No, I’m not saying that I think the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are spawned by the devil’s minions. Not even close.
Let me explain.
Ever since I entered the University of Michigan’s School of Education in 2005, standards have been one of my greatest weaknesses as a teacher. And, like a brave warrior, I have usually dealt with this problem by fleeing from it. Luckily for me, at the start of the 2011-2012 school year, I was given the task to create a brand new class: Humanities 9 in the Tech 21 Academy at my school. This course was to cover the Michigan standards for World History and Freshman English — oh, and it would need to cover Technology and Communications standards, too.
Why Standards were my Demons
The standards lists always overwhelmed me in college — I swear there were thousands of them, but I’m too scarred (or indifferent) to verify that fact. Suffice it to say, there were too many for me to focus on. I was, and am, a focuser. So, when I went into my first teaching job as a remedial reading and writing teacher in Baltimore, MD, I was pleased to have a scripted program handed to me. This meant I could focus on how to survive a school day rather than what standards I would cover in a given unit.
But after that first year of teaching, my remedial kids’ standardized test scores were still terrible. And, since my school at the time was under heavy scrutiny for not making adequate yearly progress (AYP) multiple consecutive years, my superiors gave me an amazing opportunity: do whatever it takes to help your kids succeed.
So here I was, free to create my own curriculum. Guess what documents I didn’t go to for help — the ridiculously-packed state ELA standards!
I was convinced that obsessing over the ELA standards was pointless. I had a vague anger towards them, actually — after all, how could a kid learn so much in a year? And, much more importantly, why should she? If my students left my classroom as incompetent readers and writers but they could tell me what a gerund was, I wasn’t happy.
Focusing on Reading and Writing
And so I read Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle, decided that she was right and that standard W.t.F.4 was pointless, and asked my students to vote on whether we should conduct a reading/writing workshop in our urban seventh grade classroom. They affirmed my instincts, and away we went on a two-year journey that was much more natural than a bunch of scripted lessons aligned with carefully chosen standards.
Looking back, I see a lot of ways that I failed during those two years, but I also see that many of my students who began as remedial readers and writers grew much more than they would have otherwise.
(As a side note, it was during these two years that I learned a crucial lesson: my “remedial readers” were hungry for a challenge. We read Shakespeare. We read Anne Frank’s Diary. And the kids, many of whom were otherwise unmotivated, rose to the task.)
So… What about the CCSS?
A couple years and a couple moves later, I found myself teaching in a rural high school in West Michigan. It was the 2010-2011 school year, and I was suddenly teaching in an English department that was incredibly talented, opinionated, and bright. During my first department meeting, I heard more names thrown around than I had during all of my previous years of teaching combined. I spent that year trying to catch up by reading all of the people they were mentioning, but everywhere I turned I was confronted by clashing ideas.
And, thankfully, that’s when a colleague woke me up to something that our state was adopting: the CCSS.
When I first read these standards, one blessed thing stood out to me: the number 10. That’s how many anchor standards I found for reading and writing and literacy in the content areas. Even though I was daunted by the standards (there may be 10 standards, but many of those have layers of sub-standards), the number 10 made me feel like they were attainable. As I learned more about them, I saw other things that I liked as well — they were focused on making students career- and/or college-ready (CCR), and this connected with my mission as a teacher: to help my students flourish in whatever path they choose.
But what exactly are the CCSS, and how do you teach them? Answers to those questions are the purpose of this website. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say that I love standards, but I’m hoping that the CCSS will at least make standards into a comprehensible game plan that actual human teachers can follow with actual human students.