primary documents to learn about history. Read newspapers for current events. Read Popular Science articles to connect science to current issues. READING is how the content SHOULD BE delivered. Which will require a science teacher to teach READING STRATEGIES AND SKILLS to pull information, annotate texts, think critically about NONFICTION. And that is what the COMMON CORE IS ATTEMPTING TO DO. Because the best way people AND KIDS learn is by interacting with text, talking about text, making inferences, predictions, analyzing and evaluating text. Of all types. In all classes. Period.

In a nutshell, we need to, as teachers, increase the amount of time students spend on ALL TYPES OF TEXTS. Including fiction. And ELA teachers need to have time to teach their content. Because it is true, reading is the ONE skill that is a gateway to others. To get to be a better writer, what does everyone suggest? Read. To learn about history? Read. To learn how the solar system works and how tectonic plates shift? Read. Even math problems require certain vocabulary and teaching students how to READ to know what is being asked of them. Reading is hands down the most important skill we can teach our children. And to say it is only the English teacher's responsibility is not only asinine, but it's dangerous.
And as far as standards go, students SHOULD be held to high expectations in the classroom. Before standards, I could teach whatever I wanted. If I wanted to teach a poem unit, I would.  I never once thought about what I wanted the purpose to be. Now, it’s the first question I ask. And as a writer, it comes in pretty handy too. Fact is, I am a better teacher since I've switched from teaching “my content” and started teaching skills. And, I’ve been doing that long before Common Core told me to. It’s about time the rest of the country catch up.
Parents can help by becoming not only educated in the Common Core, but find the year of schooling your child is at, and familiarize yourself with the standards for that year. You have to read the voting pamphlets to vote (or you should), doesn't your child deserve the same attention paid to them as a political representative?
As a parent and a teacher, it is my responsibility to become aware, involved, and an advocate for my child, because who else is better suited to do so.

Finally, the fact is our kids have been graduating high school unable to keep up with the demands of college. And you only have to look at your schools approved novel list to see that. When you look at the texts being read and taught, most of them are at levels much lower than students should be able to read. We need to increase the amount and difficulty of text. And we need to prepare our kids with the skills to handle that text. So, the old way of teaching, needs to go the way of the dinosaurs. And the dinosaur unit. Because our kids deserve better.
End rant.