Monday, September 30, 2013

Quotes and Questions to Guide CCSS Implementation, Part 1

In a recent presentation, I offered a series of quotes that might frame how principals move forward with CCSS implementation and alignment efforts.  See the quotes below along with some questions to guide reflection:

(1) "A related misconception in working with the Common Core is evident when teachers turn immediately to the grade level Standards listed for their grade or course to plan their teaching." (from McTighe and Wiggins' From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas)

What does it mean to say that the structure of CCSS reflects a series of "developmental progressions"?  What would be some examples of these developmental progressions (hint: RI/RL Anchor Standard #2 or RI Anchor Standard #8) and why are they important for us to understand when thinking about how we approach the teaching of our own grade level standards?

(2) "Alignment is no longer a simple process of picking a standard, teaching a lesson that addresses it, and ticking it off a list.  Aligning instruction to the Common Core means planning lessons that address several standards on a repeated basis."  (from Burkins and Yaris' 5 Things to Keep in Mind as You Implement the Common Core)

Since the dawning of standards-based reform more than fifteen years ago, curriculum planning has devolved into an atomistic exercise where individual standards are isolated and conveniently slotted into lesson or week-long experiences.  Recently, I observed one instance where a teacher indicated that the week's goal was for students to "identify details and examples from the text when explaining the key ideas found in the text."  Shouldn't standards like this underscore every lesson and unit that we plan?  What effects is this kind of curricular fragmentation having on teaching and learning?  How might CCSS be providing us an opportunity to change the role standards play in our micro and macro-curriculum planning?

(3) "For too long, and in too many classrooms, we’ve let great books take a back seat to reading skills and strategies.  Of course, learning skills and practicing strategies is useful, but the Common Core usefully pushes us to put skills in service of understanding and analyzing great texts, rather than as an end in themselves." (from Kathleen Porter-Magee in Doug Lemov's A Few Minutes with Kathleen Porter-Magee)

How do we typically treat the teaching of comprehension skills such as visualization, making text-self connections, and generating questions?  Are such skills taught in such a way as to continually support the ultimate goal which is for students to be independently reading and comprehending complex literary and informational texts?  Or are these skills more often taught in isolation and without enough regard for the quality and complexity of the text?

Part 2 later this week...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What's Your Library/Media Specialist Doing for Dinner Tonight?

One of the aspects of the Common Core ELA that I find to be most challenging is the ability to plan units that bring together featured and supporting texts.  A featured text is the text(s) that all students in the class read regardless of reading level.  This text(s) is the heart and soul of the unit and should frame the culminating assessment.  Supporting texts, on the other hand, help students practice certain skills, acquire helpful background knowledge, research a topic or, most importantly, forge connections with the ideas and elements found in the featured texts.  These texts may be leveled and could vary depending on the student or situation.

Structuring units in this way is no easy task!  It represents a departure from typical approaches to instructional planning where little attention is paid to the selection of texts or the relationship among them.  But much of what we read in CCSS (see RL/RI.3, 7, 9) and anticipate seeing from the testing consortia require that we think about how to weave together texts.  In her book, Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core, 2010 Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, says it well: "Reading, especially complex reading, doesn't occur in isolation.  [Teachers should] imagine a reading experience that is scaffolded by design, that resists reading in isolation, and welcomes a situation in which texts 'talk' to each other."

Building curriculum in this way requires not only the expertise of curriculum directors and classroom teachers, but also perhaps schools' most valuable resource--the Library/Media Specialist!  Involve him/her in the planning of your units.  Involve him/her in your plans to build your CCSS classroom libraries.  And involve him/her in collaborative endeavors that seek to bring together reading and content area teachers.  Moreover, Library/Media Specialists with their resourcefulness and knowledge of texts can also be helpful in contributing to complex text inventories that, among many possibilities, could be used to assess the Lexile levels and notable qualitative elements of current print and digital reading materials.  In short, Library/Media Specialists should be one of the most important people in your building!  As Library/Media Specialist/blogger, Kristin Hearne, was quoted as saying in this Edweek piece, "When it comes to the Common Core, librarians can be a school's secret weapon."  Indeed!  So, if you're not already, seek out your Library/Media Specialist and enlist his/her help in making the transition to CCSS.  In fact, what is he/she doing for dinner tonight?!?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Help Wanted: CCSS Tech Coordinator

When presenting to teachers and administrators, I often talk about two building-level positions that don't get nearly the attention they should in the Common Core era: Technology Coordinators and Library/Media Specialists.  I'll address the first of these today and the other in tomorrow's blog.

Let's consider the typical mandate of a K-8 Technology Coordinator.  He/she might be teaching a couple of classes focused on keyboarding, Internet research, digital art, music or video tools, or the array of features or applications used in Word, Excel or Powerpoint.  In good schools, the Technology Coordinator is also spending lots of time working collaboratively with teachers to identify ways to utilize technology to expand and support various aspects of the curriculum.  My colleague at Core2Class, Deb Gardner, who spent more than 10 years as a Technology Coordinator will be the first to tell you how important and overwhelming it is to have to balance the demands of your own classroom together with the outreach required to help others with their own curricula.

Since the adoption of Common Core, the job of the Technology Coordinator has seemingly gotten more complex as teachers intensely seek out ways to infuse technology into their Common Core lessons.  One teacher recently told me that her school's recent adoption of a "Common Core-aligned" textbook has she and her colleagues running ragged to keep up with all of the technology integrations it includes.  The way many folks are talking, it's almost as if effective teaching demands the constant integration of technology.  As proof, I would point to the countless articles and PD sessions, including one last Fall here in Indianapolis by curriculum guru Heidi Hayes Jacobs who argued that the Common Core Standards require schools to upgrade their curriculum in ways that rely heavily on technology.  "My friends," she said, "paper is dead."

It scares me when I hear folks associate the effective teaching of CCSS with lots of instructional technology.  I say this not because I'm stuck in the Stone Age or because I fear change.  It's because I worry that the emphasis on technology is distracting us from what's at the heart of Common Core.  As I see it, the K-8 CCSS ELA underscores two fundamental expectations: (1) SWBAT (Students will be able to) closely read, analyze and discuss complex texts by finding and using textual evidence; and (2) SWBAT draft text-derived written responses--to high quality prompts--that summarize, synthesize and compare ideas from one or multiple sources.  Yes, CCSS ELA also expects students to demonstrate the ability to use technology (see RI/RL.7, W.6 and SL.5), but these expectations are not ends in themselves, but means to get students reading, writing and speaking more thoughtfully, analytically and collaboratively.

Just the other day, I read this article that offered some whiteboard and tablet-based activities designed to meet CCSS Anchor Standards RL.2 and RL.4.  The author says, "Both of these anchor standards lend themselves well to integrating technology into instruction. Teachers can take a traditional English language arts tool--the graphic organizer--to the next level (emphasis added) by using interactive whiteboards and mobile devices."  How does the use of an interactive whiteboard alone do anything to ratchet up the level of rigor or expectation?  How much time will using these mobile devices take to plan, set up and execute?  Could the same goals be met more efficiently without the use of technology?  Does the technology help drive the lesson and unit forward or is it more of a fun distraction?

Don't misunderstand me: I'm all for the use of technology in the classroom.  But toward what purpose?  And how much classroom time is it going to take?  Back in February Char Shryock gave a presentation at the Ohio Educational Technology Conference where she discussed moving one's classroom from a "substitutive" use of a technology to a "transformative" use of technology.  This makes sense to me.  Instead of simply advising the incorporation of technology "just because" let's be clear about how certain types of technology are uniquely poised to meet the fundamental goals of CCSS.  Digital tools such as Project Gutenberg and Lit2Go can help support teachers' efforts to find companion texts on which to base culminating comparison and synthesis prompts.  Already have hard copies of the texts for your upcoming unit?  Great.  Then don't use these digital tools for the unit.  Resources such as Prezi or Piktochart could be helpful to students preparing for a class presentation.  But maybe teaching these resources is taking too much time away from other more important endeavors.  No problem.  Have students use something more familiar to them that can equally serve the purpose of the presentation.  Designing a snazzy Prezi is not, in itself, a worthy endeavor.

Technology Coordinators now have a new mandate with Common Core.  It's not to integrate or help teachers integrate the latest iPad app or Smartboard feature, necessarily, but to work with teachers to figure out which technology integrations can transform classrooms into laboratories that reflect the essence of Common Core.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Buzz Over the "Technical"

In all my days as an educator, I’ve never heard so much talk about “technical manuals”!  Many critics of Common Core claim that the CCSS’ emphasis on informational text will result in teachers using dry, dumbed-down technical manuals, government documents, and brochures instead of great literary works.  You can find this critique all over the anti-CCSS materials floating around on the Web, including in a well-circulated piece penned by Sandra Stostky (whom I respect greatly for her work over the years helping states, such as Indiana, craft clear and rigorous ELA standards) entitled Literature or Technical Manuals: Who Is Teaching What, Where and Why? 

Given the attention this subject has received, I think it's important to point out a couple of things:  

First, as I see it, CCSS seeks to do precisely the opposite of what critics allege.  Unless you've had your head in the sand during the past two years, you well know that CCSS sees challenging and complex text--regardless of genre--as perhaps the chief component of sound curriculum planning.  Critics are quick to point to Standard 10 which includes the words "technical texts" as proof of CCSS' subversive plot to transform classrooms into low-minded training labs.  This is silly.  Standard 10 should be viewed along with the exhaustive set of available resources for assessing text complexity as a way to emphasize the important contribution quality texts bring to the curriculum.  During the past two years, thanks to CCSS, educators have been working hard in this state and others to figure out how to select and teach appropriately challenging texts.  Prior to the adoption of Standard 10, how much discussion was there in schools and districts about this issue?

Second, with the amount of attention "technical manuals" has received in the debate over CCSS, one would expect the CCSS exemplars to be replete with these types of texts.  Well, according to my count, among the tens and tens of exemplar informational texts included in Appendix B, there are exactly two that would qualify as a technical manual: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy's Recommended Levels of Insulation and the U.S. General Services Administration's Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.  I have to admit that these two text exemplars do seem a little dry and obscure.  I agree with critics on this point.  But these two texts are lumped in among a spate of interesting science and social studies-oriented texts and, in the upper grades, important speeches and seminal historical documents.  

Furthermore, if we are going to take on CCSS for its inclusion of these technical manuals, we better take a closer look at the current Indiana standards framework.  You remember, the one considered by critics to be far superior to CCSS?  The one given an "A" grade in 2006 by Sandra Stotksy, who at that time was assessing state standards frameworks for the Fordham Foundation?  Consider the long list of standards (with instructional prompts) from the Grades 4-12 Indiana ELA Standards that implicate the use of technical manuals, government documents, applications or brochures (see below).  If such technical documents are so deleterious to student learning, why are they so prevalent in our "best in the nation" ELA Standards? 

Don't get me wrong, I don't have an issue with the Indiana Standards' inclusion of such expectations if they are part of a larger effort to encourage teachers to plan and assess using a collection of varied and challenging texts (e.g. perhaps a technical document could be used as one source among many for a 7th grade opinion piece).  CCSS should be spurring lots of these types of discussions--discussions about how to plan, assess, design quality prompts, and gather and leverage rich resources.  But instead we find ourselves inundated by less substantive, more "technical" discussions.

"Technical Documents" in the Current Indiana Standards Framework

4.2.6 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.  Example: Follow directions to learn how to use computer commands or play a video game. 

5.2.7 Follow multiple-step instructions in a basic technical manual.

6.2.5 Follow multiple-step instructions for preparing applications.  Example: Follow directions to fill out an application for a public library card, a bank savings account, or a membership to a boys’ or girls’ club, soccer league, YMCA or YWCA, or another extra-curricular organization.

7.2.5  Understand and explain the use of a simple mechanical device by following directions in a technical manual.  Example: Follow the directions for setting a digital watch or clock.

8.2.5  Use information from a variety of consumer and public documents to explain a situation or decision and to solve a problem.  Example: Decide which is the most practical and economical wireless telephone to purchase by reading articles, brochures, Web pages, and other consumer sources, such as Consumer Reports.

8.2.8  Understand and explain the use of simple equipment by following directions in a technical manual.
    9.2.5  Demonstrate use of technology by following directions in technical manuals.
    Example: Locate and follow the directions embedded in word processing help menus for formatting text paragraphs, such as hanging indents. 

      9.2.6  Critique the logic of functional documents (such as an appeal to tradition or an appeal to force) by examining the sequence of information and procedures in anticipation of possible reader misunderstandings.  Example: Evaluate a document that gives a set of expectations and rules for behavior. This could be a school’s code of ethics, an extracurricular organization’s constitution and bylaws, or it could be a set of local, state, or federal laws. Evaluate the way the document is written and whether the expectations for readers are clear.

      10.2.1 Analyze the structure and format of various informational documents and explain how authors use the features to achieve their purposes.
      Example: Analyze an advertisement that has been made to look like the informational newspaper or magazine text around it. Explain why the advertisement would be designed this way and evaluate its effectiveness.

      10.2.3  Demonstrate use of sophisticated technology by following technical directions.  Example: Follow the directions to use a spreadsheet or database program on the computer.  Follow the directions to download informational text files or articles from a Web site. 

      11.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of consumer, workplace, and public documents.  Example: Check information learned in a driver’s training course textbook with information in the printed Indiana Driver’s Manual. 

      12.2.3  Verify and clarify facts presented in several types of expository texts by using a variety of public or historical documents, such as government, consumer, or workplace documents, and others.

      Example: Verify information in state and federal work safety laws by checking with an employer about internal company policies on employee safety. 

      Tuesday, September 17, 2013

      CCSS ELA and IAS ELA in Focus

      I have been struck by the fact that very few folks with strong opinions about Common Core ELA seem to have much in-depth knowledge of what is actually in the standards or in the state standards they are replacing.  We hear lots of talk about the high regard we hold for the Indiana Academic Standards (IAS) for ELA framework (even if our state test does an inconsistent job of holding students accountable for meeting the standards), but there is very little explanation, if any, as to how IAS and CCSS compare (let’s hope the IN DOE is working on this now!)  At first glance, it’s hard to ignore the similarities that exist between the IAS and Common Core ELA, particularly when it comes to how much priority teachers should be placing on the teaching of informational texts.

      First of all, the IAS, like the CCSS, includes standard strands that prioritize equally the teaching of both literary and informational texts.  Standard 2 of the IAS deals exclusively with “Comprehension and Analysis of Nonfiction and Informational Text” and, across the grade levels, includes close to or the same number of sub-standard indicators as does the section covering the comprehension and analysis of literary texts.  Thus, despite the frequent criticisms aimed at CCSS for overemphasizing the teaching of informational text, the IAS seems resolved to make informational text a key component of the English curriculum as well.

      Secondly, a careful reading of the informational text sections of both standards documents reveals lots of similarities when it comes to what they expect from students.  Although the CCSS tends to provide a more thorough set of expectations for the summary, comparison, and synthesis of ideas within and across texts, both the CCSS and IAS privilege the importance of nonfiction text structures and features in gleaning meaning from a text; the analysis of key ideas and details; and the value of identifying and assessing an author’s use of evidence.  I would invite you to do a grade-by-grade comparative analysis of the IAS and CCSS informational text standards, and I think you’ll find the same thing.

      Third, the IAS, to their credit, embeds in the standards a list of suggested texts and instructional prompts designed to give teachers an idea of how to operationalize the standards in the context of their classroom.  While the CCSS does not provide a list of standard-by-standard suggestions (can you imagine the cries of outrage if they did?!), it does provide a list of exemplar informational texts that, like the IAS, includes a heavy does of science and seminal history texts.  It's worth noting that this slate of example texts included in the grades 6-12 IAS ELA framework has somehow escaped the criticism often aimed at the Grades 6-12 CCSS that it saddles English teachers with content-related responsibilities for which they are not equipped to teach.

      More comparisons between these two standards frameworks in future posts…

      Monday, September 16, 2013


      Those of us following the Common Core debate have heard a lot about the 50/50 split that K-5 teachers and curriculum directors should be adhering to when apportioning the time in which to teach literary and informational texts.  Frankly, I think assigning percentages for this kind of thing is silly.  First of all, it can lead to a false impression that as long as my school’s curriculum reflects these percentages, we can say we are meeting one of the key components of Common Core.  (In fact, the Common Core authors’ inclusion of specific percentages is a treat for textbook companies who use these percentages as a way to market their new ELA series as “Common Core aligned.”)  But teaching something more often doesn’t mean I’m teaching it better, right? 

      If a 5th grade teacher spends 50% of her time having students read informational text but most of the texts are used as supplementary resources or ways to provide quick bits of background knowledge, are students really going to be challenged to provide rich descriptions or thorough comparisons; grapple with how an author supports a contention with evidence; or overcome the other hurdles inherent in reading informational text? 

      Further, one of the real benefits of using more informational text is it gives teachers more versatility to design text-based informative and opinion prompts and short research projects in the curriculum.  What part of the 50/50 split is being used to promulgate these kinds of experiences as opposed to quick reading through a couple of sections of Syd Montgomery’s The Tarantula Scientist before beginning a unit on George’s The Tarantula in My Purse and 172 Other Wild Pets?

      Yes, Common Core is calling on teachers to spend more time teaching informational texts.  But this is the easy part!  More critical to the Common Core is the difficult task of selecting high quality texts to guide careful reading, vocabulary acquisition, evidentiary writing, and (single and multiple) text-based discussions.  Let’s be sure that our curriculum planning efforts don’t succumb to superficial notions of what Common Core alignment is really all about.

      Thursday, September 12, 2013

      What Are You Doing Differently to Align with CCSS?

      In Doug Lemov’s recent online “interview” with policy and curriculum expert, Kathleen Porter-Magee (the Fordham Foundation’s Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and newly-hired senior policy adviser at the College Board), he asks her what “2 or 3 concrete things you’d do to align to CC.”   She provides three elements that define what “Common Core-aligned” really means:

      1.     Put text selection at the front and center of curriculum planning.
      2.     Spend lots of time writing good text-dependent questions.
      3.     Build instructional units based on a careful sequencing of related texts.

      I would add one more element to Porter-Magee’s list.  As part of the process of selecting quality cornerstone and supplementary texts/resources, I would advise grade level teams to identify what I refer to as “featured standards” and “supporting standards.”  A featured standard is a standard that serves as the focal part of an instructional unit—it guides the design of the unit assessment and highlights the best aspects a quality text(s) has to offer (e.g. ideas, themes, structures, point of view, character progressions, etc.).  A 4th grade featured standard might be “comparing and contrasting the point view from which different stories are narrated…” (CCSS RL.4.6) or “compar[ing] and contrast[ing] the treatment of similar themes and topics…and patterns of events…in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures” (CCSS RL.4.9).  The process of determining a unit’s featured standard should be done in conjunction with selecting rich, high quality texts—these two aspects of Common Core unit planning go hand and hand.

      Supporting standards, on the other hand, are standards that are critical pieces to every (or almost every) unit a teacher plans during the course of the year.  Every 4th grade literature unit, for example, should require students to “refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text” (CCSS RL.4.1).  If informational texts are a key component to the unit, students should consistently “interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears” (CCSS RI.4.7).  Teachers should plan to teach supporting standards with an emphasis on gradually asking students to demonstrate more and more independence with these skills over the course of the school year.

      Keep in mind that there are some standards that could be classified as either a featured or supporting standard depending on the grade level, the amount of experience students have had practicing the skill or what cornerstone text is used to frame the unit.  For example, a 4th grade teacher may want to focus a unit at the beginning of the year on helping students grasp how to use a series of key details in a text to determine the main idea.  However, this same standard may be considered a supporting standard later in the year or, even more likely, in a 6th grade unit where a teacher is seeking to “compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics” (CCSS RL.6.9). 

      Unfortunately, in many cases, we are seeing schools approach the Common Core standards in the same ways we’ve approached state standards in the past.  Instead of designing units with an eye toward the distinction between featured and supporting standards and, equally as important, the relationship between featured standards and texts, schools are creating Common Core checklists that imply that every standard should be taught in a similar fashion and mastered in isolation.

      Any other Common Core curriculum planning essentials that you would add to Kathleen Porter-Magee’s list?

      Wednesday, September 11, 2013

      It's About More Than Just the Standards

      There is so much debate circulating here in Indiana about how our existing state ELA Standards document compares to the Common Core.  Many critics have focused their attention on what they perceive to be limitations of the Common Core—too much focus on informational text (particularly for secondary English teachers); scant attention to the characteristics of specific literary and nonfiction sub-genres; and a lack of standards-specific instructional examples to help teachers identify how the standards might play out in the context of the classroom.  While I would contend that the differences between the two standards documents are less dramatic than many would contend (more on this in a future post), this debate fails to take into account the pivotal role our state assessment, ISTEP+, plays in our efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our schools. 

      Low quality state assessments will mitigate the educative effects of even the best standards.  Indiana’s ELA Standards have been reviewed by Fordham and others as some of the best in the nation, but it’s all for naught unless the state decides to make significant improvements to its current state assessment.  Take for example the excellent 6-8th grade opinion writing standards that are part of Indiana’s current standards framework.  They are rigorous, detailed and clear (and, by the way, they are very comparable to the Common Core’s 6-8th grade opinion writing standards).  However, Indiana doesn’t assess opinion writing on ISTEP+.  So how much attention does opinion writing receive in a typical middle school ELA curriculum compared to narrative writing, which is the only type of writing Indiana assesses on its exam (check out this 8th grade sample ISTEP+ prompt, found on the IN DOE web site, entitled “What It Takes to Be a Baker”)?  Even great teachers and curriculum directors can’t escape the tendency to use the state assessment to inform curriculum decisions.  In this ongoing debate over which standards document is best for the students in our state, let’s think long and hard about whether and how our state assessment will bring out the best of what the standards have to offer. 

      Saturday, September 7, 2013


      Welcome to the new Core2Class blog! A little about me: I have held a variety of different educational positions—teacher, K-8 principal, university instructor, teacher supervisor, presenter, and consultant.  I have a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Supervision from the University of Iowa (I spent most of my time one floor below where really smart people develop the ITBS).  However, my time as a principal taught me more about schools than any advanced degree ever did. 

      I started Core2Class in early 2012 after spending about 6 months reading and studying the Common Core ELA Standards and new assessments.  During this period, I also spent a good deal of time holding up the new standards and tests to those that we currently use in Indiana.  According to the “experts,” Indiana has a first-rate set of ELA Standards.  I agree.  What few seem to acknowledge is the mitigating effects of our mediocre state assessment.  More on this important point in a future blog.

      During the past year or so, I have worked with hundreds of teachers and administrators (and presented in front of lots of mostly sensible parents) from all over the state of Indiana, many working in our fine Archdiocesan Catholic schools.  While I’m sure I’ve ruffled a few feathers here and there, my intent has been (and, with this blog, will continue to be) to approach CCSS implementation and PARCC/Smarter Balanced preparation with an earnestness that reflects the exciting curriculum and instruction opportunities that have fueled this reform movement.

      For those of us who believe that teaching is more than just about loving kids, these CCSS “shifts” we keep reading and hearing about hold great promise for how we approach teaching and learning.  Having said this, I’m growing increasingly wary (and weary!) of the “business as usual” approach underscoring many of the Common Core implementation efforts I’ve heard and read about.  “Alignment” initiatives, “crosswalk” documents and standards “checklists” (often promulgated in the form of standards-based report cards) threaten to undermine the real value of Common Core ELA.  Moreover, I think we are over-debating certain questions (e.g. what percentage of time teachers should spend teaching literary vs. informational texts) at the expense of addressing those issues that directly impact what goes on in the classroom (e.g. the potential impact of a high quality text on how a unit is designed).  Chester Finn has it exactly right: Standards “unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.”  I hope this blog can be one perspective about how effective CCSS implementation efforts might take place.