“Skinnying” the Standards

I’ve been working with the Common Core Standards for several years now, and have noticed a trend in my work: I’ve been engaging in exercises that actually make them bigger. I’ve unpacked, re-worded, aligned, and explained. While each experience was worthy, collectively they’ve left me feeling a little like Sisyphus, at the bottom of another mountain with a big boulder to push.

In addition, I “bundled” the standards (which means that I would rarely teach a standard in isolation), because I know teaching several standards at once supports the naturally overlapping complexities of literacy. This gave me some momentum, but not enough to help put this experience in students’ hands — to give them agency over their own learning — which is my ultimate goal.

So, I set out to see if there was another way. Could I “skinny” the standards and make them truly accessible on a day-to-day basis, for both my students and me? With a big table, copies of the Core, a collection of different highlighters, and an open mind, I began.

What resulted from this process were six buckets (I literally have six buckets hanging in my classroom) that I could use to hold the literacy standards and have them easily accessible so that I could call on them every day. I want to invite you into my classroom to see this strategy in action. If you’re a process-driven learner like me, you’ll want to understand the steps I took to “skinny” the standards. (And check back in about a month! I’ll let you know how this worked with my students.)

Step 1. Find the Spirit of Individual Standards

Perhaps what most differentiated this process is that I used inductive reasoning. Usually, we deduce. We begin with big ideas, we put things in categories, we make more boxes to check off. I did the opposite this time.

In order for the process to be organic, I started with each page of standards. I read and made notes in the margins about the “spirit” of the standards, like “this is about juxtaposition,” or “this is really about background knowledge.” The idea wasn’t to grow the standard, but to see it at its core. I was careful not to work with the anchor standards, but the actual standards themselves. I certainly read and used the anchor standards to calibrate my thinking, but my struggle had not been with them, but the particulars of the individual standards.

Step 2. Create a Coding System

With all of these annotated standards in front of me, I was ready to start looking for patterns. I used color coding to help me easily see the standards “from a distance.”

I found that in order to be authentic in this phase, I really had to talk myself out of some old habits. It would have been easy to start compartmentalizing here, to use the terms we’d talked about so often in our professional development about standards, like “annotation.” But those are tasks, and my focus was on the spirit of the cognitive work. In other words, I had to keep asking myself what my students’ brains would need to do in order to experience this standard. Too often I’ve found that we jump to conversations about tasks, about the things or the kinds of assignments students will do. Here, it was important to resist that kind of thinking and aligning.

Also, I didn’t walk into this phase with any pre-conceived notions about the number or kinds of patterns I would find. I just coded. And I coded amongst the facets of literacy. In other words, I didn’t just code the reading standards or code separately the language standards; rather, I saw them as the larger family of cognitive skills that comprise literacy.

I ended up with about 8-10 distinct patterns that guided my next step.

Step 3. Analyze and Combine

As I sat with all of these color-coded pieces of paper in front of me, I found there were unlikely overlaps between language and listening, predictable partnerships between reading and speaking, and some loners too, skills that were just fundamentally writing or reading skills. I hadn’t expected to see dispositions, like “stamina.” Yet, the more I explored and worked to stay true to my process, the more I realized many of the research standards were actually about the stamina needed to follow-through on responsible practices. In the end, one hunch I’d had about this work materialized: all the standards are working together to help students learn to think.

At this point, my goal was to get these down to as few different categories or buckets as I could. What emerged (in no particular hierarchy) were:

  • Read closely
  • Create a context
  • Expose precise thinking
  • Write to transfer
  • Build stamina
  • Analyze

Most importantly, these buckets focus on the cognitive work of experiencing the standards authentically. The next step was to assign them names. Here, I thought it was important to label the buckets with action-oriented language. Each name deliberately starts with a verb; they are short, accessible, and jargon-free. These are the kinds of words I can remember every day, even in the middle of class. These are the kinds of words my students can hang onto, own, and check their progress against, as well.

(Editor’s Note: Download  “What’s On Those Paint Sticks?” to see what Sarah has written on the sticks in the paint buckets.)

Step 4. Caring for Specifics

Of course, these buckets need to be grounded in the specifics of our work. This means that I went back to my notes on the standards and accounted for items like “need American literature” or “writes both narrative and argument.” Each bucket, thus, comes with a set of paint sticks which hold the specifics. When class begins, we can pull out the paint sticks that guide our learning for the day. When students get their practice work or assessments back, they use customized sticky notes to write down how that experience worked toward the standard, toward the bucket.

While it remains to be seen how this new system will work throughout the rest of the semester, I do know that this process is keeping me focused much more on what we’re learning, and far less on the things we’re doing in class. I see the tasks for what they are: exercises or experiences designed to engage or practice these cognitive skills. Most importantly, the work is helping me keep the students, instead of myself, at the center of our learning.

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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