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The Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core

By Dave Stuart Jr.

CCSS Implementation Tip: When folks start to freak out about the CCSS, go to the Grand Canyon. (That's me on the left.)

When I set out in June 2012 to blog through the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I was, as long-time readers know, a diehard standards avoider. To me, standards were nothing more than codified wish lists created by committees. They were useful for getting good grades on School of Ed lesson plans, and that was the extent of their value.

But as I worked my way through each standard during Summer 2012, I began to sense that, even though there are only 32 “anchor” standards in the entire CCSS Literacy document, there are actually way fewer that need to be taught in an in-depth fashion. In other words, even though the CCSS were vastly more focused on long-term student flourishing than their “wish list” predecessors (and thus, in my mind, they were vastly improved), I thought it might be possible to boil them down quite a bit further.

So I started to explore these questions:

  • What if there was a way to teach the Common Core effectively without 100% throwing out any non-CCSS curricula?
  • What if there were key, super-croosch standards that, when taught well and extensively, would not just increase engagement in my classroom, but would actually increase long-term student flourishing? (And let's face it: engaging our students doesn't automatically translate into promoting their long-term flourishing.)

A refusal to freak

As many readers have shared elsewhere on the blog, Common Core implementation throughout the US has been largely accomplished with scarce amounts of grace and heaping portions of fear, stress, and ignorance. Too few teachers are given paid PD time to simply read and process the CCSS as professionals, and even less are being trusted to determine with their colleagues what from the Standards is worth their focus.

And yet, despite this generally dismal picture, there are pockets of teachers in every school who refuse to freak out about the Common Core.

I love these people. Freaking out doesn't get us where we want to go.

However, among these calm folks, there are some who merely advocate ignoring the standards. Their approach is: don't teach the CCSS at all.

To me, this is just another brand of unhelpful extremism.

I think we can do better.

Investing in bang-for-your-buck standards

At the core of the core of the core of my teaching stands this one belief: schools exist to promote long-term student flourishing. Thus, it seems wasteful to wholly ignore a standards document that alleges to focus on college- and career-readiness. I'm all for giving students a love for subjects and an appreciation for aesthetic experiences, but I am not down for doing so at the expense of adequate preparation for post-secondary life.

In other words, I'm not content to see some of my students reading 600 pages of self-selected reading per week while being unable to grapple with difficult (even, dare I say it, boring) tasks. If I unreservedly praise such “lifelong readers,” I kill them softly, effectively saying, “Hey, all it takes to flourish in life is to love reading.”

Thus, when creating the list below, I simply asked this question: what Common Core standards are most likely to prepare science, social studies, and ELA students to flourish when faced with the demands of life after 12th grade?

1. Vastly increase the amount of grade-level complex texts that students are reading

Every kid should have the opportunity to struggle with texts that are appropriately complex for his/her age level. Often, these texts should be chosen for the student, not the other way around. (This is basically R.CCR.10.)

Put down your weapons! I am NOT against choice reading, book love, or having students read at their “just right” levels. These are good things that make up an integral part of my curriculum. In fact, if it weren't for the book love that develops in many of my students during the more choice-heavy portion of my curriculum, I would likely have less of them who were willing to grapple with the grade-appropriate complex texts that I teach them to read.

For example, I teach 9th grade, and yet some of my students can only read at elementary levels. While I require them to read choice books that they find enjoyable, I also require them to experience the same opportunity I give my on-level and advanced readers: the chance to read the level of texts that 9th graders across the nation are reading. Even though we are from a small, working-class town, my students are motivated by having much expected of them (much of this is due to my intensive focus on character strengths; see below).

(See Part 2 for more on providing opportunities for reading complex texts and how to get students reading them, even when they can't pick 'em.)

2. Teach the whole class how to closely read grade-level complex texts


CCSS Implementation Tip: Don't drink coffee while ignoring struggling readers. Instead, drink coffee while HELPING struggling readers.

Obviously, it would be pretty jacked up if I were to give Johnny “I-read-at-a-fifth-grade-level” Johnson a copy of Things Fall Apart or an article from The Week and tell him, “Yo, read this,” only to then go to my desk, put up my feet, and sip my coffee.

It's pointless to give students grade-level complex texts if we don't empower students with simple, effective instructional practices like modeling, vocabulary instruction, annotating, and checks for understanding (Mike Schmoker's Focus is baller at explaining this). That's why, to me, R.CCR.1 is the perfect complement to R.CCR.10.

I'm not saying that these instructional practices are going to magically make it so Johnny J. can read Things Fall Apart with 100% comprehension and enjoyment. I am saying they are going to give him a shot to struggle and grow as best he can with a text that's within reach of someone who's on track for college- and career-readiness.

(See Part 3 for more on close reading and simple, authentic literacy instruction.)

3. Go big on argument

One of the reasons reluctant readers tend to read complex texts in my classroom is because we'll be doing plenty of arguing during and after the reading, and, as my students can tell you, arguers with evidence tend to pwn the heck out of those without.

Far too few educators and administrators know the power of argument for developing an enjoyable life of the mind. For the last two years, I've sought to internalize and roll out the vision of Jerry Graff's Clueless in Academe and They Say / I Say, and my (often flawed) efforts have managed to produce students who tend to freaking love arguing, debating, and discussing ideas and texts.

One key reason that so many undervalue argument is because they associate it with anger and discord. But argument proper is something that can actually bring us together and, as one author puts it, helps us collaboratively “get to the bottom of things.”

Argument, both written and spoken, is having a radical impact on many of my students' lives. It is, in the words of my colleague Erica Beaton, setting their minds on fire.

(See Part 4 for more on argumentation; you may also like “A First Day of School Activity that Teaches Argumentation,” “Video: One Way to Rock Out CCSS-Friendly, In-class Debates,” “Why I Embrace Argument in My Classroom,” or simply “W.CCR.1 Explained.”)

4. Ensure that every student speaks, every day.

Before you feel like I’m pointing my finger at you and saying, “You’re a bad teacher because you don’t do this!” let me confess that I only began requiring every student to speak in 2011, meaning that for the first five years of my career, I went against what I’m about to say.

The soul of the Speaking and Listening standards will be satisfied by simply requiring every student to speak, in a professional manner, every day. Many days, this is done through having students respond to questions throughout the day’s lesson using think-pair-share. To ensure all students regularly get a chance to speak to the whole class, I often use index cards with student names on them to randomly call upon students after they’ve had a chance to practice in pairs; this allows me to formatively assess how we’re doing as speakers. About once every two weeks, my students participate in a whole-class debate or argumentative discussion — thus allowing us to work on both argumentative and speaking skills. These less frequent, more formalized speaking tasks are summative speaking assessments; in them, I tell students what content I am looking for, and I also tell them what I’m looking for in terms of their delivery (I use Erik Palmer’s PVLEGS to assess delivery [2011]; this acronym stands for Poise, Voice, Life, Eye Contact, Gestures, and Speed).

I share what I do in this area inPart 5: Every Kid Talks.

5. Write like crazy

When kids write a lot, they become not just better at writing, but better at reading as well (Graham & Hebert, 2010). Because of this, whether I’m teaching history or English, I require my students to write frequently. Their assignments fall into one of three categories of writing (Silver, Dewing, & Perini, 2012): provisional writing, which includes quickwrites and brainstorming; readable writing, like the one-paragraph responses to an essential question that is common in my class; polished writing, like the multi-draft summative papers that come after most of our units in English and at least one unit per trimester in world history.

It’s critical, though, that I not just require students to write this much; I must also teach them how to do it. Often, I’ve found this can most effectively and simply be done through the use of model pieces of writing. For example, in world history, most of our units end with the same question: Which key concept from this unit was most significant for the time period we’ve been studying and for the present day? In other words, students must choose any of our sixteen to twenty key concepts from the unit (for example, “the Enlightenment” is a popular choice for our unit on the 1700s), and they must then argue, with specific evidence and clear reasoning, why their chosen concept was most significant then and now. In their papers, they must also address at least two opposing claims. This assignment would be frustrating for my freshmen students, or at least wouldn’t produce great writing from them, if I didn’t either create a model of this type of essay or pull an exemplar from past students. As my students are drafting their intros, we look at intros from a model; as they are dealing with a counterclaim, we look at how that’s been done in exemplar papers. Because the model papers are always on a different historical time period, students are free to borrow moves from the model paper without being tempted to steal ideas.

Here’s the thing: more than once at a conference, I’ve heard a speaker say that our students must write vastly more than we can possibly grade. I’m quick to buy into these kinds of comments because I enjoy having a life! As a rule, I only read provisional writing over students’ shoulders when I’m walking around the room checking on them; I read and respond to about a quarter of the readable writing that I ask students to do (they rarely know which quarter that will be); and I am strategic with the kind of feedback I give students on their polished writing pieces. Because I never hand back copiously corrected papers to students, they get their work back faster with 1-2 things to work on for next time. This allows us to write like crazy without having me go crazy.

See Part 6 for a discussion on writing more in ELA, social studies, and science classes.

6. Teach grit and self-control


Paul Tough's book is seriously a page turner. You gotta read it. The section on chess teams alone is worth the price.

I will be surprised if non-cognitive skills (my students and I refer to them as character strengths) do not gain a large share of the ed reform conversation in the decade to come. A big reason that most of my students are willing to tread the demanding paths of complex texts, close reading, arguing, mandatory speaking, and writing is because they are growing in their skills of grit and self-control.

My colleagues and I explicitly teach, model, recognize, and speak as much as we can about these two high-powered, non-cognitive skills. Grit is Angela Duckworth's word for resilience, stick-to-it-ness, and persistence. Self-control contains the skills of being prepared, resisting procrastination, paying attention, following directions, and controlling one's temper.

The reason I add these to a short list of high bang-for-your-buck standards is simple: they hugely correlate to human flourishing, and, without them, the Common Core is infinitely harder and more pointless.

Because here's the thing: Suzy “I'm a freaking genius” Smith might be rocking a 36 on her ACTs as a freshmen, but if she has a low tolerance for hardship or can't find a way to manage her time, she's got a great chance of quitting at life's important obstacles.

(See Part 7 for more on how I implement character strengths; also, check out Paul Tough's awesome book How Children Succeed.)

That's it, for realsies

I'm fully aware that I've cut out wide swaths of the CCSS. As I'll explain throughout this series of posts, much of the CCSS does fit into the above six standards, and I'll argue that those that don't just aren't worth focusing on until we get really freaking good at empowering students with what I've laid out in these posts. And as a nice added benefit, by focusing on the standards above, we're able to maintain room for much of the good stuff we've been doing all along.

Naturally, I welcome comrades, naysayers, well-wishers, and answer-seekers to the comments section below. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

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25 Responses to The Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core

  1. franmcveigh March 15, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    We can do better! And you have outlined a ver “doable” plan for folks to get moving with the core! It is time!

  2. davestuartjr March 15, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Thank you, Fran! You are a great encouragement to many, I am sure, with your level-headed approach to the Common Core. Cheers!

  3. gstevens1021 March 16, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    Glad I saw this on twitter this morning. I completely agree with your approach. We have been focusing on the “bang for your buck” standards this year with our 7th graders and we have seen them grow in so many ways. Teaching this year has been so much more enjoyable and the students are so much more engaged as we have gone deeply into themes using a variey of genres, and really spent TIME allowing them to develop an interest in our topics. Engagement has never been higher!

    • davestuartjr March 17, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

      Gail, thank you for sharing your great experiences with a focused approach. When teachers like you are empowered to pick the most important standards, everyone flourishes.

  4. Rebecca Reed March 16, 2013 at 9:32 am #

    Before freaking out and buying the first glossy, standards aligned curriculum to come down the pike, check out The Stanford History Education Group’s curriculum and assessment programs at http://www.sheg.stanford.edu

    • davestuartjr March 17, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Thanks for sharing the resource, Rebecca 🙂

  5. Kathy March 16, 2013 at 11:29 am #

    Can I add to this, write, write and write some more. Purposeful writing in primary grades like grocery lists, restaurant orders and menus, wish lists, etc. The more kiddos see the connection between reading, writing, speaking the better off they will be.

    • davestuartjr March 17, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      So true, Kathy – I think I need to extend the list!

      • Kathy Nolan March 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

        Oh my gosh, please do. So need to be creative here with writing genres to get at the depth needed with the core.

  6. Dani March 19, 2013 at 1:37 pm #


    I grew up in Maryland. Now I’m living in Arizona and teaching high school English. What Baltimore schools did you teach at?

    • davestuartjr March 19, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      Hi Dani,
      I taught in Woodlawn Middle School (here’s their website). I am jealous of you in Arizona right now — another snowy day here in MI. I am ready for spring 🙂

  7. Heather April 7, 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    following your blog- im in Baltimore co !

    • davestuartjr April 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

      Heather, that is cool! I taught at Woodlawn Middle School. Where are you at? I have warm memories of my time in B-Co.

  8. Karla Evers April 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

    As you developed your CCS curriculum, did you use the PARCC content framework models? We did and find we can’t get through it all. You suggest the type of teaching we’d love to do more of – especially time to debate as a step towards argument writing. How did you pick and choose which standards to focus on? I’d love to know your process.

    • davestuartjr May 1, 2013 at 5:09 pm #

      Hi Karla,

      I didn’t use SBAC (that’s what our state uses) or PARCC content framework models for developing curriculum–honestly, I didn’t know they existed. Yet I’m not surprised that PARCC likely test far more than is achievable in a year. Whether teaching in Baltimore or Michigan, urban or rural, under NCLB or CCSS, I think it’s true that when we focus on simple, high impact literacy (reading, discussing/debating, and writing), our kids are going to end up scoring higher on the tests than those who follow the approach recommended by the test-makers.

      I was pretty heavily shaped by Mike Schmoker, Rafe Esquith, and the power of debate that I’ve seen in my classroom since introducing it almost 2 years ago. I was also influenced by blogging through each anchor standard last summer.

      Based on all those things and another half year to distill my thinking, I came up with the non-freaked out approach that I’ve been outlining lately, starting with this post here. I believe that spending more time on these few things and less or NO time on some of the smaller ones (e.g., I haven’t explicitly taught R.CCR.3 this year, but my kids have nailed it through countless discussions, debates, and writings) will result in overall success, both on the tests and in students’ lives long-term.

  9. Linda Janney May 19, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Thank you for this series. I work with struggling HS readers. I have been attempting to teach close reading for 6 years! However it has been a challenge. I use Kelly Gallagher’s articles of the week and any I feel relevant to high school students. I have noticed a disconnect between surface reading and deeper reading. Many of my students don’t seem to get the point the author is making. I am constantly tweaking my instruction and always looking for my students’ aha moments. “Hey, this is really helping me,” I would love the insight of colleagues.

    • davestuartjr May 20, 2013 at 6:25 am #

      Hi Linda,

      I commend you for working on this for so long and with such a reflective stance. In our school, we struggle with the same disconnect — the best methods we’ve found for fixing it are modeling, using checks for understanding, and re-modeling. Few things are 100% effective in education, but we have found that these processes get the vast majority of our students moving forward in their close reading ability.

      Excited to learn with and from you in the future, Linda!

    • K. Dunlap (@DDLYSQT) July 10, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Recently attended a workshop with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst based on their book Notice and Note – invaluable resource for teaching kids “close” reading.

  10. spido512 May 21, 2013 at 5:19 pm #

    Can you comment on the psychological and philosophical content of the ELA portion of CCSS? We’re not “up” yet in CA, so everything I’ve heard are 2nd hand interpretations.

  11. davestuartjr May 21, 2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Hi Spido,
    Can you elaborate on your question? I’m intrigued by it, but I’m not sure what you mean by “psychological and philosophical content.”

    Just out of curiosity, what is the general mood amongst teachers in CA?

  12. K. Dunlap (@DDLYSQT) July 10, 2013 at 11:02 am #

    Just discovered your blog and really enjoy it. As a curriculum supervisor, 90% of my job is helping districts and teacher implement the CCSS without “freaking out.” You just made my job easier – thanks!

    • davestuartjr July 11, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      K, I’m glad you like it! If you ever have some PD funds that you’re looking to spend, I’d love to come out and talk to your folks about any of the topics mentioned on this page, or, as some schools request, I can give an overview of the entire non-freaked out approach.

  13. Mary July 30, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    I appreciate your blog. I am looking for a web-site that explains each of the standards, and how and when to teach them. Any suggestions? You

  14. Dave Airozo August 10, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    Thanks for this discussion and all of the links. It seems like the current “debate” over CC is mostly a back-and-forth over CC testing, not the CC themselves. I look forward to your discussion on writing, because, in my experience, writing has really become the red-headed stepchild of teaching.

    • davestuartjr August 12, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Dave, thanks for the encouragement, brother — I am aiming to get that writing post posted prior to the start of school (here in MI, that’s the day after Labor Day). Take care, and may we continue to fight for the red-headed step-child of teaching!

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