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How to NOT Freak Out about the Common Core

By Dave Stuart Jr.

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.

Not freaking out about the Common Core is kind of like carrying a pig

Not freaking out about the Common Core is kind of like carrying a pig.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Um, that's it.
  4. 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.



6 Responses to How to NOT Freak Out about the Common Core

  1. fran January 30, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Great choice! You all picked two standards that very definitely complement each other. All that evidence, claims, and “close reading” stuff does go together very nicely.

    Lucy Calkins, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, helped me focus on the writing standards by reminding me that the first three are the text types and then 4-10 really are the “what to do” as a part of each of W.1, W.2, and W3.

    Similarly in reading, when you think about “close reading for WHAT?” you can look to the other standards for additional details that will help you focus.

    Not waiting for a perfect lesson, Wonderful! Not waiting for someone to do it for you, Fantastic! Ready, set, go!

    I think you would probably agree with my post today, Common Core: A Promise? A Failure at http://franmcveigh.wordpress.com/ (I really wish that I had thought of adding a process with steps!)

    A pleasure to read your post, as always!

  2. davestuartjr January 30, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Fran, I loved your post, and you are right — I totally agree with it. I was especially rocked by the statistics you share for the 85% of jobs in which employers want upper-level literacy skills. Wow, super motivating for me! Thanks also for sharing a new way (for me) of thinking about the relationships among the writing and reading standards. They really do fit together that way.

  3. franmcveigh January 30, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

    Dave, Do check out Lucy Calkin’s book at Heinemann where you get the Intro and the first two chapters free. That whole notion of looking for the gold is right up your alley! 🙂

  4. Mariella January 31, 2013 at 11:04 am #


    I totally agree that the best way to not freak out about the Common Core is to focus on a few standards, rather than to attempt to master them all. I also really liked the analogy of carrying a pig! 🙂

    We at TeacherStep (http://www.teacherstep.com) share your mission of helping teachers incorporate the standards into the classroom in a purposeful way. To do this, we have developed online classes that teach how to apply the English and Math standards in a simple and effective way. Each class awards 3 graduate credits from Converse College.

    I would like to invite you to learn more about our classes by clicking on the links below:
    – Common Core Math Education – http://www.teacherstep.com/common-core-math/
    – Common Core ELA Education – http://www.teacherstep.com/common-core-language/

    Hope you have a great day!

    Director, TeacherStep

  5. Matt Jacobson March 29, 2013 at 4:25 pm #


    I’ve used this post to guide our District’s non-ELA & non-Math teachers through their initial implementation of Reading & Writing Anchor Standards. (Please see http://tech205.weebly.com/institute.html, along with lots of citations, links, and what-not to give credit where credit is truly due.) This was a great idea, and it was a nice way to get the ball rolling and prepare our teachers for the next stages of Common Core implementation. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Matt Jacobson
    District #205 Technology & Professional Development Coordinator
    Galesburg, IL

    • davestuartjr March 30, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

      Matt, that is an absolutely huge — I so appreciate you giving credit to my 5% contribution to your work, your presentation, and what your district is doing. If I can ever be of further service, let me know. Thanks so much again, Matt, for connecting on this–it’s so encouraging.

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