August 16, 2018
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How Common Core standards improved teaching and learning in my classroom

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Jennifer Dorman, who teaches grade 7-8 English language arts at Skowhegan Area Middle School, is the 2014 Somerset County Teacher of the Year and 2015 Maine State Teacher of the Year.
By Jennifer Dorman, Special to the BDN

It is impossible to discuss education today without uttering the words, “Common Core.” Today, these two words have achieved the same status as Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, or “he who must not be named.”

For some, distaste for the Common Core came in 2011, when the Maine Learning Results were updated to include Common Core as the standards for English, language arts, and math. I admit, I was frightened by the adoption of these rigorous standards, and I wondered if I would join the ranks of those against them. I was afraid that the standards were too challenging for some of my students. Most of all, I feared that I would lose control of what I teach, and more importantly, how I teach.

Four years have passed, and, today, I speak of the Common Core with a feeling of rejuvenation. I am thankful that educators and policy makers had more foresight than I did a decade ago to recognize the skills our students would need to be successful in college and careers of the 21st century.

As a middle school language arts teacher, I now realize I am teaching the same material I have always taught, but I am asking students to delve deeper and to apply higher-level thinking skills.

For example, I have always taught my seventh grade students to find the key ideas and important details in texts. In using the Common Core standards, my emphasis on finding the key ideas in texts has not gone away.

However, in addition to teaching students the vital skills I have always taught, the Common Core requires me to incorporate the following skills during instruction:

— Use increasingly complex text. Students must be able to read a wide variety of printed material, and they must be able to read well. Now, when I teach students to identify key ideas, I am careful to scaffold text complexity, giving students multiple opportunities to interact with gradually difficult text. For example, in my immigration unit, students began by reading short newspaper articles about immigrants and then transitioned to magazine and Internet articles. Finally, students read Sonia Nazario’s bestseller, “Enrique’s Journey.” Even though students were still asked to identify key ideas and details, they also applied higher-level thinking skills, such as comparing and contrasting opposing authors’ points of views in regards to the immigration debate.

— Make my teaching more powerful. Today’s world is filled with easy access to a wide variety, and sometimes complex, informational text. With the push of a button, students are exposed to thousands of documents on any given topic. Under the guidance of the Common Core State Standards, my students not only read texts about immigration alongside learning the skill of identifying central ideas, but they also analyzed political cartoons and video documentaries. Using the Common Core standards provides guidance to teachers for preparing students with the critical thinking skills they need to be independent readers and thinkers when faced with a variety of media.

Teach students to use evidence to support claims. Teaching students to use evidence is the most significant shift between the original Maine’s Learning Results and the new Maine Learning Results that include the Common Core. After all, we live in an age when we are bombarded with data. Today’s students must learn how to efficiently sift through information, analyze it for facts, and use those facts to support their own arguments.

Recently, when teaching about immigration, I required my seventh grade students to develop an essay in response to this question: “Do you agree or disagree with illegal immigration?” Students kept this question in the forefront of their minds when completing reading assignments. Throughout the unit, students collected data from their reading to support their opinions. Finally, students communicated their claims in writing, using evidence and reasoning from the wide variety of media we studied. Guess what. My students were passionate about their writing and their opinions! Teaching students to make a claim and support it with evidence empowered them.

My students don’t have hollow opinions about the events in today’s world. They have developed claims that are based in fact. The Common Core standards have made this possible.

— Integrate literacy across content areas. Under a laser-focused lens, one can see that literacy is the golden thread that weaves content together in the Common Core State Standards. In my classroom, I am not only teaching important skills like inferring ideas and identifying central themes in literature, but I am teaching students about the world around them. As I teach important English/language arts concepts, I tie in current events such as natural disasters. I teach students about the importance of the economy and geography in relationship to the texts we are reading.

Seventh-grade social studies teacher Stacey Edgar is doing the same in her classroom, where she is teaching about the geography of the United States. She expands students’ background knowledge by focusing on academic vocabulary that students will use not only in their geography textbook, but also in their science or language arts class as well. Further, she requires students to integrate knowledge gained through the curriculum with language arts standards.

She recently asked students to research an assigned state. In the past, she would have asked students to create a visual or digital display that highlighted climate, important landmarks, and points of historical significance. Today, Ms. Edgar still requires the same content from her students, but she requires them to complete a more complex task with it.

Now, students must create an argument essay about the state they researched. They must use evidence and reasoning from a variety of media to convince her that she should choose their state as her next vacation destination. Reading, writing, researching, listening and speaking are the skills at the heart of the English/language arts Common Core State Standards. Shared responsibility for teaching these standards ensures that students can apply these important skills in a variety of contexts, preparing them for a future where they will have to comprehend and respond to a wide variety of stimuli.

Today’s classrooms do not look like the classrooms that most of us knew in our own school careers, and, therefore, today’s teachers have a tremendous responsibility. They are preparing tomorrow’s adults for jobs that may not even exist yet. Teaching students the way we taught them 20 years ago is simply unacceptable.

In answering the challenge brought by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, I am teaching my students to read closely, to search for layers of meaning in complex text, and to formulate and support arguments in response to what they read, view and hear. These are crucial skills for our students, who are bombarded with information through television, the Internet, and social media.

As a parent, I now ask myself, “Why didn’t I want this for my children?” Today, I realize that fear prevented me from seeing clearly. For those of you wondering about the new Common Core State Standards, don’t let the fear of something new persuade you into believing the standards are bad for our students.

Honestly, we all want what is best for our children. Instead, talk to a teacher. Find out how others are helping students meet the new Common Core standards in their classrooms. Chances are, you will find that teachers are simply preparing their students for a future filled with the skills necessary to compete in a global economy.

Jennifer Dorman, who teaches grade 7-8 English language arts at Skowhegan Area Middle School, is the 2014 Somerset County Teacher of the Year and 2015 Maine State Teacher of the Year.


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