Skinnying the Standards 2.0

It was about this time last year when I had copies of the Common Core spread out across desks in my classroom. I was determined to see how I could resolve this overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t “hold” all the standards in my head while I was teaching. So, I set out to “skinny” them, and see if making them more manageable would also make them more usable to both me and my students.

Of course, figuring out how to get the Core into six buckets was only part of the challenge. The real challenge was figuring out how to implement this system into the fabric of my teaching.

A year later, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to “live the buckets.” As I get ready to begin another school year, I’m looking to the lessons of last year to guide my foray into Paint Buckets 2.0.

Lesson 1: My Habits Create the Culture

There’s no doubt that establishing learning routines in any classroom is both crucial and challenging. Largely, because no matter what we say, it’s our actions that our students are likely to mimic. For example, when we focus on grades, so will they. When we privilege questions over answers, they will too. It was no different when implementing our buckets of standards system: the more I talked about them and used them, the more they did too. But that’s a little easier said than done.

I found that if I didn’t pull the paint sticks out of the buckets at the same time every day, I was more likely to forget to do it. If I hadn’t taken enough time to think about the standards we were working with prior to the lesson, I would pull too many sticks and we’d get overwhelmed. Like establishing any facet of learning culture, my habits became their habits, and I had to change some of mine to influence theirs.

Lesson 2: Shifting Agency

One of my goals in skinnying the standards was to create a vocabulary about the standards that was usable to my students in order to empower them with more agency over their own learning. After using the buckets for awhile, I realized students needed to interact with them on a more regular, individual basis. So, I designed some customized post-it notes that had each bucket on them.

Whenever I would hand back an assignment, I would also give each student a post-it note so she could determine 1) which bucket was targeted in that assignment, and 2) what that assignment demonstrated about their learning in that particular bucket. Along with the post-it notes, students had a list of the corresponding paint sticks to help their reflections become more precise to the standards. This practice served as a quick and beneficial tether to our goal of tracing our learning back to the standards.

Lesson 3: It Takes Patience

This isn’t a quick fix for anything. This isn’t a strategy for teaching. It’s more of a system, a framework for helping me stay focused on our standards and to make sure that process is as transparent as possible to my students. It’s also very slow. And a little awkward at first. They aren’t used to talking about standards for learning, and I’m trying to find the balance between too much detail and not enough.

But, over time, it starts to seep into our conversations, our processes, our learning. I remember the day I was working with Luke on a paper, and he was having trouble conceptualizing his introduction. In a lightbulb moment, he exclaimed, “Oh… this introduction is like creating a context. What we do when we read.” Exactly, I thought. Perhaps I was most excited because Luke saw the transfer of the “Create a Context” paint bucket from what we read, to how we write. And there it was, the proof that simplified language, used consistently and in varying contexts, can shift the agency of learning to students.

Lesson 4: Close the Loop

I’ve long been a teacher invested in portfolios and the power of student reflection as an act of “owning” their learning. Our ongoing work with the paint buckets gave us a natural entrance into end-of-course reflection. The exciting news is that with the help of my teacher-librarian colleague, Kate Lechtenberg, I found ThingLink, and was able to create a visual portfolio that students used during our final exam time. This allowed students to put “dots” right on a picture of the paint buckets, to let me see which ones they’d focused on and which ones they could work more on. Not only was it fluid, but the visual nature of the process gave us all a quick assessment on which standards we needed to spend more time on.

The reality of this pilot is that I didn’t leave enough time for the portfolio work, that they needed far more than the time of a final exam to complete it. But now I know, and this year we’ll be working on it quarterly to help us assess our progress, our focus throughout the course. I learned that even if this Paint Bucket Portfolio 1.0 wasn’t as comprehensive as I’d hoped, that the act of asking students to visually trace their learning, to connect work to standards and standards to learning, is absolutely necessary to shifting that agency, to empowering their 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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