Sunday, November 11, 2012

Common Core Headaches

I realize I'm retiring from teaching at the end of this year. I know I'll never have to overhaul my lessons to reflect Common Core State Standards. I absolutely get that this is one thing I could happily ignore -- forget -- leave alone. It will never affect me or the way I teach or the way I interact with my students. And yet, like that old dog who can or can't be taught new tricks, I keep worrying CCSS like a bone. I read books, I read articles. I listen, I attend meetings. I keep trying to wrap my mind around exactly what these Standards are, how they'll change what happens in classrooms, and how they'll make my kids better prepared for 'college and career.'

I've read several books that either inflame me or comfort me. One Size Fits Few by Susan Ohanian fed my passion as she can do -- she is fierce in her objections to Standards that are to be applied to all students with no exceptions. Reading her book left me with mixed feelings, but I was grateful to have this point of view.

Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core by Sarah Brown Wessling has a completely different take on the future of my profession. She is an English teacher and writes directly to other English teachers. Her stance is positive...she knows, as all teachers know, we can do this if we need to.She answers some of my deeply suspicious questions...but they're her interpretation of the CCSS. I am hoping to meet her next week at the National Council of Teachers of English.

On to Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp. Text complexity is one of my huge issues with CCSS -- who chooses, how do I force all students to read above their reading level, how do I individualize? The text complexity measure we were first told about was Lexiles, which only measures sentence lengths, so Of Mice and Men and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are seen as equally complex. Really? Then there's the issue of how we are to teach (even though everyone connected to CCSS, to SMARTER Balance, and PARCC, promises the Standards will not dictate teaching methods). The authors of CCSS have declared New Criticism as the only way to teach pieces of literature. At its most radical, New Criticism will not allow historical background, information about the author or the times. It will not allow any personal connection to the piece under study. David Coleman, the self-proclaimed author of CCSS, himself not an educator, shows us a model lesson under CCSS -- a study of 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' with no mention of the reason the author is in jail, what's going on in Birmingham that led to his arrest...nothing. Just jump right into the text and study it sentence by sentence. Does Mr. Coleman really believe we can lead students through this important piece with no context? Fisher and Frey and Lapp talked me off the ledge in some ways, encouraging the reader to believe our professional judgement is still worth something.

I truly seem to be torturing myself. I'll be sitting at home when all this falls onto teachers. All this reading led me to Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehenworth, and Christopher Lehman.  Of all the books I've read, this one is the most exhaustively researched. They included a history of the Standards, an investigation of the authors, and most importantly for teachers, a close, professional reading of the Standards, vertically and horizontally. They have been able to make connections that I believe many of us would miss. Their suggestions are positive and possible. They interpret the Standards and give professional educators the tools to start the work.They debunk another concern English teachers have had about the Standards: longer works -- novels and nonfiction books WILL be an important part of the work of CCSS.

All this reading left me with a particular stance when I read Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Janet Barresi's weekly newsletter entitled "Demystifying the Common Core." Wasn't that what I was trying to do? Learn? Read? Make connections? Define terms? Draw conclusions? Analyze?

The OSDOE recently hosted David Coleman and Superintendent Barresi was discussing the visit. Calkins and her coauthors describe Coleman and one of two people who "have emerged referring to themselves as 'the' authors in their own documents. If that is the case, why was their identity kept secret while states considered the standards" (5)? Calkins shows a connection between Coleman and ACT that predates the writing of the Standards and his current position as President of College Board. He seems to be the driving force behind the New Criticism stance.

If you follow his link and read Diane Ravitch's profile, that makes perfect sense. He sees himself as a who thrives on the ideas in texts. He makes the 'classic blunder' (sorry...couldn't resist the pop culture allusion!) many non-educators make of assuming the way HE learns is the perfect way for EVERYONE to learn. Teachers know different. We know, and could have told him, had we been included in the writing of CCSS, that there is no one right way for everyone to learn. Tying teachers' hands with New Criticism will make learning less robust and motivating, not more. I'll bet he loved writing arguments also...and we're now saddled with that as well. Is this really the way to write NATIONAL Standards? From one person's learning strengths?

Coleman is also a part of the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the consortium that Oklahoma has joined) interpretation of the CCSS, so it's not a surprise he was welcomed to OKC with open arms.

I take deep issue with several of Superintendent Barresi's assertions in her newsletter. She describes CCSS as "a remarkable work of collaboration between Republican and Democratic (sic) governors and education officials." I guess I don't take issue with that's true. What's missing from that list of author are professional educators. We'll be called upon to interpret and implement CCSS, but we've had no hand in writing them.

She quotes Coleman: "My proposal is that Common Core Standards were created in a moment of crisis." A manufactured one, to be sure.

The statement that made my blood pressure spike, though, was Superintendent Barresi's assertion: "The standards are based on overwhelming evidence that they are effective in truly preparing students for college and career." Not according to Calkins. She quotes a very similar claim from the PARCC draft, and goes on to say, "And yet of the few footnoted studies it cites as the 'significant body of research,' nearly all took place in college or high school; one involved adolescents, one was a paper discussing the debate over the pros and cons of constructivist teaching and another, 'The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance'...was a discussion of developing expertise in all fields including physical fitness, which, it turns out, never mentioned close reading at all...None drew from the larger body of research on children's literacy development, a surprising point as half of the assessments PARCC is designing are aimed at elementary school students" (49). So much for that overwhelming evidence. It wouldn't even stand up to the requirements of CCSS. But say it's overwhelming often enough and someone's bound to believe it.

Both Coleman and Barresi believe CCSS will somehow lighten teachers' load, and "give teachers more time to teach and students more time to practice." Not according to Calkins who is very honest about the demands of the Standards, and the still-to-be-known assessment piece. Now fourth graders will be required to compose a minimum of one typed page at a sitting, and fifth graders, two pages. This volume says a lot about the authors' assumptions that elementary students have been taught keyboarding in a very crowded curriculum, and that they have universal access to computers on which to write. The naivete of this assumption is something that could have been explored if professional educators were included in the discussion.

I don't need help demystifying the Common Core! I need professional development. I need answers. I need time to work with colleagues and create our own exemplars. I need time to investigate how CCSS will play out for students.

In a rich Facebook conversation about  CCSS, someone used the analogy of building the plane while it's in the air. I see it differently. Someone else, with little knowledge of teaching or learning, of children's literacy, of child development, 'built' the CCSS. Teachers now must take this mess and repair it, in the air, on the fly. We must interpret, analyze, implement...and we'll be evaluated based on assessments yet-to-be-written. We'll keep our jobs or be fired based on our ability to interpret and implement something we had no hand in writing.

I have one more Common Core book on my stack. I wish I had the self discipline to ignore it and pick up a chick-lit book instead. Probably won't be able to resist. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Changin' Minds About day at a time

I recently read the Pew Report about reading habits of young people and chuckled at the stats: 83% of adolescents and young people surveyed had read a book last year. We as a nation should be pleased that young adults are reading and using libraries. As an English teacher, a reading specialist and a library media specialist, I have a vested interest in encouraging students to read.

My first response to the report was, 'How sad. Only one?' In my Reading for Pleasure class I have my students keep track of their reading -- books and pages, and I would consider it a personal defeat, a Waterloo, if any of my students ONLY read one book during my class, and it's only 18 weeks long. In fact, I just had students report their reading as part of their midterm self-reflections. I wanted them to feel personal pride at their accomplishments, and the Pew report gave me a baseline number for them all to compare themselves to.

As I reported the final-ish (as final as you can ever have when dealing with 155 high school students) numbers...I ended up with numbers from 146 of them. 146 students read 860.9524 books -- in NINE WEEKS! They read 264,585 pages! As I did the big reveal in all of the classes, I asked for drumrolls and students happily complied. If anyone's interested, that's an average of 5.8969342...and a bunch more numbers behind the decimal.

Now, it always surprised people when I tell them not all of my students love first. I have a survey question I ask at the beginning of the semester and again on the final exam about how they feel about reading...choices range from LOVE IT to HATE IT. I usually compile the information and file it for myself, but this year I tried something different. I gave all my students sticky notes and asked them to write JUST their class period, not their name...and to place it on the white board at the back of my room under the description that best fits the way they feel about reading. I didn't watch them so they could be completely honest. Kids end up in my class for many reasons -- including a forced placement by parents or counselors or special education teachers. I hope my openness to their honesty helps them know I'm happy they're in class and will work with them at whatever their current attitude is.

We watched our chart take form for a couple of days and then I asked the students to observe and write what they see. Many kids identified the five outliers who HATE reading as well as the two who hate it, and noticed they all came from my first and second hour classes. They noticed that the biggest category was 'OK if I choose.' I noticed it looks like a lopsided bell curve, with most answers in those middle categories. I asked then to tell me what this chart says about my job and their jobs. Students saw my job for the semester to be moving everyone forward (to the west from the orientation of my room)...No one expected attitudes to change much, but, students identified my job and theirs for the semester: work together, be positive role models. Share books, have a great attitude. I was proud of how many students took ownership of the task before us -- help everyone leave class in January with a positive attitude about reading. As the grown-up in the room, I knew a positive attitude would also reflect heightened confidence, stronger reading skills, and more reading stamina. That's my secret, though...I tell my students I'm working strictly on their attitudes about reading.

So, last week was the end of the first nine weeks -- midterm. I have a midterm reflection I ask students to complete...I want them to review their goals for the semester, examine their writing about books, and think about their attitude and if it's changing. So, I took off all the stickies and had students recreate our chart about reading attitudes. Again, I didn't look...but in my first hour, one of my students told me he was one of the HATE IT's from the first week, but is slowly (!) changing his mind...he asked could he create a new description: "Mraw" to be placed between HATE IT and hate it...a real victory! He's found a couple of books he likes but isn't willing to fall into books yet.

Next week, I'll have students examine this chart and tell me what stands out to them...I see that movement to the west I need...I see more students now like reading, without the qualifier of 'if I choose.' They've had nine weeks to choose, to abandon, to sample. They've had nine weeks of recommendations from me and from classmates. They've started their 'books to read next' lists. They've been surrounded by books and by people who are reading. They've written reflections of their books and had authentic conversations with me and others about their books.

The distribution is no longer a bell, with more stickies placed in those positive attitude columns. Even my students who entered my classroom in August with surly attitudes about reading have found success and along the way have found confidence. Success and confidence are contagious -- you catch them in Reading for Pleasure.

Now, I need those three outliers to move one more 'category' for the final exam!