The Common Core State Standards for literacy were intentionally designed with a “less is more” ethos. Despite that, there’s still too many of them for average teachers like me to implement effectively. That’s why I cut them, choosing to achieve excellence with a few skills and strategies rather than achieve mediocrity with them all. My list is what you might call “drastically reduced” at six items, and it’s even shorter when you consider that one of the items isn’t even from the Common Core.
But the reason I have that sixth, non-Common-Core item is because of the obvious: there are plenty of crucial skills the CCSS simply don’t mention.
So today, I’d like to share a handful of those skills — and then I’d like to invite you to choose a few of them to start talking about with your students. Let me know how it goes!
1. Motivate yourself
A senior VP at one of the leading financial corporations in the world had this to say about self-motivation: ‘If I had to police everyone in order to get the job done, it’d be faster for me to do it myself. I want someone who will get the job done and get it done right. An employee needs to be a self-starter and self-driven.’
No duh, right? But isn’t this like the thing we teachers beat our heads against walls every day trying to teach our students? It reminds me of a passage from David Conley’s latest book, Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know:
The [students] who had the greatest success were those who were willing to take some modicum of ownership of their learning and responsibility for their behavior. Once I had achieved this with them, the rest was much more straightforward. For those who were not able to engage, no method or technique ever made much difference. This lesson about the importance of ownership of learning never completely left me. Interestingly and unexpectedly, I had reached the conclusion that the social contract was a two-way street: society has a responsibility to create a level playing field, and individuals have a responsibility to take advantage of it.
This idea of ownership is linked with the skill of motivating yourself. It’s just a simple truth: our students won’t be successful in college or careers if they don’t develop the mentality that this is their life and, therefore, this is their learning.
The trouble is, this is a pretty rare skill, which, as Coplin basically says, is bad news for employers but awesome news for the kids and adults who do possess the ability to motivate themselves.
2. Be ethical
The term ethical is used to mean both being honest and doing the right thing… The key to being ethical is knowing how to cope with the pressure to cut corners to the point that it violates the trust others have in you and you have in yourself. The direct way to possess that key is to recognize that dishonesty and unethical behavior can sooner or later lead to career failure.
Again, Coplin treats this less as a moral issue and more as a skill. Students are faced with ethical dilemmas daily; every time they decide to fake their way through an assignment (including pretending that they read the ‘boring book’ in English class rather than, you know, actually reading it), they are faced with a decision: will they be honest, or will they be deceptive? The choice that they habituate is important!
3. Manage your time
The ability to handle multiple assignments over a two- or three-week period, as well as not to miss highly routine activities, such as submitting weekly reports, is key to every professional job.
In the KIPP character strength framework that my colleagues and I use with our students, this is self-control. As Coplin explains, it’s the ability to plan and set priorities. When my students tell me they are procrastinators, I first tell them that I, too, have struggled with procrastination in my life, but then I tell them a few truths:
- Procrastination is a way of avoiding unpleasant tasks. If we make it a part of our identity (e.g., by glibly saying, “I’m a procrastinator”), it can have a negative effect not just on our school/work lives, but on our personal lives as well. Harboring a lifelong habit of procrastination will be bad news for our spouses, our children, our friends, our bank accounts, our dreams, and on and on.
- Psychologists at Carleton University once did a study on the effects of procrastination on students at their school, and they found that “procrastinators [had] higher rates of smoking, drinking, postponing seeing a doctor, digestive ailments, insomnia, and cold and flu symptoms than the student population at large” (thanks to Bill Coplin for making me aware of this study).
4. Look good
The effort that you put into making yourself look presentable says a lot about your character. Your appearance communicates who you are, and you must decide what you want it to say about you. If you come to a job interview or to work with your hair a mess, smelling bad either from a lack of bathing or too much perfume or cologne, and wearing clothes you pull out of the laundry bag without ironing, you show a lack of respect for both yourself and those around you.
These are strong words in my school, where it’s completely socially acceptable for a high schooler to wear pajama pants to school. But, as Coplin unabashedly points out, how we look matters, and many of our students are immediately disadvantaged by this truth. To help my students think about the importance of appearance, I once gave out this article as an article of the week. In it, my students are shocked to read that what you wear affects how you see yourself in a job (or at school!).
5. Write legibly
Common Core has gotten flak in some quarters for its shocking omission of a skill that was pretty standard while I was coming through elementary school: cursive writing. Although people like me would be like, “Dude, if your local district values cursive writing, freaking teach it,” others would say, “Look, if the standards don’t include it, most schools will eventually drop it; ultimately, it will become a thoughtcrime to even think in cursive.”
Even Coplin nearly omitted writing well from his lengthy list of important career skills. But then, he read this comment from a senior VP of a large company.
Writing clearly and quickly does not seem like it would be important at first glance; however, in many cases, it makes and breaks success. In many meetings, it is not socially acceptable to be pounding away on your laptop–a simple pen and paper will do fine. Pen and paper allow you to draw diagrams, add side notes, and color-code. Writing clearly is a huge benefit because it allows your notes to be distributed to people who could not attend the meeting, as well as for your future knowledge.
Coplin goes on to say that he was hesitant to include this skill because he personally does not possess it. How honest! Aren’t we often quick to dismiss skills and values that differ from our own? But it is, as Coplin admits, a valuable asset, at the very least for the note-taking mentioned by the executive above and for the ability to write good-looking, handwritten thank you notes.
6. Build good relationships
Once you get [a] job, your success will depend on developing good working relationships with people throughout the organization. Having a relationship built on trust and mutual respect requires communicating clearly and working to resolve conflict in a positive way… Your coworkers, especially if you do your work well, may see you as a threat; perhaps you will see them as a threat as well. Even more prevalent is the tendency for workers in one department to view those in other departments as incompetent and irresponsible. The only way to move past these conflicts is to keep the lines of communication open and to establish good working relationships based on cooperation.
From a character strength perspective, this is social intelligence and interpersonal self-control. Our students need to realize that being a people person isn’t an option for most of us; we have to get along with our coworkers if we want to be successful. I will say that the Common Core does mention the ability to collaborate well with anyone (it’s in the first Speaking/Listening standard), but this skill is broader and more long-term than that.
7. Sell successfully
Get rid of negative thoughts about sales before you enter the workforce because those who make it to the top of every field are always good at selling themselves, their products, and their ideas.
Coplin goes on to give several reasons in support of the importance of sales skills, including the fact that sales positions are plentiful even in the worst economy, sales positions tend to pay well for good work, successful salespeople often have a fast track to the top of the company, sales positions are great training for a variety of other jobs and professions, and more. This is why I teach students to present themselves as best they can whenever they speak (the best read on public speaking, by the way, is Erik Palmer’s Well Spoken).
8. Politick wisely
This one immediately sounds and feels dirty because of the low regard with which we tend to hold politicians in America, but hear him out. From 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College:
The reality is that people, no reason, control decisions, and politics is the art of getting people on your side. As a human resources director from a large corporation says, ‘Don’t step on people’s toes. Know when to speak up, but do it with respect; play nice with everyone, but disagree with people politely. If you know when to speak up, this can lead to not only a promotion for you but also success for the company.’
In short, it pays to know how to get along with people (hence this skill is closely linked to #6) and how to help people see it your way. While I love the Godfather movies and some of my students do, too, we can’t easily make people offers they can’t refuse. To help my students learn this, I try to use teachable moments in our discussions to point out what it looks like to make winsome contributions to a conversation or discussion. Also, I seek to relentlessly model politeness in my room, even if we’re in the middle of a heated debate on marijuana legalization.
9. Identify problems, then develop and launch solutions
You need to be able to make a decision and not be afraid of making a mistake… I’d be more worried if someone couldn’t make a decision rather than they made the wrong one.
Whether it’s Common Core-aligned or not, my students will always find themselves, at least once a school year, engaged in some kind of service-learning assignment. For the past couple of years, it has been simple: I introduce them to charity: water, allowing them a day or so to scour the site. Their task is to determine what charity: water does, why the way they do it is unique, and what reasons they could give someone to convince them to donate five bucks to the charity.
I have them write this up in a brief (1-2 page) explanatory summary, and then I give them a challenge, saying something like this:
All right guys, you’ve learned all about world history this year. I mean, we’ve covered like 3,000 years in the last six months, learning about characters and trends and inventions and ideas and love and war. It’s been intense. But now, as we enter into our last few months together, I want you to not just study world history; I want you to make it.
I had you do this mini-research project yesterday on charity: water. I wanted you to see that, even though all throughout world history there have been horrendous problems, and even though through our articles of the week you’ve learned that there are horrendous problems today, there are people out there who refuse to believe there are no solutions. Scott Harrison got mad about the water crisis and gave up his 30th birthday; 7 years later, he’s raised tens of millions of dollars toward ending the water crisis.
I believe there are people in here who will do similar things someday — and I hope you won’t wait until you’re 30!
So in preparation for that day when you pick a problem that’s too compelling to ignore and you just go after it, I want us to work together, outside of class, to practice solving tricky problems. Your task will be simple: you need to plan and carry out a project that 1) educates people about the water crisis and 2) compels them to donate to charity: water.
That’s all I’m going to say; you’ll have 5 minutes per class period to plan and discuss this week, and then, starting next week, I’ll budget 10 minutes per week for you to update each other or touch base on your projects. There is no grade for this, but this will be on the test. The test is called life, baby!
Now get after it.
And you already know what happens: some kids hit it out of the park, and some kids do the bare minimum. I try coaching them all during the spare amounts of time I offer during class (after all, this is totally outside of the guaranteed viable curriculum at our school), and I’m happy to see that, even for my kids who fail, they at least get to do something powerful and learn through failing.
I relentlessly share with them that we get better by identifying problems — in our schoolwork, in our lives, in our jobs, in our world — developing solutions to them, and then launching the solutions, fully expecting to learn (and fail) along the way.
Keep doing good work
The purpose of this post and the two preceding it is to impress upon you, dear teacher who refuses to freak out about the Common Core, that when our instruction is undergirded with reasons, with long-term student flourishing as the ultimate endgame, we can teach happier and better. No list of standards will ever fully encapsulate what it is our students need in order to have a shot at being successful; our job is to continuously remind people that the Common Core are no exception to that rule, and yet, at the same time, I don’t see what good it does us to ostrich-head-in-the-sand them, hoping they’ll one day go away.
Please keep in touch. It’s so good to be with you all on this journey.