It's not fun to learn that you'll soon be expected to transform your curriculum to align with a 66-page document that you had no part in creating. And, although the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a lot less unwieldy than the state standards I've taught under so far in my career, that doesn't mean they are as lean and mean as they should be.
Don't get me wrong: I believe the CCSS represent a giant leap forward in standards, and they contain plenty that teachers can rejoice about. However, I also think they have room for further simplification.
That being said, I'd like to propose that, instead of feeling like you need a doctor's degree of comprehension of the CCSS before trying them out, you can begin toying with them through one of the following three simple ideas. Note that none of them require extensive planning when you first begin to experiment.
1. Create Controversy
“Argument,” they say, “is the soul of an education.”
Over this past year of teaching, I have come to fully believe this statement. In a safe classroom, students tend to love arguing about the things they are reading and learning. Arguing is a great kind of conversation for students to practice (SL.CCR.1) in pairs, groups, and as a whole class. When it is based around a text students are reading, it rewards students who engage with the text, and, thus, more of them end up engaging.
Here are some examples of arguments that I've seen or heard about from a variety of content areas within my school:
- A math teacher repeatedly asks students, “How did you get that answer? Why did you do it that way?” forcing them to argue for the validity of their steps and solutions.
- An earth science teacher has students read various arguments about fracking and then asks students to argue for whichever side they agree with using evidence from the text.
- A US history teacher asks students to argue about whether civil liberties should take priority over national security after reading a variety of sources on the issue.
- A literature teacher asks students to debate whether, in the novel A Separate Peace, Gene is evil or merely someone who commits an evil deed.
- A world history teacher asks students to argue whether Alexander the Great was a hero or a villain.
- A computer science teacher asks students to write code that performs a set operation and then asks students to share their code and argue which is better.
- A foods teacher asks students to argue, based on reading a couple of articles, whether it is best to use Pam, butter, or margarine to keep food from sticking to a pan.
- A PE teacher asks students to argue for the best way to kick a soccer ball straight or throw a football in a spiral.
If these sound too far out of your comfort range, just try to find a point in your lesson today where you ask students to argue about something — anything! — and go from there. If you'd like some deeper explanation on this point, let me know in the comments section, and I'll write a post for you.
2. “Can you back that up?”
The next time you're talking with students about what they just read, try out one of these moves:
- “How do you know that?”
- “Can you back that up?”
- “Where do you find that in the text?”
- “What's your evidence for that claim?”
These are quick and easy questions that you can try out today when leading an in-class discussion, and they all require students to read, reread, and support their thoughts with textual evidence. By simply asking a question, you'll be helping students with anchor standards that deal with using supporting evidence from a text (R.CCR.1) in either written (W.CCR.1) or spoken (SL.CCR.4) arguments.
These questions spur students to read and reread the complex texts that we're reading in class. Believe it or not, I've seen these questions add life to our in-class discussions rather than drain it. Also, I want my students to get in the habit of backing up their ideas, arguments, and analyses with evidence because this is going to make their thoughts more credible wherever they go after they're through with me. Simple questions like these help them get in that habit.
3. Ensure Participation
Before this school year started, I assumed that arguing was for vocal students but not shy ones. However, by requiring that all of my students take part in at least one whole-class debate per unit, I've been awed at the amount of kids who appreciate our in-class arguments, and I've become convinced that I do a disservice to my shy students when I don't call on them daily and, at least once a unit, give them a chance to contribute some form of planned speaking.
Since the CCSS has an entire strand of speaking and listening standards, getting your shy kids talking is a quick way to start implementing them today.
The easiest two ways that I've found to get all of my kids participating every day are through index cards and think-pair-shares. There's nothing sexy to either of these techniques except for how simple and effective they are.
- Index cards: At the beginning of a course, I give my students index cards and have them write something about themselves on one side and their name on the other. This gives me a tool for learning their names at the beginning of the year, but even more importantly, it gives me a deck of cards to use daily when I need to call on students during discussion or in response to a thinking exercise. On the one hand, knowing that anyone's name could come next in the deck keeps my students at a healthy level of alertness. On the other hand, knowing that I want to avoid needlessly embarrassing students, the note cards make me a bit more thoughtful about the questions that I ask. Additionally, using the index cards has allowed me to focus on asking good questions instead of keeping a mental tally of who I've called on today.
- Think-pair-share: Like I said, this idea is old-fashioned and lacks sexiness, but it's a priceless way to check for understanding throughout a lesson — I walk around and eavesdrop while students are discussing a question I pose for them. In case you're new to it: think = students independently consider the question, either through writing or in their heads; pair = students talk about the questions in pairs; share = students share their answers with the class. In the latter two modes, students are being asked to build on others' ideas and express their own clearly (SL.CCR.1).
When these two simple techniques are used, a student will, at the very least, practice speaking and listening skills on a daily basis in my classroom, shy or not.
CCSS Anchor Standards Mentioned in this Post:
- SL.CCR.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
- Arguing is the soul of a lot of great conversations that happen, from the workplace water cooler to the college classroom. Additionally, a college and career ready person should know how to be a member of conversation rather than a deaf/dominating lecturer.
- R.CCR.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
- When we ask students to back up their statements about a text, we help them get in the habit of citing specific textual evidence for their claims.
- W.CCR.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
- The more you ask students to argue in class — both in pairs, groups, and whole class situations — the more you'll be able to point to exemplars of argumentation.
- SL.CCR.4: Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
- This anchor standard is a great example of how, even though there are drastically fewer standards in the CCSS, there are some pretty verbose standards within the document. Within this anchor, I see no less than 11 things that could be taught explicitly. However, I think that by designing various ways in which students argue, discuss, and present ideas, a lot of these “subskills” take care of themselves. When you ask students things like “Can you back that up?” you are requiring them to use supporting evidence in a spoken argument.
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