Let’s Chat Core: A Go-To Toolbox for Teachers

Turning Standards into Manageable Lessons

After we launched our Let’s Chat Core series, Tch member Katherine Hurst posed a great question: “Do you have any ideas on how to have a ‘go-to toolbox’ of objectives for the new standards?” Katherine is asking a crucial question: how is it that we move from these overarching, complex standards to a manageable lesson? Here’s one way to think about it.

One of my favorite movies is Searching for Bobby Fischer, about a young kid who happens to also be a chess prodigy. There’s this great scene in there where one of his teachers tells him not to make a move until he can see the outcome, until he can see 13 steps ahead. This is how it works in the classroom too – we move when we see the end game that informs our next step. But figuring out that next step can be tricky.

Sometimes we think of those daily moves as objectives. Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey suggest that determining learning purpose, more so than objectives, will focus the instruction on student learning versus student tasks. I agree. Thinking each day about what students are going to learn not what they’re going to do, really helps me to think about how I’m going to teach, not what directions I’m going to give or what kinds of papers I’m going to hand out.

So, with this in mind, I thought I would show how I’ve taken a standard and constructed several days worth of learning purposes to work towards meeting it.

Here’s a reading standard that we’ve spent a lot of time on this semester in my 10th grade Integrated Language Arts class followed by several days worth of learning purposes.

Key Ideas and Details: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

  • Learn to determine beginning patterns/ideas of a text using the collaboration of a small group.
  • Learn to transfer the skills of finding patterns and identifying appropriate textual moments to support those patterns using the collaboration of a small group.
  • Learn to read having determined own purpose.
  • Learn to read in order to connect to patterns and ideas in the text.
  • Learn to locate and explore “the revealing moment” in a chunk of text.
  • Learn to read to connect to concepts/patterns and engage in a teacher conference to determine questions the book is asking.

Unpacking my thinking. Perhaps more important than the list I’ve just shared from this October, is the thinking behind the sequencing.

  • I learned early on in the year that students had a really tough time understanding the difference between a topic and a concept, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to move from the literal to conceptual and back again. Determining patterns helps students find repetitions in which to build concepts around.
  • There’s an important move between the first and second learning purpose. Not every student had mastered locating patterns. A lot of times when we see lists like this we operate under the assumption that these skills are discrete, that you couldn’t practice transferring until you’ve mastered determining. However, this is where I think we usually undermine ourselves. This is a recursive process. Just like it’s not one single move on the chess board, there’s all kinds of zigging and zagging that goes into arriving at the end. So, we take the next step of transferring and I plan on working with the kids who aren’t there yet, giving them feedback and differentiated instruction, remembering that when I chose a more complex text or task, everyone may be back at this “beginning” place for a short while.
  • You can also see in the learning purposes that I’m moving towards independent determinations of their reading purposes. This is crucial as students must gradually, consistently take on more responsibility for their learning.
  • Along the way, there are days that are designed to “take a step back.” For example, the day that we are focused on finding the “revealing moment in a chunk of text” was inserted because through my formative assessment process I realized that students were uncovering important patterns, but they weren’t unpacking the moments with the most meaning, they were focused on the ones with the greatest plot value.

Of course, it would be nice if there were a magic list that could break down every standard and give us stairsteps in the name of daily lessons in order to realize that standard. (And, frankly, there are many companies aiming their business at just that.) However, the reality is that determining a daily learning purpose means that a teacher is considering what his or her students need that particular day rather than following a prescribed sequence.

I’m grateful to Katherine for asking this question and I think the most important toolbox we go to is the one we use ourselves as we’re practicing these skills alongside our students.

Do you have more Common Core questions? Feel free to ask! And, check out the other installments in our series.

Learning to Read the Core

Implementing the Core: Where to Begin?

Core Changes and Their Impact 

Unpacking the Common Core Standards

Let’s Chat Core is an ongoing Teaching Channel series designed to help educators understand and implement the Common Core State Standards. Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter - @SarahWessling.

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