Here’s what’s up: despite our circumstances, a majority of the 3.5 million of us teachers still want to do something that matters with our careers; we still want to impact student achievement in a way that promotes long-term flourishing for our kids. And when something like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) come out, our frontal lobes, already overwhelmed by parents and deadlines and IEPs and ACTs and AYP, delegate to our brain stems, and our brain stems immediately shift us into fight-or-flight mode.
I mean, think about it. Are these not the two main reactions that you’ve seen to the CCSS: fighting them or avoiding them?
(Just to be up front: “Hi, my name is Dave, and I’m a long-time standards avoider.“)
What I’m proposing is that, despite the many misuses of the CCSS by opportunists, profiteers, and the like, it doesn’t have to be so bad; in fact, I think the CCSS could become useful if we take the right approach.
The non-freaked out approach
The key, I think, is focusing on a few (2-3) of the standards that you (or, even better, you and your colleagues) deem most important for college- and career-readiness for your students. For me and my social studies homies, that currently means R.CCR.1 and W.CCR.1, and I like to throw in a smattering of Speaking and Listening tasks in my own classroom just because they don’t have to be complicated.
Once you’ve chosen the most crucial standards, it’s empowerment time: ignore the rest of them while you, your students, and your colleagues work on dominating the few you chose.
In my professional opinion, the only way to sensibly use these standards is to focus on a few, master them, and, only when mastered, move on from there. Bluntly, the professional thing to do is start by purposefully ignoring a majority of the CCSS. We should not be moving on to new things when we haven’t yet demonstrably mastered the most important, basic things.
In case you hate this idea, blame my inspiration: Mike Schmoker. (Actually, don’t. But you should read his book Focus.) Frankly, even though the CCSS contain drastically fewer items than previous “wish list” iterations of literacy standards, there is still way too much there to become excellent at all of it right away.
But wait, says the stressed-out teacher, what if you’re in a district or building where people are beating you on the head with the CCSS and demanding that you master every last standard now? In that case, I recommend taking Schmoker’s book Focus and beating them on the head with it. (Or, at the very least, place it in their mailbox.)
Seriously: standards are pointless if they merely garnish lesson plans, and that’s all they will do if we give in to unreasonable pressures that say, “Master them all now.”
In short: apply both flight and fight modes to the CCSS; fly from all but the most important, and fight pressures that tell you otherwise. Take the standards and make them meaningful for your setting.
But how do we choose what to focus on?
The process for choosing where to start with the CCSS took our building’s social studies professional learning community (PLC) about 15 minutes. When we began the process below, most of us had never read a word of the CCSS before.
- Read through all of the reading and writing anchor standards (there are 20 total; we used this simplified document, which is three pages long). As a purpose for reading, ask folks to choose one standard for reading and one standard for writing that they think is the greatest need for the students in your building.
- When finished, have the group discuss which standards each person believes are most important. It didn’t take us long to come to the realization that our students struggle with simply reading and comprehending a text closely (R.CCR.1). We then decided that the most engaging form of writing for our students was the text-based argument (W.CCR.1).
- Um, that’s it.
- Your next steps are to start determining ways to teach and measure the standards you chose. Experiment. Share results. Discuss. Be awesome. Do what you were made to do and teach the hell out of them in a manner that connects your kids to greater career- and college-readiness.
Even though our PLC seems to have more than its fair share of straight-up ballers, what department couldn’t manage a similar activity? The consensus-building discussion may seem like a stretch if you’ve got a contentious group, but seriously, the results are worth it.
Why? Because instead of being freaked out by the CCSS, our PLC now owns them. We’ve made them manageable and meaningful to us and our goals for our students.