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Commentary: Help tackling the Common Core

Faced with the not-so-user-friendly new state standards, a literacy coach offers suggestions to daunted teachers.

Change is challenging.

Transition between the old and familiar to a new and ambiguous unknown is tough.

Just ask a literacy teacher trying to navigate the new Colorado Academic Standards.

In late April, on a spring day that felt more like summer break than second semester, more than 30 literacy teachers representing grades six through 10 in Aurora Public Schools left their students with a substitute. They gathered at the district Professional Learning and Conference Center and were joined by district leaders, literacy coaches and English Language Acquisition consultants as the newly formed Curriculum and Instruction Literacy Advisory Group.

The goal? To begin the curriculum redesign and revision process to transition and align literacy instruction to the new Colorado Academic Standards for reading, writing and communicating.

The day’s end result? A group of exhausted, wide-eyed, confused and bewildered teachers who left wondering how it’s all going to come together in time for transitional field testing on the first day of school in August.

True to Colorado’s independent pioneer spirit, the standards for Reading, Writing and Communicating are a blend of original state-created language and the national Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts. The new standards address 21st Century skill and readiness competencies, and include “relevance and application” language that outlines the possible real world uses and contexts of mastering a certain standard or skill cluster.

Totaling 170 pages when opened as a PDF, the new state standards are dense and daunting. Upon first read, the document is deterring to teachers who were sold on a pitch of “fewer, higher and clearer” standards – the original message from education leaders responsible for drafting the first version of the current document.

New standards are slated for implementation in 2013-14.

Faced with this timeline and a new state standardized assessment system looming in the not-so-distant future, teachers in Aurora Public Schools and across the state are rolling up their sleeves and giving the Colorado Academic Standards a close read. And a re-read. They are annotating, discussing and picking apart the document. You might say they are doing to the standards what the standards suggest they do with their students. They are “reading for all purposes.”

Which leads to the question, could teachers working through the standards serve as a model for the type of reading, writing and communicating work the document is asking of students? Could they use a not-so-user friendly document to practice 21st century learning and thinking?

If they did, it might result in the following “What would a 21st century learner do?” list of five tips to support other teachers:

  1. Use available tools and information. Take advantage of the resources that live within the common core standards and the appendices as well as the emerging websites, blogs and curriculum resources popping up across the nation aligned to the standards.
  2. Read the standards. Understand the content of your grade level standards as well as the big picture (the grade level above and below the grade you teach) and ask yourself: What is the recurring learning? The essential learning? What do the standards suggest that students should really know and be able to do at this grade level?
  3. Think critically and creatively. According to the Colorado Department of Education’s website, “Standards are not the same as lesson plans or curriculum. They are the content understandings and abilities that lead a student to success beyond school.” Use what’s working in your classroom to transition to new standards and explore and experiment with new ways to engage your students in reading, writing, listening, speaking and critical thinking. Use your practice to drive discussions about relevant assessments. Don’t wait for the assessment to dictate or smother powerful pedagogy.
  4. Collaborate. You are not alone. Talk to your colleagues. Network with teachers beyond your building, district and state. Read the blogs, tweets (#Teaching2030, #CommonCore, #CCSS) and wikis of teachers across the nation who are undergoing similar transitions and pick their brains (virtually or in person) for best practices and potential pitfalls.
  5. Take risks. The change may be inevitable, but the way teachers harness and leverage the change is not. Use the new standards as an opportunity to explore and play with your instructional practice to find new ways to make learning authentic and relevant for the 21st century learners in front of you. See the new standards as a learning opportunity, not a political mandate.

Change is challenging. But it is also filled with opportunity and hope.

Let’s turn transition into transformative teaching and learning.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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