Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Teaching the Common Core Standards Means Designing Real and Engaging Learning Experiences

If you are designing real and engaging learning experiences for your students, then you are probably already teaching the Common Core Standards.
Regardless of what you call it, good teaching is good teaching. The Common Core Standards are not new when you look at them carefully. They are refreshing. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t always feel that way. At first, I was overwhelmed at the sight of them, and hoped that they, like other “trends” in education, would go away before we were forced to implement them. That was three years ago. Things have changed since then. I have come to learn that implementing these standards means that I am living up to my obligation as a 21st century educator by providing my students opportunities to learn and think in the “real world,” not in preparation for “the real world.” Remember, as Dewey warns, “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” We cannot teach students everything they need to know. We can, though, inspire our students to question everything, to want to continue to learn and seek education. I am convinced that if you are growing, stretching, keeping students at the center of what you do, and staying relevant as an educator, that you are probably already teaching the CCSS.
What does transitioning to Common Core mean for the teacher? Student? Curriculum? These standards allow for flexibility where before there was prescription. They demand that teachers think, dig deep, and make connections. They also shift the focus to what students should know to what students should be able to do. I do not want teachers to embrace these standards because they are mandated, or handed down by “the man/woman,” but because they recognize the why behind them.
What is the why behind them? Why is it important for students to provide sound evidence in an argument? Why is it important to learn how to write and publish your work for a public audience? Why is it important to prepare for and participate in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing your own clearly and persuasively? Why is it important to connect dots across disciplines, teaching literacy across the board, allowing students to explore topics they find interesting? The answer to all of these questions is because that is good teaching — good teachers design real and engaging learning experiences.
I am against teaching these standards in isolation, and in a linear fashion.To say, today we are going to learn about such and such standard is silly, and unengaging. It is similar to taking the 16 Habits of Mind, and saying today, in isolation, we are going to learn about persistence or looking at the world with wonderment and awe. How could this be designed to be more real and engaging?
I recently read the article, “Why the Common Core Could Bring the End of One-Size-Fits-All Learning.” A couple of things come to mind. Here it states, “These standards can’t succeed unless we create a new generation of student assessments that really measure the skills and knowledge so critical to success today—something we desperately need to do.” I agree. I was recently discussing discussion boards with a colleague. I shared with him a thread of student responses and mine. He was stunned that students were researching, citing, and supporting their claims within a post. Wouldn’t that be more appropriate for an essay or a test? No, not necessarily. These discussion boards remind me of social media — blog posts, Facebook threads, etc. Assessments come in all types and sizes now — portfolios, presentations, Prezis, discussion board posts, Wikis, speeches, blog posts, etc. all fall under the “new generation of assessments” category. If you are still only sticking to one type of assessment, then I ask you why?
Another thing that struck me was, “…parents are generally clueless on how the Common Core broadens authentic teaching and learning. And those in the know—like teachers—are rightly worried that their districts are not ready for these new standards, and are desperate for more resources and training.” Are teachers desperate for more resources and training? Or are we desperate for what I refer to as professional growth opportunities, in my post titled “What is the Problem with Profession Development?, not prescribed, mandated, isolated development, but real, hands on, engaging growth. Teachers want someone to design real and meaningful learning opportunities for them too.
If you aren’t embracing these standards, why not? That is the bigger question, and perhaps, will lead us to the problem(s) behind the problem(s).
In my next post, I will share a few examples of essential questions, assignments, and projects that are real, engaging, and common core.
One last comment about the Common Core — we need to spend time focusing on why we should be designing using these standards, and how we should be designing. If we are all to become global citizens of the digital world who continue to learn and be educated, then these standards become irrelevant.
In Teacher With a Heart, Vito Perrone reflects on the teachings of Leonard Covello, who in 1958 published his autobiography, The Heart Is The Teacher,  about his forty-five year teaching career. Good teaching is good teaching, regardless of what we call it. In 1958, Covello wrote about asking students to, “describe those occasions in school when their learning was deeper than usual, when their personal intellectual engagement was particularly high, when they were conscious of achievement in a higher level of understanding than usual.” He found that many of these occurred outside of school, but of those that occurred in school, that meant something special, the following circumstances were important:
1. The students had a significant share of the responsibility for defining the content (selecting particular subject to research, the particular biography to read, the particular play to present).
2. There was time to wonder, work around the edges of the subject matter, find a particular direction, actually develop personal commitment.
3. Different forms of expression were permitted–even encouraged.
4. There was an original product, something public–an idea, a point of view, an interpretation, a proposal, a paper, a presentation, a performance. Students gained in the process some form of “expertness.”
5. They actually did something–participated in a political action, wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine, developed a newsletter, talked about their work with others.
6. They made personal connections to the content, were called on to place themselves in the setting, and so forth. It was for them a “living experience.” They were real scientists, not persons studying science.
7. The content was connected to previous interests–in this regard, it had an ongoing quality. Additionally, it was related to the interests of the class.
8. There was a sense that everything was not firm, predetermined, the results fully predictable.
9. Students served as evaluators of their own work.
(Perrone, 56-57).
What does this mean? To me, it means that fifty-five years later good teaching is still good teaching. If you are keeping students at the heart of what you are doing, my guess is that, regardless of what we call it, you are teaching the CCSS.

What is the Problem with Professional Development?

What is the problem with professional development? The biggest problem is the way we frame it with the language that we use, and the thoughtless interpretation and implementation that we apply. What if we shifted the concept from professional development to professional growth, from what is expected of us by others to a promise we make to ourselves?
Good professional development, or what I like to refer to as professional growth, is like good teaching, or what I refer to as educating the student. To me, it’s the same as good curriculum — planning without a plan, structured, yet flexible, applicable, relevant, and engaging. I have been inspired by a few examples in my 14 years of teaching. Most of the good examples occur when I seek them out myself. I learn more when I want to, when I am curious, when I have a mentor guiding and supporting me, and when the passion and questions posed inspire true change in my heart. Being educated and growing must be ongoing, and must aim to achieve excellence rather than mediocrity. Just like our students, we do not want our time wasted, and we do not want impersonal, standardized material.
I Googled ‘Professional Development,’ which is a term we use a lot in education. One definition states, “Professional Development is the continuous process of acquiring new knowledge and skills that relate to one’s profession, job responsibilities, or work environment. It plays a key role in maintaining trained, informed, and motivated employees, regardless of job classification.” Is this an example of educational language that confines or expands our understanding? Is this a good definition? Let’s look at what Dwayne Huebner and Grant Wiggins might add to our thinking.
In 1966, Dwayne Huebner explained that curricular language is filled with various dangerous myths. These are not dangerous because they are myths, but rather because they remain non-recognized and unchallenged. “The educator accepts as given the language which has been passed down to him by his historical colleagues.” What exactly does this mean? What Huebner is describing in his article “Curricular Language and Classroom Meaning,” is that this educational language that we use must be put to the test. We need to question and challenge its effectiveness and expose its flaws.
With the term professional development, it’s the schema associated with the term that I think Heubner would deem dangerous. He goes on to state, “Too often, today, promise is replaced by demand, responsibility by expectations, and conversation by telling, asking, and answering.” How does this relate to professional development? How much of your professional development is demanded by others rather than promised to yourself? How much is expected of you rather than you taking responsibility? Is professional development an ongoing conversation, or something you are told to do?
When we replace the words demand with promise, and expectations with responsibility, we grant ownership, and include obligation. Responsibilities impact the community even though it is individuals who own them. Expectations are shallow when demanded by others, rather than promised to ourselves. In order to grow professionally, we do not need to attend trainings at staff development centers because someone tells us to attend, yet that is what we do. The language demands that of us. We standardize it. We assume that there has to be a specific, definable goal associated with the professional development, rather than viewing it as growth, which allows it to have intrinsic value. Professional growth should inspire and create positive change in our life. Professional growth is our responsibility. We need to get to the point where we want to improve, learn, inspire, be inspired, and strive for excellence. Professional development, just like any other type of growth, should be an ongoing search for knowledge. It is the experience.
The National Staff Development Council states that professional development, “Means a comprehensive, sustained and intensive approach to improving teachers’ and principals’ effectiveness in raising student achievement.” Is this an example of professional development language that Huebner would call dangerous, standardized, and in need of being challenged?
I suspect that Grant Wiggins would define this type of language as stupidification. He warns against “stupidification” in his post “Avoiding Stupidification.”
Stupidification (n): 1. A deadly illness in which perfectly good ideas and processes are killed as a result of thoughtless interpretation and implementation. 2. The reducing of intricate issues and processes to simplistic, rigid, and mandated policies, in the impatient quest for quick fixes to complex problems.
How often does the language that we use and the actions we take related to professional development equate to stupified expectations rather than inspiring responsibilities?
What is the problem with professional development? We must find the language that allows us to see professional growth as ongoing. We do not magically become professionally developed. As professionals, we are obligated to develop the language that leads to understanding the complexities of curricular issues and processes. This will allow us to take perfectly good ideas and processes and thoughtfully interpret and implement them as needed.

Creating Curriculum with Meaning and Purpose

I have come to realize when it comes to curriculum, nothing is more important than the child, and the willingness to remain flexible with the planning process. This creative process is art, and contributes to what Seth Godin refers to as becoming indispensable in his twelfth book, Linchpin.There is not one right way to do this.
“Here’s the truth you have to wrestle with: the reason that art (writing, engaging, leading, all of it) is valuable is precisely why I can’t tell you how to do it. If there were a map, there’d be no art, because art is the act of navigating without a map. Don’t you hate that? I love that there’s no map.” Seth Godin
Be indispensable. Create meaning. Be purposeful. Do important work. Do work that’s bigger than you.
The most rewarding teaching happens when I create the curriculum myself. Why? Because the process of creating is messy and valuable and teaches me the most. According to Grant Wiggins, this teacher planning is “one of the most vital elements of the enterprise.” He discusses it in a blog post titled, “How do you plan? On templates and instructional planning.”  I always ask myself — ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?’ I use Backward by Design because by starting with the end, the unit project, and focusing on big picture questions while incorporating foundations, my students and I are able to make connections and see relevancy. In teaching, I create a map, but do not have a chosen pathway. Great teachers are content experts who can go where their students need them to go in order to accomplish what they hope to accomplish. Each student creates their own path.
So, what’s in a unit?
Here is what is in one of mine — In our district, there is not a 9th grade History course, so in order to create an online, integrated 9th grade ELA course, we needed to very much tap into the Common Core State Standards, and include elements of Humanities, and Historical Thinking/Literacy. This in itself increases meaning and purpose for our students. Each semester of my 9th grade ELA course is comprised of four Units. Our students work through the curriculum online, and at their own pace, but come in for weekly meetings to discuss progress, get assistance, and present projects. I do not claim to have things all figured out. There are plenty of innovative ways to create and deliver online curriculum. I accept that in sharing my work with you, I am vulnerable. Although that is not easy, it is necessary — I share because I believe I have something to contribute, and plenty to learn. After reading Grant Wiggins’ “The Futility of Trying to Teach Everything,” I realized what I have to teach is what is important to the students. This led to developing the essential questions for my 9th grade class units.
Big picture questions for the first semester of the course –
Unit 1: Why is an education important?
Unit 2: What is the role of a citizen in a democracy?
Unit 3: What are the roles of violence and compassion in a democratic society?
Unit 4: Is service learning important in a democracy?
Unit 1 Essential Questions –
1. When and where do learning take place?
2. Who can and should be educated, and why?
3. Who should have access to college? Should it be open to all?
4. What is your educational philosophy?
5. What is an appropriate metaphor for learning/education?
Unit 1 Project –
Students are asked to create an individual learning plan, complete with their philosophy of education, and metaphor for learning. It is important to me that this ILP is the students.’ I do not edit it, or make changes. I listen. I read. I guide. Students are always encouraged to look at the project first. This guides not only my work, but the work of my students. I want them to know why I am asking them to do what I am asking them to do.
If you’d like to see more, watch my video below!

What guides you work? And, why do you teach what you teach?

In my last post, Why do you teach? And, why do you stay?, I hoped to start a conversation about teaching — why in the world are we here, and what keeps us here? I now want to look at what guides our work, and why we teach what we teach. For most of my teaching career, I did not know why I taught what I taught, or I thought I knew, but didn’t. My experience as a student-teacher, and then beginning teacher, led me to answer the above questions with one of the following answers — ‘It’s in the standards, on the pacing guide, will be on the test, or because I love it and want to share it with my students.’ These are wrong. I teach people, not English. My job is to create citizens — good, local, global, digital, compassionate people — people capable of self-governance and scholarly work. The content is a means to do this. The literature I incorporate is a foundation, rather than the end all. Curriculum must be bigger than us, must be guided by a solid framework, and must be part of the big picture plan. Sure, this is a tall order, but I know we can do it.
What guides my work now?
One thing that guides my work are the ESLRs (Expected Schoolwide Learning Results) for the Riverside Virtual School. All students will become an effective communicator, a skilled problem solver, a proficient technology user, an informed career planner, and an engaged community member. I admit that for a long time these were something I had posted on my wall, and discussed during a WASC review, but did not fully embrace with much meaning or purpose. Another thing that guides my work are Art Costa and Ben Kallick’s 16 Habits of Mind. As a teacher, I must strive to practice these habits myself. I wrote about this in a past post titled, The 16 Habits of Mind and Online Curriculum. I now also ask myself the ultimate question, What does it mean to be a good person, living a good life, in a good society? Once I started to make connections between education, democracy, citizenship, leadership, science, art, mathematics, etc., I realized everything is connected, and that I needed to teach students how to think, not English. Another thing that guides my work now is transformational leadership. My responsibility lies in guiding citizens as they face conflicting values, helping them to clarify their collective vision, making difficult decisions, and leading others to higher moral ground. When I look at this list I see very little that has to do with literature, per se. In my next post, I will share a unit from my 9th grade integrated English course where you will see how I incorporate traditional literature with projects and historical literacy in order to address these guiding principles.
Why do I teach what I teach now?
In Ronald Heifetz’s book Leadership Without Easy Answers, he makes it clear to me that teaching is a leadership activity, not a position. As an English teacher, how can I use literature to teach people? Let’s look at the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Why did I used to teach this novel? I used to teach this novel because it was a great way to cover symbolism, characterization, plot, setting, imagery, and foreshadowing. Sure we discussed big picture themes such as good and evil, and I did my best to make the book come alive for students, but it was still very on-the-surface work. What has changed? Now, I use the novel to uncover what Grant Wiggins refers to as Essential Questions. Now, I embrace John Dewey’s notions that self and education are a continuous process. Now, I ask myself, What do I want my students to remember about this unit 20 years from now? I know their answers will have nothing to do with plot, setting, and characterization, but rather with confronting difficult and essential questions such as:
What is leadership?
What makes a good leader?
Where do leaders come from?
Do the ends justify the means?
How can you become a better leader?
Now, when I ask my students in an online discussion board to, “List the ten greatest leaders the world has known (past or present), and explain why they appear in your top ten list,” I respond with more questions, and I weave in the story: Is leadership based on influence or moral activity? Does a good leader lead with fear or love? Does a good leader contribute to the common good by making compassionate decisions? Does a good leader influence the community to follow the leader’s vision or influence the community to face its problems? These are the powerful lessons they will remember. Now, when Hitler and Gandhi appear on a student’s list of the ten greatest leaders of all time, together, I know how to respond. How would you respond?
SMART Idea — Teachers should see themselves as transformational leaders. Not all opinions are equal. As teachers, our job is to help move students to a higher moral ground. That is why this question guides my work — What does it mean to be a good person, living a good life, in a good society?

Why do you teach? And, why do you stay?

We all have our reasons for becoming teachers.
Some enter the teaching profession because of an amazing teacher, or several amazing teachers. Some feel teaching is simply what they were meant to do. Some become teachers to contribute to the common good. Others become teachers because of one, or many, bad experiences. Some want power, to always be right, to stand at the head of the class, in control of young, impressionable minds and destinies, armed with red ink, and the desire to “teach kids a lesson” when they attempt to submit late or poorly done assignments. Some want summers off, or to read the newspaper in the back of the room while students work quietly at their desks. It happens — so do many other things you see in movies, hoping it is fabrication and stereotyping, rather than truth. Teaching, like other professions, has good and bad.
Many good teachers leave our profession.
Many good teachers leave our profession to work at coffee shops, city jobs, open their own business, or go back to school. Many good teachers are made to feel that they are not professionals capable of making decisions, in spite of their qualifications, credentials, and degrees. Teachers can be made to feel as though they are replaceable numbers, required to ask permission to use supplemental material in their classrooms, implement curriculum they do not believe in, and harm students with test prep and standardization. Plenty of good teachers feel as though they do not have expertise. By expertise I do not mean authority, but rather knowledge, skill, even intuition. Many good teachers do not have the opportunity to become content experts. Unable to collaborate authentically and hone their skills, much of the required professional development they are asked to complete lacks meaning and purpose. Can you imagine if teachers were “allowed” to choose their own professional development, pursuing passions, modeling curiosity and life-long learning, while receiving “credit?” If teachers simply deliver a set curriculum designed for credits and grades rather than learning, accompanied with answer keys and scripts, then what is so special about what we do? Whether we mean to or not, we do to teachers what we do to students — make top down decisions, punish the good because of the bad, and give them very little choice. My goal is to provide students with meaningful and purposeful work.
The world is at our fingertips, just as it is for our students.
We can, through blogging, Twitter, and other social media resources, connect with teachers all over the world — many do this every day. Teachers are encouraged to take risks, not be afraid to try new things, be the linchpin, question the status quo, rebel, and use technology, only to find themselves sitting in meetings discussing outdated ideas, implementing policies without knowing why, being reprimanded for teaching a novel or chapter in November instead of in April like the rest of the department, and using curriculum they know is irrelevant and unengaging, but  is “approved,” and aligned with the last textbook adoption. Is this what we have to work with?
I know there are many who are losing faith in our profession.
Recently, I presented at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Conference and e-Learning Strategies Symposium to showcase some of the work we are doing at The Riverside Virtual School. Many colleagues hear and see what we are doing and say, ‘That’s great, but… we can’t do that.’ I recognize that I am lucky. Lucky to work with a leader who challenges me to challenge myself. Lucky to work with like-minded, tech savvy, go getter colleagues who want to pave the way and do difficult work. That’s why I teach here. Many colleagues find themselves envious of teachers who are able to spend their time creatively teaching, and trying new things. It is important for us to share our stories — good, bad, and ugly. It is through this collaboration that we try to ensure we do the right thing for our students even if it seems impossible — It is through this dialogue that we create good teachers, and encourage them to stay.
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
Noam Chomsky
Why do I stay?
Why do we continue to do what we do? How do we stay committed to doing important work in spite of opposition? Like many of you, I stay to create inquisitive scholars, and to assist students in developing a deeper awareness of who they are and how they fit into this crazy world. Like many of you, I considered leaving our profession to pursue other things. I couldn’t leave. I didn’t leave. Instead, I surround myself with smart people. I collaborate with other educators interested in innovation and questioning why we do what we do. I listen. I read. I interact. I seek out — online, face to face, globally, and locally — those who are doing amazing things, and I learn.
The role of the teacher has changed.
Some of us are willing to change, and others are not. Some say they are willing, but don’t. Many think they have, but haven’t. Students do not need us for answers. They need us to guide them on a journey of investigation, assist them in their unique development and understanding, ask difficult questions, and offer support as they draw sound conclusions. They deserve us at our best, positive and persistent, and although exhausted, present. For them. We know teaching is more than content, that teachers frequently are asked to take on the role of counselor and parent, and that for many of our students, life outside of school is unpleasant and unsafe. Good teachers know that nothing is more important than the well being of young people, and that until and unless they feel safe, they cannot grow. Good teachers know that their role is to find the balance between child, curriculum, and teacher, and be trusted to change the plan at any minute for their individual students.
How in the world do we do all of this?
We do this by knowing our students, creating purposeful and meaningful learning opportunities for them, asking ourselves difficult questions, and trusting — ourselves, colleagues, and students. To know what makes learning purposeful and meaningful, one must know what makes learning useless and boring. How do we define purposeful and meaningful? One place to start is with the classics, the education pioneers of the past, like John Dewey.
“Abandon the notion that subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside of the child’s experience; cease thinking of a child’s experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process.”
John Dewey — The Child and the Curriculum
SMART idea — Next time you have a meeting, set the agenda aside and start a conversation — Why do you teach,? And, why do you stay? 

Seven Teacher Questions About The Common Core Standards

The Riverside Unified School District is taking a collaborative approach in the transition to Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by bringing together teachers from different levels and disciplines to serve as Common Core Ambassadors.  These ambassadors will work together to discuss ideas, and to provide input regarding district-wide implementation. We have our second meeting next month, and I am looking forward to the process.
Here at the Riverside Virtual School, the English and History Departments started this transition last year with the creation of blended, project-based, integrated middle school curriculum which incorporates both ELA standards and historical literacy. Currently, Dave Dillon, the RVS History Department Chair and I are working on 9th and 10th grade online courses, allowing for vertical articulation for grades 7-10 (eventually 7-11).
The CCSS have liberated us to do more authentic work, and in doing so, hone in on the three factors to consider in a purposeful and engaging educational environment – technology, curriculum, and people. Technology is a tool, but without the standards and theoretical framework guiding our work, the tools are not as powerful, or purposeful. We are able to collaborate across disciplines, providing that valuable, guiding framework that is so often missing, and leads to what we all hope for our students – whole student education, connection, engagement, rigor, and relevance. Not only is this extremely rewarding as an educator, but most importantly it has added value to the learning experience of our students.
7 Questions that I continue to struggle with as someone who has started this transition to CCSS process:
  1. Will we transition to CCSS without increasing standardization?
  2. Will we explore all that the CCSS have to offer while remaining flexible, allowing teachers to meet students where they are, and without making coursework prescribed and constraining for our students and teachers?
  3. Can we continue to create purposeful and engaging learning experiences for our students?
  4. Can we create opportunities for students to enjoy the learning process rather than simply see what they are doing at school as a series of hoops to jump through and credits to obtain?
  5. Can we ensure that the standards guide our work, rather than determine our work, keeping in mind that planning is more valuable than plans?
  6. Are we using technology successfully?
  7. How will we prepare students for ever-changing assessments?