curriculum, education

Curriculum Overhaul

Netflix just came out with a documentary called “Making a Murderer”. Parts of it are profoundly sad; specifically the parts where law enforcement officers manipulate a young man into giving a false confession. How do they do this? One of the worst and best tools at our disposal–and certainly the least costly and most valuable: Language.  

 

When you think about it, language can start, and end, wars. Language can make or break a relationship. Language gives us access to–or blocks us from–opportunities. Language is love. Language is money. Language is life. If it wasn’t, then we wouldn’t need it to survive.

 

As a(n American) culture we have gotten away from viewing language with any sort of reverence, and it’s high time we begin to give language the respect it deserves. One way to do that is to offer a curriculum that truly values language and all of its complexities.

 

Here is my proposal.

 

Each year, the “themes” for the units would be the same, but the works/content/difficulty of language explored within each unit would vary. Here’s a skeleton outline of what I mean:

 

Q1: Types and Functions of Language

Essential Questions: Why do we read and write? What is the purpose of language/literature/essays?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 12: Literature-Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (propaganda)

        Nonfiction text-Supreme Court case transcripts (complex/specific language)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q2: Manipulation of Language

Essential Questions: How is language used as a means to achieve a particular end? How do we make language effective?

Content: Literature and Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 10 or 11: Literature- Animal Farm by George Orwell (logical fallacies)

                                             Nonfiction text- Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal (satire)

CCSS: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works); RL.1-10 and RI.1-10

Q3: Persuasive Techniques

Essential Questions: What are persuasive strategies and how are they used?

Content: Nonfiction

Focus: varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example: Grade 9: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion of arguments of definition; use of persuasive strategies such as logos, pathos, ethos, rhetorical questions; argumentative model: debate. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

Example: Grade 12: argumentative essays/speeches about various topics and discussion about and practice with deductive and inductive arguments, use of persuasive strategies such as inclusive and exclusive language and connotation; argumentative models such as Toulmin or Rogerian. (Students will write argumentative essays based on what they examined/learned.)

CCSS: RI.1-10, W.1, and W.2

Q4: Narrative Techniques

Essential Questions: What are narrative strategies and how are they used?

Content: Fiction/Literature

Focus: Varies from 9-12 (depending on the works)

Example:  poems by Maya Angelou, Wm. Shakespeare, our current poet laureate, etc., various short stories, plays, narrative nonfiction, etc. as mentor texts (examining narrative techniques and modeling them) for writing their own poems, narrative nonfiction, and short stories

CCSS: RL.1-10, RI.1-10 (for narrative nonfiction), and W.3

 

The above is, of course, a rough outline–planning and implementing curricula takes years of prep, practice, and reflection–but I think this is a good start. It still keeps in mind what students will encounter on their state standardized tests and prepares them accordingly, but it makes more logical sense and focuses on the necessity and beauty of language in our culture and in our world. It also allows for a broader use of content depending on what is popular, interesting, or necessary to read (and write). The topics or themes stay the same while the content is flexible. (Which–side note–is part of the beauty of the CCSS.)

 

Maybe, someday, we can think about English curriculum from the standpoint of language as opposed to making sure we cover the necessary literature and standards. Such things will take care of themselves when language becomes the true focus of the curriculum.

 

What do you think?

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education, scoring, teachers, teaching

Reporting Outcomes: What is an “A”?

Several blogs have been popping up lately about doing away with grades (see Parents React to a Classroom Without Grades and Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades) and it seems a worthwhile topic to explore. Let’s take a serious look at a world devoid of our traditional grading system.

 

The Common Core has certainly pushed–some say forced–us (teachers, students, parents, administrators) to make some serious changes at the national level all the way down to our individual classrooms.  Some of those changes have been effortless and smooth while others have been laborious and frustrating. One impending reform is a transition to standards-based reporting as opposed to the traditional “report card”. This transformation will require doing away with our popular and widespread grading system. There are some benefits to this major shift that could become a way of life in our near future.

 

Learning Becomes the Focus in the Classroom

Passing. GPA. Class rank. Exemption status. Students concentrate more on these factors than they do on learning. Worse, grades become a motivational factor for students. (Grades should not be the reason why students work hard. Unfortunately, the reality is that grades are one of the only reasons students work hard and this is a problem.)  Numbers have become the point of obsession when learning the skills should be paramount. And the students are not the only guilty culprits who give in to number obsessions, districts do it too. They prepare the students for the NJASK, and the HSPA, and now everything being done in our classrooms relates directly to our new standardized test mandate: PARCC. Will our students be proficient?  Advanced proficient? We hope for those two labels to dominate our paperwork, but what do those labels–and their corresponding numbers–actually mean?  Can you tell me?

 

All Stakeholders Have an Accurate Understanding of What Students Know and Are Able to Do

Grades should be indicators of what students know and are able to do.  But sometimes teachers’ personal biases, test curving, extra credit policies, etc. infiltrate the scoring process and grades become skewed. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students). So, how are grades really relaying reliable information if they are influenced by factors other than student performance? It’s not to say that standards-based grading will completely rid the system of this misrepresentation of scores, but it will help level the playing field.

 

Regulation of the Reporting Process

At some educational institutions an “A” can fall within the range of a 100% to a 90%.  In others, an “A” may equate to a 100% to a 92% (I have worked at districts with both of these grading systems–these numbers are not arbitrary). With standards-based grading, letters and their corresponding numbers no longer exist when it comes to reporting student achievement and outcomes. Instead, each standard has its own label that indicates a level of mastery which shows what students know and are able to do.  For example a report card may look like the same ones you and I received in grammar school.  A skill is listed and various columns appear next to it with “S” for satisfactory, or “N” for needs improvement.  The column that is checked shows the student’s level of achievement for that skill at that moment in time. A standards-based report card is reminiscent of this.

 

——————————————————————————————————————–

RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

 

Beyond Mastery

Mastery

Approaching Mastery   ✓

No Mastery Yet

 

Comments: Formative assessments showed steady growth toward mastery, but ultimately the summative assessment(s) proved that the standard has not yet been mastered.

 

——————————————————————————————————————–

 

Of course the 4 levels of mastery must be outlined.  Those schools implementing the CCSS should make sure that each piece of criteria has its own indicators of mastery.  Those indicators should be uniform as well.

 

Meaningful Learning

With standards-based grading, the goal is no longer to get an “A” but instead, to master standards.  This may sound the same, but it’s not.  An “A” is nebulous when you really think about it. What do you need to do in order to get that “A”? (Answer most multiple choice questions correctly? What does that show?) What does the “A” really mean? (The student turned in a project on time?) With standards, the outcomes are clear.  For instance, let’s go back to our report card example: RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature. The skill is to analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience. Either students cannot analyze a point of view or cultural experience (No Mastery Yet), or they recognize that there are different point of view and they know how to analyze, but students cannot fully apply the skill to a point of view or cultural experience (Approaching Mastery), or they can analyze a point of view or cultural experience (Mastery), or maybe they can even go beyond analyzing a point of view and cultural experience, by evaluating others’ answers (Beyond Mastery). It is clear what is expected of students in order to master each standard.  I suppose you could connect a grade to each level of mastery, D, C, B, and A, respective to the above example, but without the indicators those letters mean nothing.

 

We may be nervous about the ever-mounting changes in education, but remember, not all reform is negative.  Some ideas have a lot of validity.  As for doing away with grades, it doesn’t mean we are getting rid of assessments, it just means we are genuinely examining evaluation and how to represent it through a different lens.  And that lens has the potential to make the way we view reporting student outcomes much more coherent and transparent.

 

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The (OEQ/CRQ) Epiphany

I had an epiphany the other day about open-ended questions (OEQs)–which are now called constructed response questions (CRQs)–and it is changing the way I will assess my students’ mastery of Common Core ELA standards.

In September, I created a rubric for Common Core ELA standard W.4 (in CCSS language, this is the standard that addresses clarity of writing).  I had been using this rubric to grade my CRQs (mostly because this related to my SGO) and it was working out fine…until I started analyzing the kinds of CRQs I was seeing on our school’s quarterly exams.

Here is how it all happened…

My thought (as I was reading over a CRQ): “This question is asking the student about word choice and analyzing its impact on the text, it is not asking the student to write clearly. I don’t think I am grading this assessment correctly…”

My epiphany (after some conversations with colleagues): “HELLO!? You’re grading a question that has students analyzing diction and that is a reading standard (RL.4), not a writing standard.”

Hmmmm…

Before my epiphany, when I wrote a CRQ it might have looked like this:

Determine the tone of the poem.

This question implies not only that one determines the tone of the poem, but that they explain how they figured out that answer. This relates to CCSS number…oh wait.  It doesn’t relate to the CCSS at all.

Now, my CRQs will look more like this:

Determine how the author uses diction to create a melancholy tone throughout the poem. (RL.9-10.4)

This question relates directly to the reading standard I want the students to focus on.  And, of course, it requires a rubric.  Here is what I came up with…

Criteria and Scoring

4

3 2

1

 

Determine the meanings of words and phrases in context of the text

Word meanings are accurate based on the context of the text and a detailed explanation exists as to how the student determined the meaning of the word. Word meanings are somewhat accurate based on the context of the text and a somewhat detailed explanation exists as to how the student determined the meaning of the word. Word meanings are nearly accurate based on the context of the text and an explanation exists as to how the student determined the meaning of the word. Word meanings are not or not very accurate based on the context of the text and no explanation exists as to how the student determined the meaning of the word.
 

 

Determine the figurative and connotative meanings of words used in text

Figurative and connotative meanings of words are accurate based on the context of the text and a detailed explanation exists as to how the student determined those meanings. Figurative and connotative meanings of words are somewhat accurate based on the context of the text and a somewhat detailed explanation exists as to how the student determined those meanings. Figurative and connotative meanings of words are nearly accurate based on the context of the text and an explanation exists as to how the student determined those meanings. Figurative and connotative meanings of words are not, or not very, accurate based on the context of the text and no explanation exists as to how the student determined those meanings.
 

 

Analyze the impact of the word choice on…

(meaning, tone, mood, etc.)

Word choices and how they affect a text’s meaning, tone, mood, etc. are carefully and clearly explained in detail; the explanation shows a deep examination and understanding of words and how they are used. Word choices and how they affect a text’s meaning, tone, mood, etc. are somewhat clearly explained in detail; the explanation shows an examination and understanding of words and how they are used. Word choices and how they affect a text’s meaning, tone, mood, etc. are explained; the explanation shows a shallow examination and understanding of words and how they are used. Word choices and how they affect a text’s meaning, tone, mood, etc. are not clearly explained in detail; the explanation shows shallow to no examination and understanding of words and how they are used.

Notice the rubric is not for writing, but relates directly to the standard being addressed by the question.  This rubric will give me a much more accurate score than my writing rubric because it assesses whether or not the student can determine the meanings of words in context, determine figurative and connotative meanings, and analyze the impact of word choice on tone. It also requires explanations outlining how students determined these factors.

Now, any writing should be assessed for clarity, in which case, the other rubric may come in handy as well:

W.9-10.4 Criteria: writing is clear, coherent, and task-appropriate according to…  

5

 

4

 

3

 

2

1

Development Sequence of ideas is fully developed, writing shows a clear understanding of the prompt, ideas are detailed and fully explained, ideas are supported with clear and compelling textual evidence. Sequence of ideas is developed, writing shows a somewhat clear understanding of the prompt, ideas are explained, and ideas are supported with textual evidence. Sequence of ideas is almost developed, writing shows a limited understanding of the prompt, ideas are somewhat explained, and ideas are somewhat supported with textual evidence. Sequence of ideas is beginning to develop, writing shows a limited to mis- understanding of the prompt, ideas are attempted to be explained, and textual evidence to support ideas is attempted. Sequence of ideas is not present, writing shows a misunderstanding of the prompt, ideas are not explained, and ideas are not supported with textual evidence.
Organization Sequence of ideas is seamless for writing type, structure is logical and effective: Chronological, Spatial, Climactic, Topical Sequence of ideas is appropriate for type of writing,  structure is somewhat logical and effective: Chronological, Spatial, Climactic, Topical Sequence of ideas is somewhat appropriate for type of writing,  structure is somewhat logical and effective: Chronological, Spatial, Climactic, Topical Sequence of ideas is somewhat apparent, but not appropriate for writing task,  structure is almost/attempted to be logical and effective: Chronological, Spatial, Climactic, Topical Sequence of ideas is not apparent, and/or not appropriate for writing task,  structure is not logical or effective.
Style The personality/voice of the writing is seamless according to writing task; diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, etc. are used correctly and creatively. The personality/voice of the writing is appropriate to writing task; diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, etc. are used somewhat correctly and creatively. The personality/voice of the writing is somewhat appropriate to writing task; diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, etc. are used somewhat correctly. The personality/voice of the writing is not appropriate to writing task; diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, etc. are attempted but not used correctly. The personality/voice of the writing is not apparent; diction, syntax, rhetorical devices, etc. are not apparent or not used correctly.
Purpose The purpose of the writing piece is to persuade (effective use of rhetorical devices), inform (effective clarity of structure), or entertain (effective use of voice, language, syntax, etc). The purpose of the writing piece is to persuade (appropriate use of rhetorical devices), inform (appropriate clarity of structure), or entertain (appropriate use of voice, language, syntax, etc). The purpose of the writing piece is to persuade (somewhat use of rhetorical devices), inform (somewhat clarity of structure), or entertain (somewhat use of voice, language, syntax, etc). The purpose of the writing piece is to persuade (attempted use of rhetorical devices), inform (attempted clarity of structure), or entertain (attempted use of voice, language, syntax, etc). The purpose of the writing piece is to persuade (no use of rhetorical devices), inform (no clarity of structure), or entertain (no use of voice, language, syntax, etc).
Audience Intentions toward audience are clear and effective, writing is age appropriate Intentions toward audience are somewhat clear and effective, writing is somewhat age appropriate Intentions toward audience are almost clear and effective, writing is almost age appropriate Intentions toward audience are attempted to be clear and effective, writing is attempted to be age appropriate Intentions toward audience are not clear and effective, writing is not age appropriate

I realize that people like to use a holistic rubric for these types of assignments, but I don’t think they can do justice to the CRQs that will be written to address the Common Core–holistic rubrics are just not specific enough to assess complex standards.  We need to look at the skills students are being asked to demonstrate, separately.  They are, after all, listed as separate skills in the CCSS.

Maybe the key is having a rubric somewhere in between, but I know that from now on, I am going to assess my students on the standard they are being asked to demonstrate. I am going to make rubrics for them such as the ones cited above so that they know what they need to do before they even begin writing a CRQ answer.  To do anything else would be an injustice to them–not to mention, unethical.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Culture Shock

How Can One Person Change the Culture of a School?

1. Listen, observe, and collect information patiently.  Know your surroundings and understand the culture you’re in before you go about making any changes.  After all, how do you know what parts of the culture need to be changed if you haven’t spent any time living in that culture?

Example: I noticed where I work, teachers were not getting the PD they seriously needed.

 

2. Create a need for a new culture.  Ask your fellow staff members what they would change if they could. Collect this information. Determine the connections between teachers of all skill levels, age levels, and experience levels.

Example: Most teachers said they felt like they were on an island; especially with the Common Core.  They felt lost and that no one could help them.

 

3. Decide what needs to be changed. What is the most glaringly obvious change that needs to occur?  Focus on that.

Example: How to teach the Common Core.

 

4. Plant the seeds. Figure out a solution to the problem and spread your idea. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could…?” “Let’s ask if we can…?” “Let’s try…”

Example: I decided to put together a folder of skills-based (Language Arts) strategies that related to the skills addressed in the Common Core.

 

5. Encourage everyone. Start a conversation about how to make things better in your building.  Offer help to those who need it.  Offer your expertise to others and support their positive ideas.

Example: I offered this folder to everyone so they could choose which strategies worked for them.  (These were things I was already using in my classroom, I just made them available to everyone.)

 

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Does the Common Core Expect Too Much?

Rigor.  Yes, we have talked about this before.  Rigor. It is not only intellectually-based, but also a cultural idea that teachers must embody.  But are we—the government, the administrators, the teachers—pushing too hard?  Are we asking students questions they couldn’t possibly answer because their brains just aren’t ready yet? Are we asking too much?

Well, honestly, it doesn’t matter. Even if we are asking too much or pushing too hard, it doesn’t change the fact that the Common Core is here to stay for a while.  We need to adapt to its framework.

I teach 7th and 8th grade special education Language Arts.  Writing an argument is hard for my kids.  Like, really hard. It’s hard for most 7th and 8th graders.  So here is what I did to get the concept across and make it understandable for them.

I started with the whole.  I found an exemplar essay and, yes, I modified it.  (Of course I did.  That’s my job.) We read the argumentative essay together as a class.  We examined it after the initial read and talked about some features we saw such as the title, the author, the source, the quotation marks and the citations.  We discussed some difficult vocabulary in context (merely for the teachable moments—teaching vocab in context wasn’t my goal for this initial lesson), and we determined the overall topic.

Then we broke it down.  In the next lesson we looked at the essay in terms of…well, terms. The students were given general argumentative vocabulary terms such as claim, evidence, counterclaim, rebuttal, etc. They had to define the terms themselves and after that we came together and looked at the exemplar essay.  We identified and labeled examples of the terms and wrote some annotations in our own words: i.e. “This is the counterclaim because…” and “This is the claim, it is located at the end of the introduction. It states that…”

Then we had some lessons in isolation. We talked about what an argument really is, what its purpose is, and why arguments are important. We discussed reliable sources and where to find them.  We talked about vocabulary in context and how to determine the meanings of words when we don’t have any dictionary tools. We even practiced identifying counterclaims and rebuttals. There were also some lessons and teachable moments about grammar, mechanics, spelling, structure, and diction.

Then the students put it all back together. I gave the students a topic and two sources.  I did this for a few reasons.  First, this is essentially their initial encounter with argumentative writing and they needed a bit of direction.  Also, by controlling their topic and sources I could modify the articles so that the students could read them independently. (The students will use databases to find information later in the year, so I figured this would work well in the beginning of the year.) After reading the articles the students extracted evidence (with much help).  Then they wrote their argumentative essay on a graphic organizer that required them to fill in the information asked for: the introductory sentence, the claim, the topic sentences, the evidence, and the closing sentence.

Now, did they write an entire 4-5 paragraph essay?  No.  Did they type it up and hand it in so I could write comments all over it and hand it back? No.  But they did their best work and they wrote all the important parts of an argumentative essay.  They learned about argumentative writing and they put something on paper. That is a step in the right direction.  It wasn’t a perfect unit, not at all. But it was a good start. We took something that felt really overwhelming and difficult at first and we looked at it as a whole, we broke it down, and we put it back together.  We did it and we learned.  Is there a ways to go?  Absolutely, but what I did with my kids in that unit…that was success within the Common Core. 

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Why The Common Core Isn’t As Scary as You Think

Brace yourselves. I’m about to tell you something terrifying.  Are you ready?  The Common Core is not that horrible.  It isn’t turning our kids into zombies.  It isn’t harming them or forcing them to become automatons.  Students may be walking that path, but that’s not their fault or the fault of the standards.  It’s the fault of the people implementing them without truly understanding the needs of  the population they teach.  Yes, I said it.  It’s not their fault.  It’s our fault.  And shame on us for using the standards as a scape goat for our lack of creativity, understanding and, dare I say it, hard work.  Ouch.  I know. I think I just got a chest pain considering I am one of those teachers who implements these standards (and struggles with them as well), but keep reading.  It gets better, I promise.

Recently, the Huffington Post published an article by Randi Weingarten entitled “Will States Fail the Common Core?”.  She explains that she supports the Common Core, but she understands that they are not a cure-all, and that we, the teachers in the trenches, and the administrators at the top, must execute them effectively in order to have them work for our kids. She goes on to discuss the strategies other states are using in order to roll out the Common Core initiative in a way that—brace yourselves again—benefits the students.

Here’s the thing with the Common Core, or any state or national educational mandate or initiative.  It is not meant to be taken in its purest form.  The Common Core Standards are guidelines for academic success. They are an outline that is influenced by the needs of the population in each district across America; and therefore, implemented differently depending on where the school is located and what the population needs.  Teachers can still be creative and require their students to be so as well within the confines of the standards.  It requires a shift in the way we have always done things, but that doesn’t mean we should resist the change.  We have to adapt because the students, their learning, and their ability to become lifelong learners are our priority.

I cannot say that I agree with every standard in the Common Core.  I think most of them are worthy to be taught, but some of them could use a change or even a trash. But, my job is to make sure that my students can achieve them.  Am I still teaching them how to function in the world outside of the educational institution?  YES! (See the blog prior to this: More Standards for Education?) Just because we have new standards doesn’t mean I sacrifice teaching my students other skills that are necessary for life after graduation.  It means I adapt the way I do things.  It takes more time up front, but in the end, I am their teacher.  I owe it to them to make sure they receive a quality education.  And if you’re not willing to put in the work every time a new mandate rears its (ugly?) head, then you need to find another profession. (Reality check?) This is the population that will be taking care of you some day.  Don’t do them a disservice because your life is too busy or you are too stressed.

You’re a teacher for a reason. So use your professional knowledge to adapt the standards in a way you see fit for your students. Making education work is not about you.  It’s about them. Don’t forget that.  And don’t be scared of the Common Core, or any new mandate for that matter.  Do what you know is right.  Follow the fold when you must, but adapt.  That way, every new initiative will never be scary again.

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Acceptance is the Final Step

Ed Week Article

 
One of the most interesting things Toch states in his article is in the very last paragraph–the very last sentence even.  “At this point, we need to focus on the hard work of implementing the new standards, not on whether we should have them.” And hard work it is!  I am a special educator and I work in a very diverse district.  I feel as though there are road blocks at every turn.  But I have said this before and I will say it again…my job as a teacher is to find ways to work within the mandates and help my students learn. It’s not easy, but I rely heavily on my colleagues for suggestions and guidance.   
 
I have been teaching for 6 years.  I thought I had it down at least fairly well, but as it turns out, I don’t. I get the standards; I know how they work.  I understand the curriculum.  I know what the state tests look like. It’s all a part of the job.  But the biggest part of the job is learning how to reach the students no matter what these mandates are (despite whether or not we agree with them). 
 
What education needs is for everyone to just embrace the new ideas whether they like them or not, so that we can work with them and make those mandates work for our kids.  Each and every student. It’s not easy.  In fact, it will take a lot of will, grace, resilience, (maybe some tears, a few tough workouts, a massage or two…) but I’m up for the challenge.  I care about my students.  And if you’re the kind of teacher who cares more about getting through the day, making it to June, or receiving your paycheck, than your students maybe you’re ready for a different vocation. I’m not saying “give up your life to be the best teacher you can be” I’m saying accept the reality and learn to work within it and keep doing all the great things you’re doing.  Oh, and learn, learn, learn.  That’s my plan.  
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