Observation from the Trenches: The Common Core

Here in Michigan, and nationwide, there has been much talk about the Common Core. Naysayers have emerged from all corners of the education world to express their disdain for the standards.  In the meantime, teachers like me have been working tirelessly to re-envision their instruction, making significant and labor-intensive changes to class curricula and expectations. When the standards were introduced, I read them carefully, considered their worth, and concluded that they valued what I valued: rigor and critical thinking.  Although they didn’t contain everything I value, what they did contain were values I could hang my hat on.  And more importantly, they left to my discretion important decisions regarding course content and methods that responsive, differentiated instruction requires.

True, the standards seemed to miss some things.  For example, they contain only brief references to evaluating information, and almost no reference to using social media responsibly.  There is not much emphasis on creativity.  Nevertheless, I knew I had to incorporate these in my instruction, and as long as I retained the intellectual freedom and curricular space to do so, I could support the standards.

But here’s something I wasn’t expecting–something I believe may be a direct effect of the standards on my students.  In a study I’m in the process of analyzing, students evaluated web sites about a controversial issue.  I specifically asked them to evaluate the trustworthiness of those sites.  They rated the sites and also listed reasons for their ratings.  A surprising and impressive number of my students referred directly to “claims,” “evidence,” “reasoning,” “facts,” and “proof” in the rationale for their ratings–without being prompted to do so.

Now, I have been teaching adolescents for 24 years, and these are not words my previous 8th graders (or even 9th or 10th graders) have tended to use.  But since the introduction of the Common Core, our kids have been inundated with instruction asking them for evidence, evidence, evidence.  From science to social studies to language arts, they have been required to back up their answers over and over again.  Could it be that students are applying habits of sound critical thinking even when we don’t specifically ask them to do so?  Could it be that the Common Core emphasis on evidence, rationale, and logic are changing the way our students evaluate the ideas they encounter? If so, I can’t think of a better reason to quell the naysayers.

Are there serious issues with over-testing and developmental appropriateness in the application of the Common Core?  Absolutely!  Should teachers retain the intellectual freedom to make curricular decisions with students’ wellbeing as top priority?  Without question!  But if the standards really do fortify essential skills for managing our 21st century information overload, then perhaps we should refrain from throwing them out with the bathwater.

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A Teacher’s Reflections: Year 23

A year ago I learned that I was going “back to the classroom.”  I had been a middle school librarian for eight years and the fourteen years I spent teaching high school English was a cherished but blurring memory.  And now–eighth grade? I wasn’t even sure I liked eighth graders enough to spend five hours a day with them.  And how would I juggle the work of a doctoral program while learning a new curriculum, designing a year’s worth of instruction, and grading… and grading…and grading…?

Today I reflect on that serendipitous change with great appreciation for the lessons I have learned.  (Which goes to show we never stop growing.)

Lesson 1:  Eighth graders are positively delightful.  Truly.  A woman I met at a conference this year affirmed, “They’re like puppies, aren’t they?” Yes, they are like incredibly smart puppies who train easily, beg to learn new tricks, and deeply appreciate a treat.

Lesson 2:  Everyone who studies at the Ph.D. level should return to the classrooom after having done so.  It is useful and important to embark on one’s analysis of theory with an understanding of practice.  But it is revelatory and transformative to return to practice having deliberated theory.  Everything one does is framed by questions of philosophy, by a spirit of inquiry that bleeds into the daily affairs of the classroom and its discourse.  “By the way,”  I found myself asking, “do you know what’s happening in your brain when we do this?” or “Hey you guys, what are you thinking about right now?” or “Let’s see…tell me whether you think it would be better for us to try it this way or that way?” or “Why do you think I decided to ask you to do this? Hmmm…was it the right decision?” or “Should we experiment to see which method works better here?” or “Let’s just see what happens…”  What we learned together is so much more powerful than what I could have taught alone.

Lesson 3:  There is nothing more empowering and rewarding for an educator than the classroom.  My research fascinates me; it nourishes my curiosity and strengthens my intellect.  It demands more focus and self-discipline than anything I have ever done.  But witnessing the intellectual and personal growth of young people is the fuel.  My progress as a doctoral student is largely thanks to the energy that my students so generously share.

Lesson 4:  There is an up side to almost everything.  I have not done much more than work this year.  But then again, I can’t think of much else I would prefer.

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One of Those Moments

Currently I’m enrolled in a course called Research on Literacy and Technology.  One assignment is to present to fellow classmates information about a special subject in this area, and my fellow group members and I are zeroing in on the topic of Critical Literacy. This week, while planning for our presentation, I stumbled across a video in my Facebook feed.  The video was followed by comments of friends and strangers:

“You must watch this–it made me weep!”

“This video is sooooo powerful!”

“Thank you, Dove, for helping us to see what real beauty is.  If only all corporations sent positive messages like this.”

Curious to see what it was, I clicked and watched.  And for a solid three minutes, I was viscerally appalled.  Powerful?  Yes.  Positive?  No way.  My construction of that video’s message was light years from the one my friends had constructed.  In my mind this was not a video about how everyone is beautiful.  On the contrary, the video reinforced for me just how consequential beauty is in our society.  The message wasn’t that women are more than their outward appearance.  The message was that we ARE our outward appearance.

I began my Ph.D. as a media specialist whose focus was information literacy, but the further I travel on this scholarly journey the more I am drawn to the specific concept of critical literacy.  In moments like the one above, I am shocked by the public’s acceptance of messages at face value.  I am frightened that society’s inability to deeply assess such messages will not lead to good.  Suddenly critical literacy seems crucial to the humanity of people.

My focus on critical literacy and pedagogy continues to develop in this program.  As I research the critical mindsets that this new information society demands, I am compelled to discover how to teach them.  I think our students’ futures depend on it.

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Final Design Project and Course Reflection

Final Design Project: Addressing a Problem of Practice

The document below is a synthesis of the design project I completed this term. It is divided into phases according to the design process and concludes with a reflection on the experience. Each design phase title is linked to the respective blog post originally documenting that phase of the project, while the final product (Web page) is linked in the document and in the title of last reflective section. The document can be viewed here: Final Design Project.

Final Reflection on Design

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Visual Representation: Mapping an Emotional Experience

Map of a Shopping Excursion

Visit to Ann Taylor Loft outlet store, Michigan City, Indiana on Black Friday, 11/23/12.


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Design Project Part Five: Evolution

In considering my design for sharing the concept of Socratic Seminars with fellow teachers, I envision the web page and accompanying presentation evolving in a number of ways.

First, additional resources should be added to the page as I create and use those resources this school year. As I continue to create new evaluation sheets, attempt new texts, and try different variations on the basic seminar, those can be added with annotations regarding how they were used and tips for success. In fact, even the resources currently posted could have more extensive annotations–I think this would be more user friendly and would help the reader to implement them.

Second, I think additional videos would be helpful for seminars in which we utilize a fishbowl format. Those discussions are unique in their own ways and require some specific direction on the part of the teacher. So as I experiment and gather advice for specific variations on the method, I should provide opportunities for the user to see them clearly. I don’t think they need to be long, but I do think that showing the first minute or two of the teacher implementing a new variation on the method would go a long ways toward clarifying it.

Third, I suspect that this collection of resources will, by the end of the school year, grow to contain more than is optimal to present on a single web page. For now I think the design works. But I really need to create a unique blog with resources organized by tabs and collected on separate pages. This would be linked to my own web page, but would actually be a separate site. In this forum I would be able to post columns reflecting on my own implementation and experimentation. Specific issues arising as my students grow would be detailed, addressed, and discussed there each time I implement a new idea. Troubleshooting posts, descriptions of unique and interesting developments, and even brainstorming posts would make my own process more apparent as I reflect on and design seminars for my students. And as I continue to present the method at practitioners’ conferences I can make that site a “home base” for presentations, feedback, and questions. Ultimately it would be great to have a kind of social network for teachers using this method, as a resource for implementing, troubleshooting, brainstorming, and collaborating.

A final thought is that, if a network of teachers were successfully created, this would automatically result in a network of students familiar with the method. Perhaps online interaction between students or classes could emerge from the teacher connections made. I suspect that the quality of online interaction between students would be higher if the students came to the forum familiar already applying the habits of mind, analysis, and synthesis skills they had acquired in Socratic seminars.

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Design Project Part Four: Experimentation

In the experimentation phase of our design project we are to “build a prototype to make (our) ideas tangible, and share them with other people.” My goal was to share a powerful teaching method, the Socratic Seminar, with other teachers. This was to be done through the design of a presentation and a web site resource to reinforce the presentation and provide continually updated resources for the method.

What I have been able to develop to date consists of 1) a Powerpoint presentation that summarizes the method and provides rationale for its use; 2) a video showing an actual seminar in progress, edited for brevity and providing some explanation of what meaningful interaction is happening in the video; and 3) a list of these and other resources compiled on a web page, including handouts and materials a teacher could download and use immediately in his/her classroom.

I used the Powerpoint and video to present this method at the Michigan Council of Teachers of English this past month and feedback was very positive. In addition to receiving a positive comment on the web page, I also received a series of emails from a teacher who conducted a seminar with her students on the day of her own teacher evaluation with great success. She expressed how well her students responded to the method and noted especially that, in the course of a single class period, the quietest students from whom she has heard little all year long were some of the greatest contributors to the conversation. So in general I’m pleased by the feedback thus far. The developing page is at the Socratic Seminar link above.

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