Common Core vs. NCLB: Damage Done


Across the U.S., the Common Core guidelines are being rolled out for use in classrooms, requiring students to read and write on a level higher than ever expected of them.  Students in the lower grades will benefit from this if the Common Core guidelines are followed throughout her formative and high school years.

However, I teach high school 11th grade English and my current students learned to read and analyze text by training them to know only what would be “tested” rather than focusing on critical thinking skills necessary for college level work.  I wonder how much good we can do this late in the game for students who have been trained to produce the “right answer” or to fill in the correct bubble on a test.

I will have to say that my 11th grade students are finding Common Core difficult.  They have not been trained to find their own answers to problems, always looking to the teacher to give them an answer to what a poem “means” or what to think about a certain topic.  They are still wondering if they will be “wrong” or if I will “count off” for incorrect answers.

I have come to a conclusion about Common Core and how it will work for students who are at the end of their high school experience.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Use KWL – KWL is a method of inquiry where students become active and inquisitive readers, leaving much of the “work” of analyzing text up to the student.  It is non-evasive, and allows the student to explore text more carefully, focusing on the problems of understanding.  Students make a table on their paper with three columns, labeling each “K”, “W” and “L” respectively.  First, students write in the “K” column everything they “know” about a text before reading it carefully.  They might read the title, glance at the topic sentences, read the last paragraph, etc.  Once they have completed this activity, they then read each paragraph, noting a check mark beside the paragraphs/stanzas they understand fully and noting a question mark beside the paragraphs/stanzas that give them trouble.  In the “W” column, students write questions about the text that would help their understanding if answered.   They then get in groups and compare check marks and question marks.  One of the other students probably understands the paragraphs/stanzas that the other student wrote question marks beside.  Finally, after discussing the text, they write in the “L” column what they learned about the text from their discussion

2.  ART WARS (poetry) – This video by Isabella Wallace is probably one of the most amazing (and simply explained) methods of analyzing poetry for what will be what one of the writing prompts on future (and heretofore unknown) Common Core writing tests will require.

3.  S.O.A.P.S.Tone – (from the AP College Board Website) – I have listed it below because it has been a very successful method for helping novice readers dissect text in a way that helps them feel more confident to discuss the text in class.

Who is the Speaker?
The voice that tells the story. Before students begin to write, they must decide whose voice is going to be heard. Whether this voice belongs to a fictional character or to the writers themselves, students should determine how to insert and develop those attributes of the speaker that will influence the perceived meaning of the piece.

What is the Occasion?
The time and the place of the piece; the context that prompted the writing. Writing does not occur in a vacuum. All writers are influenced by the larger occasion: an environment of ideas, attitudes, and emotions that swirl around a broad issue. Then there is the immediate occasion: an event or situation that catches the writer’s attention and triggers a response.

Who is the Audience?
The group of readers to whom this piece is directed. As they begin to write, students must determine who the audience is that they intend to address. It may be one person or a specific group. This choice of audience will affect how and why students write a particular text.

What is the Purpose?
The reason behind the text. Students need to consider the purpose of the text in order to develop the thesis or the argument and its logic. They should ask themselves, “What do I want my audience to think or do as a result of reading my text?”

What is the Subject?
Students should be able to state the subject in a few words or phrases. This step helps them to focus on the intended task throughout the writing process.

What is the Tone?
The attitude of the author. The spoken word can convey the speaker’s attitude and thus help to impart meaning through tone of voice. With the written word, it is tone that extends meaning beyond the literal, and students must learn to convey this tone in their diction (choice of words), syntax (sentence construction), and imagery (metaphors, similes, and other types of figurative language). The ability to manage tone is one of the best indicators of a sophisticated writer.

4.  Buy a Book – One of the best books on the market for helping students become great writers is Writing at the Threshold: Featuring 56 Ways to Prepare High School and College Students to Think and Write at the College Level by Larry Weinstein.  It is a brass tacks book with real methods for helping students write to their potential and to hone in on what Common Core is requiring of them.  It can be used across all disciplines, and is a must in my classroom.

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