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Waging War on the Bad Guys

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of traveling to two beautiful towns — Harrah, Oklahoma and Lebanon, Missouri — and speaking to two beautiful groups of teachers about the non-freaked out approach to the Common Core that we in the Teaching the Core movement have been working on over the past year.

On my way home, I read through over 300 feedback forms. As I was doing so, I saw plenty that I need to work on as a presenter and facilitator — which is awesome. I put the feedback forms aside and kept driving, processing what I had read. (I know, I know — reading feedback forms is not an ideal thing to multitask while driving. I was excited, okay?)

But then a dude on a podcast I was listening to started saying something like, “Serving the people around us is about figuring out who the bad guys are and taking them on. In your niche, who are the bad guys? Who are the dragons?” He went on to say that, if we are to serve the people in our niches, we need simply to create swords for killing those dragons; we need to wage war on those bad guys.

At this point, my mind exploded.

Defining the bad guys

Part of the NFO Approach sessions I led involved participants close reading two complex texts and then creating text-based arguments to both affirm and negate a debatable statement drawn from one of the texts. One of the complex texts was by a dude named Michael McShane, and in the text he basically argues that, while the Common Core State Standards may not be inherently bad, their positive or negative impact will be determined in how well they are implemented.

And implementation, McShane argues, faces some gargantuan obstacles.

So that was swirling around in my brain, along with this whole question of bad guys and swords, along with these PD feedback forms.

And before I share who the bad guys are in my opinion, let me just state that I love focusing on problems I can tackle, and I despise focusing on problems I can't touch.

That's why I love focusing on problems in my classroom because I am the single greatest influencer on what happens in my classroom. At the same time, I hate focusing on problems like “the public has a low opinion of teachers.” It's one of those problems where, the more you whine about it the worse it's actually going to get.

So who are the bad guys in education right now, the ones we can actually take on — particularly pertaining to the Common Core?

Bad Guy #1: An abundance of mediocre (or worse) “Common Core aligned” resources

I don't blame teachers for looking for lesson plans online. I've done it. And sometimes you find gold.

The problem is, you often don't find gold. Fool's gold is more common.

Or radioactive, brain-melting sludge.

Fool's gold in today's mountain of edu-resources is simple: anything with “Common Core aligned” slapped onto it that isn't actually Common Core aligned.

As McShane points out, anyone can put a Common Core sticker on a textbook or a Teachers Pay Teachers lesson. The resulting over-abundance of non-Common-Core-aligned “Common Core aligned” stuff is a veritable nightmare. Well-meaning teachers (and their students) get pwned by the subterfuge — heck, even well-meaning administrators get pwned. Entire districts can think they're aligning to the CCSS when, in fact, they are only aligning to someone's goals of lining their pockets with Common Core booty.

The solution, in my book, is simple: rather than seeking to buy our way out of CCSS implementation through “Common Core aligned” lesson plans, let's pick the biggest-bang-for-your-buck standards, learn and internalize them, and make resources that work in our specific settings. You know what I'm talking about:

  1. Go big on argument
  2. Read complex texts purposefully and often
  3. Write purposefully and often
  4. Speak purposefully and often
  5. Teach grit and self-control (not in the Common Core, but critical for college and career readiness)

Boom. The non-freaked out approach.

It's simple. It's proven. It empowers teachers with a working knowledge of the Core. It creates a common language and vision across content areas. It's something we teachers can own and adapt to our unique settings.

But how do we get there, to where teachers own the gist of the CCSS and work together to get better and better at nailing the biggies? This brings us to Dragon #2.

Bad Guy #2: Mediocre PD

I'm not pointing fingers in any direction; I'm simply putting my finger on the pulse of just about every teacher I've ever met: useful PD is way too rare.

And let's be honest: part of this is our fault as teachers. I swear that, for some of my friends, if Jesus himself walked in and led a professional development session, the second he was done they'd be like, “Well, that's easy for him to say — he's retired.”

Let's just admit that we are lucky our students tend to have more grace toward us than we tend to have toward those who lead our PD.

But even with that being said, let's also establish that, too often, PD decisions aren't made by empowered teachers.

Both sides — PD providers and PD recipients — need to up their game.

There needs to be less talking at the audience and more time for interaction and processing.

There needs to be less passive receiving of information and more active listening and practicing.

There needs to be more collaboration between teachers and administrators about what PD we need and how we can reasonably get it.

I'm not saying any of this is easy; I'm just saying it's something we have the power to influence. It's a dragon we can make swords for.

Let's get after it.

Who are your bad guys?

If you appreciated this post, would you do me two favors?

First, share it with someone who has the power to influence PD in your school. A department chair, an administrator, a central office person — send it along. Also, if you haven't seen it yet, I do offer PD — you can learn more about it here and here. I'd love to visit your school or area.

Second, leave a comment below telling me the bad guys you see in education — remember, I like to focus on things we can solve.

At the end of the day, I want Teaching the Core to be a place you can come to get good swords.

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15 Responses to Waging War on the Bad Guys

  1. Charmayne Polen August 12, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Agreed! I have been frustrated by the greedy businesses who saw dollar signs at the onset of CCSS. Suddenly my email and mailbox at school is inundated with catalogs for CCSS resources! I love your six easy steps in this blog post for incorporating the standards; it’s just good, effective basic teaching. Keep advocating your NFO approach for teachers:)

  2. davestuartjr August 12, 2013 at 7:59 pm #

    Charmayne, you and me are on the same page! It’s good to be in this fight with people like you 🙂 “Good, effective, basic teaching” is right!

  3. Deborah Owen August 12, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    Dave, I love your post (as I love your blog)! Let me guess; I think you were listening to Fizzle, right? If you also listen to Pat Flynn, you should consider joining our education mastermind (based on his recent BreakthroughBlogging course). We’ve just started, and I would love to work with you!

    Regarding your post, I was also thinking this week about who the “bad guys” are (in response to the podcast). From the CCSS point of view, you think it’s all about the PD. I think you are probably right. And I like your emphasis on slaying dragons that we can actually reach (that was part of my own struggle as I thought about the bad guys).My bad guy is related to yours: I write about creating the best conditions for learning, so I think lack of time is an important bad guy to try to deal with. Teachers often don’t have the time to really learn about the latest research concerning how we learn best, nor do we have time to meet together regularly and share best practices. And too many teaches don’t realize the incredibly positive effects, on both students and staff, of classroom teachers collaborating with their school librarian. I think for me, it mostly boils down to lack of time to do things that work.

    • davestuartjr August 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

      Woah woah woah Deb, this is an insane answer to prayer! Yes, I love the Fizzle show — those guys get me laughing so hard, and at the same time they are so right. Pat’s blog / podcast is awesome too — that guy has a heart of gold. And I’ve seriously been wanting a mastermind group to grow with. I’m heading over to BthruB after this to find you guys!

      And your bad guy is absolutely correct — time is one of the most frequently cited reasons for teachers not being able to engage in quality, authentic, self-directed PD.

      I look forward to getting to know you, Deb — super cool to have made this connection!

  4. Bon Crowder @MathFour August 13, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Okay, now I’m freaked out. Not by CCSS (I kinda like it). But because my business partner (also my little brother) and I have been developing parent interactions that we have aligned with CCSS. (at http://www.ThatsMath.com)

    But I’m wondering now what that means? How do you define aligned? And have we totally messed it up? Is our product (which is free to access and use) one of the bad guys?

    We’re currently looking for teachers and schools to try it to give us feedback. And now one of the questions I’m going to ask them is “Do you feel this is truly aligned with CCSS?”

    Thank you so much for not only calming the teachers but also warning the products!

    • davestuartjr August 13, 2013 at 8:02 am #

      Haha, oh no, Bon! Didn’t mean to freak ya 🙂 I love ThatsMath — super cool and fun solution to the problem of kids not getting enough mathiness in their daily lives.

      Aligned just means that, if you use this product, you are hitting a certain segment (or all) of the Common Core. In terms of ThatsMath, I have no idea if it’s aligned because CCSS Math isn’t my forte. The only way to truly know is to read through CCSS Math and ensure that everything your posting matches something in the actual CCSS. That’s alignment.

      In my experience, most teachers and schools are pretty overwhelmed by the CCSS, and so some might not know how to answer your question. However, there are a lot of hard-working, studious teachers out there who have read through the document and can give you that kind of feedback.

      Here’s the thing, Bon — you’re real. You and your business partner are real people trying to provide a real solution to a real problem that educators and students face. If your product has flaws, I know you’ll fix them; if it’s not aligned, I know you’ll either make it aligned or you’ll take the “aligned to CCSS” off the site.

      So in my book (for whatever that’s worth!), you are certainly one of the good guys. Keep it up 🙂

      • Bon Crowder (@mathfour) August 13, 2013 at 11:27 am #

        Thanks so much, Dave. That means a lot!

        Indeed, we actually built this by taking a standard and thinking about where we can see it in action in the world. Then we write to that. So we aren’t creating content and making sure it’s aligned – we’re picking standards and writing content.

        So we’re uber-aligned! #woohoo

        In fact, I’m skyping with LB now to decided how to pick the next set of standards. We’ve almost covered every single one of the in K-5 and are wondering how to decide which we should duplicate first, which ones need more focus (because they’re more complex), etc.

        I told him about this post and how perhaps we need to ask instead of assume – “What standards do you want more of?”

        So we’re going to push forward creating more content with the “pick a random standard and write” method and wait until we get feedback from users.

        Thanks again!

        P.S. I have you in my Feedly reader now. You just might see much more of me. 🙂

        • davestuartjr August 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

          I love it, Bon — all the best to you on your continued efforts to truly support implementation with a quality resource, and I look forward to future encounters! Cheers 🙂

  5. Hillary August 13, 2013 at 5:05 pm #

    Loving your clear, approachable break down of what the CC “really means,” Dave. Especially as an English teacher, it’s been very important for me to remember that I’ve already been implementing much of the CC since I started teaching seven years ago—because much of the standards are just good teaching practice! I also appreciate your push to teach “grit and self-control.” My colleagues and I pride ourselves on teaching not just literature, grammar, and writing, but also pushing our kids to persevere and muscle through the tough stuff. It’s not always easy, but it certainly pays off in the end.

    • davestuartjr August 14, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Hillary, thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you’re thinking what you’re thinking. At the heart of the CC is just focusing in on goals that matter for our students. Can we get hung up and some of the more mindless CC standards and lose precious time and focus on high-bang-for-your-buck practices like close reading and argumentation? Sure. But if we just remember that this isn’t “changing the rules halfway through the game,” we’ll be all right.

      I love your colleagues’ tough love. Grit and self-control are critical. Some teachers might say, “It’s not my job to teach character,” but I would argue that whoever’s job it is, I sure enjoy my job more when I relentlessly remind kids of the value of grit and self-control.

      Thanks again, Hillary! Cheers!

  6. Dave Shearon August 14, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    Hmmm… Dave, your post sparks a few thoughts.

    First, what about an appreciative approach – “Who are we at our best? How would our future look if we were more of that? What can we do now to get there?” I suspect this will help work through collaboration and time issues in an organizationally appropriate manner.

    Second, I’m right with you on teacher collaboration – and I have been there since my days on the school board here in Nashville: http://shearonforschools.com/books_lesson_study.htm. Works for Common Core. Works for SMART Strengths. Works.

    And I agree about Professional Development – talking at people almost never changes behavior; it almost never truly increases engagement, purpose, collaboration and joy, and if those positive emotions don’t go up, new ways of thinking, behaving, and relating are unlikely (see Barb Fredrickson’s work). John and I are working now to develop our next training with a school in Charleston, SC, and we are pushing ourselves constantly to cover less in more depth. We are shooting for more time for participants to work together and develop concrete ways to take the skills forward in their lives and teaching. And every time we take out a skill, I grieve. I want them to have it all! Yet, getting even two days is tough, and that’s so short for learning, practicing with coaching, and planning together ways to implement and teach skills around strengths, optimism, growth mindsets, positive emotional balance, appreciative stance, and strong relationships.

    Such a challenge!

    • davestuartjr August 14, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

      Hi Dave!

      You were certainly an exemplar board member. I appreciate your motion to give teachers time and space to engage in quality collaboration. I’m not familiar with Fredrickson’s work, but I want to be: any entry-level pieces that you recommended? It just makes sense that where joy, engagement, purpose, and collaboration are present, there gains in student achievement will be present as well. I visited Lebanon High School recently and completely saw this principle in action.

      I know well that feeling of grieving — I think I’d learn a lot from sitting in on your planning sessions with John. You guys are pros who have been doing this–with results–for years. May SMART Strengths flourish, Dave, along with the trainings you’re leading. It’s good work. Thanks for sharing the struggle with us!

  7. Suzanne Snider September 1, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    Achieve has a really good rubric for evaluating quality materials and deciding what is truly aligned to the Common Core. They have some user friendly resources on http://www.achieve.org/EQuIP
    EQuIP stands for Educators Evaluating Quality Instructional Products.

    • davestuartjr September 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Suzanne, I do hope EQuIP grows and grows — they are fighting the right fight, separating the wheat from the chaff. Thanks for sharing this link!

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