About a year and a half ago, I came up with the non-freaked out approach to Common Core literacy while driving home from a conference for edu-policy types in my state capital of Lansing. I was frustrated by the acrimony that seemed to suffuse the day's sessions — there were politicians bickering with superintendents bickering with teachers bickering with unions bickering with community members, on everything from early childhood educational access to online schooling.
Don't get me wrong — there are a lot of problems in education today, and I want them solved just as much as the next person who loves children and their long-term flourishing. The thing is, nothing was getting solved at this thing.
So I was driving home and thinking about all this, and that's when it hit me that the one thing I needed to do with my little blog is promote the idea that we don't need to freak out about the Common Core, and that, in fact, we're wasting a lot of energy doing so. On the contrary, I saw that we needed to become students of the standards, learning what they actually say and then doing the critical work of reducing them. In short, we needed to own the standards and figure out which were most important, thus enabling us and our students to become experts at a few critical things rather than mediocre at every last sub-skill.
When I got to a computer, I took a crack at it — I drafted what I, after reading through, implementing, and researching the standards, considered the most important things to focus on. I wrote a post on this “non-freaked out approach,” and then wrote posts on each of the six elements I thought were most crucial:
- Vastly increase the amount of grade-level complex texts that students are reading
- Teach the whole class how to closely read grade-level complex texts
- Go big on argument
- Ensure that every student speaks every day
- Write like crazy
- Teach grit and self-control
(Later on in this article, I start referring to the above list as NFO Approach 1.0.)
It's time for 2.0
My students and I have implemented and experimented and loved the heck out of those six, high-bang-for-your-buck elements of what I feel is not just an effective model for implementing the Common Core literacy standards, but simply for building literate, life-dominating students in general. These are the kinds of practices I hope my own children are immersed in during their schooling; these are things every teacher (even average ones like myself) can master instructionally; I believe in these, big time.
But here's the thing: they need honing.
So, without further ado, let me show you what I've been tinkering with for the past few months and what I've started talking to teachers about when I speak about non-freaked out literacy.
Let me explain the thinking this image represents.
Not all elements of the non-freaked out approach are equal
There are two elements, in particular — go big on argument and grow non-cognitive skills — that have an all-encompassing nature in my classroom, both instructionally and culturally.
Argument, as Jerry Graff and Cathy Birkenstein-Graff explain masterfully in “An Immodest Proposal for Connecting High School and College,” is the name of the game in academia. Therefore, the first step to helping more students understand and grow comfortable in academic settings is creating secondary classrooms in which argument is a mega-theme throughout the course. For this reason, the image above depicts argument as a large, cupping thing — it is one side of what cups in the reading, research, speaking/listening, and writing work we want students to engage in.
In the first iteration of the non-freaked out approach, I advocated for simply teaching students grit and self-control. I don't regret that — of all of the non-cognitive skills being studied today, grit and self-control continue to be the most predictive of positive life outcomes — but I think I was boiling things down too far. As I've written elsewhere, the KIPP list of character strengths that I've adopted in my classroom contains a more well-rounded list, and as I haven't written elsewhere, things like Carol Dweck's growth mindset and David Conley's “key learning skills and techniques” deserve a seat at the table in any classroom seeking to help kids grow not just cognitive, tested abilities, but non-cognitive abilities as well.
So when I talk about and write about the non-freaked out approach in the future, I hope the visual “cupping hand thingies” of both argument and non-cognitive skills will help readers and listeners internalize the fact that these two things hold the other elements together, giving them much of their purpose and power.
The point of the non-freaked out approach is one thing: long-term student flourishing
Before I get into my thinking around the four elements in the middle of the non-freaked out (NFO) approach, it's worth emphasizing that the single, driving goal of everything I do as a teacher is to promote the long-term flourishing of my students. With every single one of the instructional minutes I'm given, I pray the strategies, assignments, and lessons I use do that one thing. That's it. That is my whole teaching philosophy.
This is one of the big reasons I initially appreciated the Common Core — before the document even begins discussing standards, it explains that the Common Core have one goal in mind: college and career readiness. For that reason, I'm sad to see so many people freaking out about what the Common Core authors say or how corporate interests are behind the standards or why the Common Core is actually an overt attempt by the federal government to wrest schooling away from state and local control.
All these things could or could not be true, but here's the thing: they do not matter a damn to the kids who will walk into my class this September. These kids come to me expecting one thing: to be prepared for life when they walk across the graduation stage.
So let's just be totally clear on that — I'm all about long-term student flourishing. That's my job. That's the job of schools. I'm not saying we can guarantee all kids will flourish in the long-term, but I am saying it's our job to do what we can to help them toward that end.
Close reading had to go
One of the seemingly largest but in actuality smallest changes in my latest thinking around NFO Approach 2.0 is that close reading doesn't get its own category. For one thing, close reading died (didn't you read the obituary?); for another, reading a text closely is just something we do in our attempts to grapple with what a complex text is saying and why that matters. From now on, when I speak or write about “close reading,” it will be as a part of helping kids deal with text complexity.
Also, it was important to get the word “purposefully” in an approach to complex texts. It should probably go without saying, but when it comes to assigning texts and teaching kids how to read them, we need to always be answering and re-answering questions like:
- Why this text?
- Why is it the right challenge for these kids?
- What authentic literacy practices will kids do with this text?
In short, we've got to be purposeful — we can't just chuck texts at kids.
Research needed a seat at the table
During this past school year, I worked with Jossey-Bass Wiley to flesh out the Non-Freaked Out Overview of the Common Core Anchor Standards ebook that I used to sell for $1+ on Teaching the Core. That resulted is my first big-kid book, which is set to release sometime around the beginning of this coming school year.
But even more importantly for you, dear reader, is that other things resulted, such as a nervous awareness that leaving research out of NFO Approach 1.0 wasn't good.
Consider the thick thread of anchors that deal with research-related skills:
- R.CCR.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
- R.CCR.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
- R.CCR.9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.
- W.CCR.7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
- W.CCR.8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
- W.CCR.9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
- 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.
- SL.CCR.5: Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
My friends, that is what we call “a lot of standards.”
Thus, you see in the graphic above my tentative language for the one brand-new element of NFO 2.0: info-savvy, not tech-savvy. Somehow I want to get better at teaching kids that being tech-savvy is pointless if you can't sophisticatedly navigate the insane amount of information on the Internet and then do something with that information.
Check out this link for a bit more thinking (not mine) on info-savviness — and here's an abstract of a study comparing tech-savviness with info-savviness.
What do you think?
In my head I had thought I'd share this with you all at the end of the summer when I had it all thought out and finalized. Thankfully, I realized that would be out of keeping with how we roll here at Teaching the Core. So there you go — this post has given you access to the frightening space known as my brain. What questions or comments do you have? What would you like me to keep in mind as I continue to develop my thinking this summer?