Series: Let's Chat Core

Think Alouds: Unpacking the Standards
Lesson Objective: Let's Chat Core In this series, Sarah Brown Wessling explains the Common Core State Standards and offers insights on how to implement the Core in classrooms across America.
All Grades / All Subjects / Planning

Thought starters

  1. Ms. Wessling talks about how the Core focuses on the skills of learning. How will you focus on these skills in your classroom?
  2. How could you adapt the exemplar performance tasks for use in your classroom?
  3. Why is it important to teach literacy across disciplines?
It would be quite helpful if the example video would have been accessible to my computer
Recommended (0)
Super helpful video. Explains very well why and how we should all be teachers of literacy.
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Is a copy of your slide show available?
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Awesome video! Very valuable points made.
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This piece reminds me of my experiences in middle and high school. I am not sure when modern education moved away from these practices, but it is refreshing to see conversations about returning to this lesson model.
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  • [00:00]
    Interviewer: Welcome to Let’s Chat Core. I’m Sarah Brown Wessling 00:12. Today’s topic is using think-alouds to help

    Interviewer: Welcome to Let’s Chat Core. I’m Sarah Brown Wessling 00:12. Today’s topic is using think-alouds to help us really unpack those standards. Our learning purpose today is to learn to determine what the standards actually mean for teaching and instruction.

    In order to do that we have to both zoom in and zoom out. Today we’re going to start by reminding ourselves about the big scope of the standards that we’re working with. So remember in these mathematical practices, we have those dispositions making sense of problems or persevering to reason, to construct arguments, to model, to attend to precision, to look for and express reasoning, all of these qualities that are so important for our students.

    But as always it’s not just the math standards that we’re looking at. We’re also looking at the literacy standards. If you remember from the previous webinar that the literacy standards are composed of two big sections, one is the English Language Arts. The other includes all of the content areas.

    When you go to the common core state standards home page, you will see these standards, and in addition to that, when you download the standards there’s also some additional resources that teachers have really found to be helpful. One of these is called Appendix B. It’s the text exemplar’s and sample performance task.

    So when you look at this it might look as though this is something only for English Language Arts teachers, but it’s not. This is a resource that is valuable to every teacher in the building. Because as we know literacy becomes the responsibility of every teacher in the building as we are working to make sense of the core.

    When we download and take a peek at those—at that Appendix B, we’re going to see two different things. One of the things in there that we’ll see is a list of potential texts. Certainly you’ll see a lot of fiction texts in there that are appropriate for that English Language Arts classroom. In addition to that we’re also going to see a fabulous list of informational texts that come from the primary sources of all of the disciplines that we teach.

    What this reminds us of, and what this points to is the importance of including primary texts in our social studies classrooms, in our science classrooms, in our math classrooms. These are the kinds of pieces that we have to be able to put in front of our students in addition to their textbooks. So that that they really are able to make sense of the world around them in fundamental ways.

    In this Appendix B you’ll also find embedded in there what I think is one of the best resources for helping teachers to really understand what the standards are asking. In there you’ll find exemplars. These are our prompts that you might give a student. If you’re giving students prompts that look like this associated with those primary texts that they’re reading, we’re going to see that they are practicing those habits of mind that are important in all subject areas.

    What I would like to do right now is I want to zoom in on one of these exemplars. As I read it, what I’m going to ask you to do is I’m going to ask you to think about all of the different things that a student’s brain would have to do in order to effectively respond to this prompt.

    Here we go. Students analyze the role of African American soldiers in the civil war by comparing and contrasting primary source materials against secondary syntheses such as Jim Haskin’s, Black, Blue and Gray, African Americans in the Civil War. I’m gonna give you a moment just to pause and think, perhaps if you’re watching this with someone close to you. After you think, you’ll take a moment to share with them.

    What I would like to do right now is kind of think aloud about how I unpack this exemplar, and what I’m thinking about in terms of what students would have to be able to do. The first thing I notice is the verbs, that there are some really key verbs. One of those is analyze, that students are going to have to analyze. It’s not summarize. It’s not recall. It’s not comprehend.

    Analyze is a different kind of thinking skill, and it requires students to pull resources together, so I know they’re going to have to do that. I also know that they’re going to have compare and contrast. So they’re not going to work with just one text necessarily.

    In addition to that they’re going to have to know what a primary source is. They’re going to have to be able to read the primary source. So it’s not gonna be somebody’s summary of what happened during the civil war.

    It’s going to be this primary source’s investigation of what happened, and largely it’s gonna somebody’s argument about a way of seeing this.

    They’re going to have to be able to read that primary source. They’re gonna have to be able to then compare that to some kind of secondary synthesis, in this case Jim Haskins, Black, Blue and Gray.

    When students are confronted with texts like this, they’re gonna have to know a little bit about the context. Who’s the author? What’s the time period he or she is writing in? What implicit bias does he or she bring to this text? As you can see in order to respond to a question like this, students are going to have to use their brains in a lot of really important, and often times really complex ways.

    This is not a prompt that I could give to my students right away. Now if you are like me or some of the teachers that I’ve worked with when I’ve shared this exemplar with them, I’ll hear people say things like, “I didn’t do something like this ‘til I was in college.” And if that’s how you’re feeling it’s probably okay because what you are noticing is the shift in the way that we’re going to ask students to think.

    When we look at a prompt like this we know that it is going to take time to build up to students being able to respond to this. There are a lot of skills that we are going to have to focus on in order for students to be able to answer this prompt. This might not be a prompt that we want to ask on the first day of class.

    This might be a prompt that we want to work up towards so that we want to be able to use this as an end in mind. This is our goal. This is what we want to be able to see students ultimately do. So we’re gonna have to focus on all of these other skills in order to get them ready to answer that.

    What I also hope that you heard in my think-aloud is I was kind of trying to process and unpack this, is that I was really focusing on student’s skill. When I think about how the standards are gonna impact teaching, it’s gonna really focus us on how to teach these skills of learning. That is what is universal. That is what is common from grade to grade from school to school from state to state.

    What is malleable, what can change is the content that we use in order to teach those skills. So this is one exemplar, but I want to do a couple of more because nine and tenth grade history and social studies is not applicable to everyone.

    This is a third grade sample. I’m gonna do the same process. Students explain how the main idea that Lincoln had many faces in Russell Friedman’s, Lincoln; a photo-biography is supported by key details in the text. When we look at this sample, I want you to do the same thing. What is it that the third grader’s brain is going to have to be able to do in order to respond to this prompt?

    As I’m looking this I can see that students are going to have to be able to explain. They’re gonna have to be able to verbalize or write. They’re going to have to know not just what the main idea, but how it is supported by key details in the text. That’s different than summary. That’s figuring out how it’s written.

    That is also a new skill that we are going to need to be able to really use in order to help students achieve these standards. Again, of course I’m seeing this great primary text. This is the kind of text that my own third grader would love to be able to dig into, and use as a way to come to understand President Lincoln.

    Let’s go to another sample. This is a sample for six to eighth grade, and this is for math. Students learn about fractal geometry by reading Ivers Peterson and Nancy Henderson’s Math Track, Adventures in the Math Zone, and then generate their own fractal geometric structure by following the multi-step procedure for creating a coax curve.

    When I look at this exemplar, I’m really excited about it for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons is because we get to see some of those mathematical practices in action here. I’m gonna again, unpack my thinking. Students are going to learn about fractal geometry, so this means that they are going to come to know it.

    They’re going to do some comprehending, not just by seeing problems, but they’re going to come to understand this concept by reading a primary text. That’s something that I think is exciting. This is a really interesting way for us to think about how to use literacy in the math classroom.

    This becomes a way for us to use those primary sources to help generate interest. To help students understand how these mathematical practices function in our everyday lives.

    Once they learn about the concept of fractal geometry, then they have to generate their own structure. This means they have to create. This means that they have to understand it enough that they aren’t just deducing an answer, but they’re using those inductive qualities as well in order to generate their own structure.

    Also, we see this very important element of following a multi-step procedure. When we look at the standards for literacy and how it speaks to math, we see—excuse me, math and science actually. We see how students have to be able to follow procedures, and certainly this is an example of doing that.

    When I show these exemplars to teachers, inevitably there will be a little bit of chit chat going on. And we all kind of know what this chit chat is. It’s the big elephant that’s in the room. I’m always excited when one of those brave teachers will raise his or her hand and say, “So why is that I’m gonna teach English in my math classroom?”

    It’s really a wonderful opportunity for us to have this discussion about the difference between teaching English and literacy in our classrooms. The first thing that I remind everyone is that math and science teachers, social studies teachers, you don’t want me to teach your students how to do the kind of writing that’s in your course.

    If you are teaching Industrial Tech, you want to teach students how to write concise. You want to teach them how to write procedures. You want to teach them how to use bullet points in order to be clear. You don’t want them to write these long, narrative introductions with thesis statements and all of this MLA formatting. That’s appropriate for the English classroom.

    But what we know to be true is that every discipline is built on its literacy, and that’s what makes every teacher an expert in his or her discipline in his or her area. This elephant in the room about this being the teacher’s job is actually addressed in the common core itself. It actually says that the standards insist that literacy instruction be a shared responsibility within the school, recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well.

    This reminds us that you are the experts of what it means to read and write and think like a scientist or historian or a chef or an artist or a musician. It’s that expertise that you can bring to the understanding and the inclusion of literacy in your content area.

    To review, today I wanted to remind everyone certainly that literacy standards are for everyone. They’re not just for the English Language Arts teachers. When we look at those exemplars we know that we are teaching complex skills. Certainly skills are the universal component, and the content is what can shift from classroom to classroom, district to district, state to state.

    Thank you once again for joining me today, and I hope to see you again soon on Let’s Chat Core.

    [End of Audio]

School Details

Johnston Senior High School
6501 Northwest 62nd Avenue
Johnston IA 50131
Population: 1548

Data Provided By:



Sarah Brown Wessling
English Language Arts / 10 11 12 / Teacher


Teaching Practice

All Grades/ All Subjects/ Culture

Teaching Practice

All Grades / All Subjects / Culture

TCH Special

Grades 6-12, All Subjects, Civic Engagement

TCH Special

Grades 6-12, All Subjects, Civic Engagement