Few things strike fear into the heart of a hardened educator.
Spit wads. Chewed gum. Vomit. Unruly kids.
But, tell us we have a completely new student achievement measurement tool and a relatively new set of standards to implement, and watch the beads of sweat begin to form along our weathered foreheads.
With many schools now taking a look at their curriculum and assessing how to best meet the needs of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) one of the most poignant realizations is the increased demand for critical thinking.
Critical thinking skills used to be something teachers hoped their students had. Those that did, were encouraged to use them, and those that didn’t…well, that was okay too. But, as the accountability movement continues to tighten its grip on the education world more and more, teachers are realizing they are ill prepared to teach the Common Core the right way. For English teachers this can be especially frightening.
The emphasis on critical thinking should be a welcome change for English teachers. The days of writing simple summaries and answering rote memorization questions on worksheets are over!! We can actually teach our students to think!
The trouble comes when educators (administration included) think they have to totally reinvent the wheel. This is not the case. By making a few modification to a currently effective curriculum English teachers can easily address the CCSS and get some sleep…maybe.
1. Integrate the Text Complexity Triangle (Qualitative, Quantitative, Reader Task)–The beauty of the text complexity triangle is the Reader Task portion. This section acknowledges the reality that regardless of a text’s reading level (quantitative) or knowledge requirements (qualitative) a task can be complex.
Here’s a good example. Many ninth grade teachers I’ve worked with use fairy tales or folk tales, such as “The Three Little Pigs” to teach the elements of a short story–plot, setting, character, theme, point of view. At first glance, a teacher might look at this and think, “Well, I’m gonna have to throw out the “Three Pigs” unit, it’s just not complex enough”.
But that’s not true.
By increasing the reader task involved with the “Three Pigs” a teacher can adequately address the higher emphasis placed on critical thinking. For example, if your old “Three Pigs” assignment required students to write a summary of the story and analyze the characteristics of the three individual pigs, your new Special Common Core Superstar Pay Me More lesson for the “Three Pigs” could be to have students analyze the theme of the story and explain how it reflects commonly held beliefs of work ethic in our society. Include at least two citations.
The qualitative and quantitative elements of the assignment stay the same, but the reader task is improved to meet the demands of the Common Core State Standards. .
This way you don’t have get rid of all those copies of the “Three Pigs” you’ve been using for the last decade either!
Obviously, this principle applied to more demanding text can have even greater benefits.
2. Require Citations–Another staple of the Common Core State Standards is their reliance on citations. This is no doubt a result of the emphasis the standards place on workplace and college readiness; the idea that a person can’t just say something, they have to be able to prove or show where they got the information.
It used to be Jimmy could just say, “I think “The Three Little Pigs” is about trading binary options in an open market and we’d think maybe Jimmy was just really financially aware–when in reality Jimmy was just making stuff up.
Now, students should be required to cite their evidence for analysis. This might seem like something simple but it really does make a huge difference for both teachers and students. By requiring students to cite their evidence, teachers are ensuring a student’s analysis is based on the text.
So it really is as simple as adding…”be sure to cite your evidence”, to many short answer questions you already have written.
3. Create a Real World Task–One goal of the Common Core State Standards is to increase workplace readiness. I always used to hear people say, “If you can tie what the student is learning to something important in their life, they are more likely to learn”. While that may be true it’s hard to tie “The Three Little Pigs” and Grand Theft Auto together. Plus, that is not what the CCSS want you to do.
Instead, do this.
The same skills can be applied to anything. The act of critical analysis–breaking down big things into small parts and examining them–is a lifelong skill the CSSS require. Create a task that a student might do in their future profession. It doesn’t matter what profession a student wants to go into, the task of critically analyzing a piece of literature translates.
For example, instead of giving the writing assignment of, “Explain How The Three Little Pigs Relates to Your Life”, you give the assignment, “The Three Little Pigs, although a story for young children, depicts violence. Many people today are concerned with the violence children are exposed to through video games. You are a video game reviewer and have to write a critical analysis of a video game for a magazine. Choose a video game and analyze how violence is portrayed”. The task/skill (analysis) is the important part, not the content (“Three Pigs”).
Instead of getting an essay titled, “How the Three Little Pigs Would Survive in Grand Theft Auto”, you’ll get an essay titled, “A Critical Analysis of Violence in Grand Theft Auto”.
This allows students to relate content to the future goals and learn skills they may be able to apply to a job some day.
The Common Core State Standards should not be feared. They are simply over-arching goals for student thinking. They require more of students, but they don’t require more work from teacher…just a new approach.
Modify and adjust…like the “Three Little Pigs”.