Common Core…Is It To Be Feared?

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Earlier this summer, I took a class in implementing non-fiction into the Common Core Curriculum. To be quite honest, the CCSS has never freaked me out too much, but after taking this course and listening to some of the concerns of the other teachers in the class, I began to think that maybe I should be worrying more, that maybe it was worse than I originally thought. Some of the concerns were that there were too many standards to teach, there is no time for creative writing, most literature has to be taken out of the curriculum to replace with non-fiction, among other worries, including the upcoming PARCC exams as well as OTES (to throw more acronyms into the mix).

I listened to some of the concerns with a growing sense of anxiety and worry, thinking maybe I was missing something with CCSS. Then, I took some time during the class to delve into the standards and pick apart what they were really saying, and I’m so glad I did. Do I have some concerns about CCSS? Of course. Do I feel they are perfect and will cure all that is wrong with education? Absolutely not. But, quite honestly, I appreciate an overriding idea behind CCSS-to streamline the standards. I am going to admit a dark secret; I never truly “got” the benchmarks and performance standards from the previous Ohio Content Standards. There were too many standards, sub-categories, benchmarks, etc., etc. and I could never fully wrap my brain around what “they” truly wanted. The documents were confusing, filled with educational jargon and ideas that were not tangible and were more theoretical in nature. I am an English teacher, so I taught my students to love (or try to love, in some cases) reading, how to write well, how to be creative and take risks, how to use technology and I gave them opportunities to present information to hone their public speaking skills. I taught what I knew students should be learning in an English class.

However, after looking more closely at the CCSS, I feel they are much more clear and easier to read and they have streamlined the previous confusing standards. Here are the three most important personal conclusions I’ve made about the CCSS so far:

  1. There is room for fiction in the CCSS Curriculum. Here is my philosophy: Teach the fiction pieces as well as the classics (being an E.D. Hirsch supporter, classics are imperative!), but supplement with non-fiction pieces. There are so many ways to do this, including articles and essays, such as Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”, or asking the students to bring in news stories which relate to the literature. Many ways to do this, but never take out the fiction. Fiction is what gives us, as a society, humanity and empathy. It also allows for imagination and creativity and, therefore, should never be taken out of a Language Arts Curriculum.
  2. There is room for creative writing in the CCSS Curriculum. The term “creative writing” is absent in all of the standards, but I feel the Narrative Writing mode allows for this and I’m going to use it as such! The standards ask that students have opportunities to, and I quote, “use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple story lines” as well as to use “precise words and phrases, telling details and sensory language”. That, to me, is double-speak for “creative writing”. I laugh, because it’s almost as if the writers of CCSS were too nervous to actually write the words “creative” and “writing” in the same sentence in the standards as if it would encourage frivolous behavior in a time of serious college and career readiness training! Students need to be creative and imaginative; it’s an integral part of being ready to go to post-secondary training or to work at a job or career. It’s how our society moves forward by implementing the ideas of others-how else would we have new technology or innovations? Think Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Google, Twitter, to name a few innovations and innovators. It’s okay, CCSS writers-my kids are going to be creative in class and they’ll be all the better for it.
  3. Students are going to have to learn to be better researchers and curators of information as a result of CCSS, as well as become better users of technology. This is so important to be college and career ready. Honestly, though students are “digital natives”, many are not great users of technology. Facebook? Check. Texting? Check. But to use technology to create and edit videos, to create presentations or to take risks using new tech or apps? Many students are not willing to do this without some guidance and support from teachers. Also, many students do not know there are any search engines or databases beyond “Google”; we, as teachers, need to show them how to reach beyond their comfort zones to become stronger researchers and creators through the use of technology. I believe the CCSS focuses on these skills by asking students to “gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources” and to avoid “plagiarism and over reliance on any one source”. Basically, it emphasizes stronger research and analytical skills, again, crucial in being successful in college and career.

I have a few more ideas in relation to CCSS, but I think I’ll save those for another post. While looking through the standards, I stumbled across a fantastic blog by Dave Stuart, Jr., a middle-school teacher in Michigan, who writes about the CCSS in a relaxed, “non-freaked out” way. It’s called “Teaching the Core” and he’s gone through the CCSS and has dissected them into layman’s terms, making it easy to truly understand them. The web address is: http://www.teachingthecore.com/ and I highly suggest taking a look, especially those who have many concerns about implementing CCSS into their classroom. It alleviated many of my fears and concerns.

Final thoughts: CCSS are a reality, so I personally need to spend more time looking at them and deciding how to best acclimate myself to them and use them to benefit my students. However, I also realize that as educators, we need to have confidence in our innate abilities as teachers to do what is best for our students and to give them the most valuable education we can; the CCSS are not going to do that for us. Instead, it’ll ultimately be our teaching skills and talents, as well as our empathy, patience and passion for teaching that will.

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Dogs and Students

Two years ago my daughter called me while she was visiting my mother for the weekend. This is briefly how the conversation went:

Lily: “Mom, Grandma and I found a dog today. She’s beautiful and I’ve named her Rosie. Can we keep her-please?!”
Me: “Honey, we already have two animals. We really can’t keep another.”
Lily: “Please? I promise I’ll take really good care of her and feed her everyday and I will never ask you for anything again. I love her and want to bring her home.”
Me: “No, Lily. I really don’t want two dogs. But we’ll see if we can find her a home.”

Fast forward two years and Rosie is sitting next to me on our front porch while I’m typing this blog post. That night of the phone call, I drove to my mom’s house with every intention of meeting Rosie and seeing what I could do to find her a nice home. What Lily did not tell me was Rosie was old, crippled, dripping with fleas and her once-brown eyes were cloudy with bright green cataracts. I knew immediately when I first laid eyes on her, Rosie would be a tough sell in trying to convince someone to take her. I knew my life was about to change when I took her to the vet and he asked me, “What are you going to do with her? You know they’ll put her down immediately if you take her to the pound.” I looked at him and without thinking said, “Well then, I’m going to keep her,” and she’s been a part of my family ever since. I was determined that this dog would not go from being hurt and lonely, to going straight to a dog pound where she would be sentenced to death for the crime of being abandoned, old and crippled. I would make sure she lived out her days, even if they were few, knowing what it was like to be loved and to be a part of a family. I was determined, even at the cost of many fights with my husband over it. My arguments won out and we were keeping her-it was final.

To say it was an easy transition bringing her into our family would be an outright lie. She spent a week in our garage as we combed dead fleas out of her thick German Shepard fur and allowed her to become acclimated to our other dog, Molly. She would rip food out of our hands as if it were her last meal and whine incessantly all night since she was alone. But then she would follow me around the yard on her crippled legs, pausing frequently to rest since walking even a few feet was a tremendous effort, causing her to pant like a freight train and whine if she couldn’t get close enough. She would bark happily when the girls would come out to pet her; they had to teach her to play “fetch” because she didn’t know how and she would play for hours, retrieving the ball enthusiastically with her strange, hobbled gait.

When Rosie was finally allowed in the house, she would growl and snap at Molly if Molly would so much as walk by her. I broke up many small dog fights which could have turned ugly very quickly! The cat disappeared into the basement for days at a time, frightened of the huge Shepard who bared her teeth at him a few too many times. I was nervous; I had vowed to save this dog, but not at the expense of my other two animals. It wasn’t fair to them and I began to question myself. Could I keep her? What would happen to her if I could not? I was very upset and began hoping and praying things would change so I would be able to keep her and show her the love she was missing and so desperately needed.

Within a few months, things did change. Rosie began to feel secure in the fact that she would have food each day and did not have to fight for it nor snap at Molly for walking by her food bowl. She allowed the cat to walk by without feeling the need to snap at him or attack him. She and Molly began hanging out on the front porch together, both barking at the mailman or UPS truck in solidarity, both vowing to protect their home. She started crawling up the stairs at night to lay by our bed, needing help back down them in the morning, but so proud of herself nonetheless. She has become a part of our family and has thrived (as well as put on 20+ pounds) with the love and affection she’s gotten by having her new ‘people’, especially from my husband who grew very attached to her.

I write all this while thinking about students I’ve had in the past and those I will have every year-those who are unloved, abandoned in some way, hurt and needing someone to tell them they are valuable and worthy. While we, as teachers, can’t save them all, we can certainly try to make them feel as if they are a part of something. We can try to understand why these students may be angry or why they are moody and snap at us or others; it is a defense mechanism and their way of protecting themselves from more hurt. We know this, deep down, but it still does not make it easy in dealing with these students, nor does it excuse their actions. But I think when we try to employ empathy for these students, it helps us to see these students’ true potential and what they could become with just a little faith and encouragement from us. We need to be patient and willing to try with them-we can’t discount them immediately because who knows what they could become with the right encouragement, discipline and support.

Having Rosie has made me understand this idea of empathy in the classroom even more. Had I given up on her right away because she was cranky and hard to deal with, I wouldn’t know the wonderful dog she is today. I think back upon many difficult students I’ve had in my 13 years of teaching; I wish I could have them back and try again because I think I’d do much better with them this time and would see their potential more clearly. Having Rosie has given me more empathy and has made me a better teacher. For that, I am thankful.

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