Common Core Drama Fest

So, at the risk of potentially alienating some of my followers, I am going to tackle the Common Core Standards. Not tackle as in, throw to the ground in a bullying manner, but tackle as in try to sum up my thoughts in a succinct and non-polarizing way. Although that last part will be pretty difficult, since by their very nature the Common Core Standards have become polarizing themselves.

Let me start by saying that I support CCSS. And here’s why: there have been standards around for years. Standards are not some new-fangled educational theory that our students are being experimented on with. All the states have standards. They have for a long time. The problem was that they all had different standards. Back in the day, when mobility was less common, this wasn’t a problem. It was unlikely that students would move from their home in the middle of the school year and go to a completely different state. It did happen, but it wasn’t frequent. Within the past 10-15 years, however, mobility has increased dramatically. It is common for students to move at least once during the year – not just between districts within a state, but between states themselves. I, personally, have had numerous instances where a student will be the subject of custody battles and go mid-year to live with a parent in another state only to come back a few months later to the original parent. Bottom line: kids move. All the time. All over the place. Now, let me tell you (although for those of you who are teachers, this will be a bit of preaching to the choir) how frustrating it is to get a new student from another state who is either a) so far ahead of your current class that there is no hope of interesting them in the material or b) so far behind your current class that there is no hope of interesting them in the material. This happens All. The. Time. This is because states have different standards that benchmark different skills and concepts at different points in time. Having a common set of standards across different states lessens that problem. Of course you still have curricular issues – you can’t help it if you do To Kill a Mockingbird fourth quarter but the kid’s last teacher did it first quarter so they’re bored out of their minds. But the common standards do help.

And let’s focus now on the operative word in the title: Standards. Not “test” or “assessment” or “curriculum,” but Standards. It is so frustrating to me when people (who are woefully uneducated on CCSS) get all up-in-arms because Common Core testing is taking over the world or going to cause more testing for students, or any other such nonsense. State testing has been around since NCLB started a decade and a half ago! Tests exist to assess students’ mastery of standards. The standards themselves are not a test, nor is there any specific test that is mandatory with regards to CCSS. It doesn’t matter which standards a state has; there is going to be a test to assess them. That doesn’t make the standards themselves evil.

Nor does it make any sense when those (again, pitifully undereducated about CCSS) individuals cry conspiracy theories that CCSS is some plot to communize our country or a means by which the federal government is planning to take over the world (or at least diminish states’ rights). This is just dumb. First of all, the standards aren’t mandatory. The number of states opting out of CCSS is testament to that. Obama isn’t forcing any states to adopt the standards. Second, the standards were devised at the state level, by people (who, by the way, are part of the educational field and profession) who simply wanted to create some commonality for benchmarks throughout the states. States and local governments still have the right to choose which test to assess the standards with, which curriculums to use to teach the standards, which method to use to evaluate teachers, and all the other important things conservatives clamor about. (Not trying to come down on conservatives, here, since I have some very conservative views on various issues myself, just sayin’ that the bulk of opposition to CCSS comes from conservative groups.)

And no, the state and/or federal government isn’t going to force the standards down the throats of homeschoolers any more or less than they did with whatever standards were previously in place in the state. And I’m tired of seeing posts where parents make snarky remarks on their child’s math homework because the method of delivery for a certain concept is different from how they themselves learned. First of all, just because it isn’t how you did it doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong, and second, the way the teacher is choosing to teach the skill or concept associated with that standard is not a reflection on the positive or negative value of the standard itself.

And I find it telling that the majority (not all, of course, but much) of the protests against CCSS come from people who are not members of the educational field and have no experience in a classroom. The overwhelming majority of teachers I have had contact with support CCSS (at least as much as, if not more than, they did the state’s previous standards). [Side note: And might I add that the educators I have encountered who oppose Common Core do it for legitimate reasons: CCSS content. Either they don’t like the way the standards are worded or they don’t think the standards benchmark skills in an appropriate way, or something truly related to the standards. If you oppose the standards for these legitimate reasons, then I have no qualms with you. Those are reasons that make sense.]

So just stop it already. Stop demonizing what should be a very straight-forward process of doing something positive for our nation’s students. I mean, if you really want to analyze ulterior motives and conspiracy theories, take a look at the companies who are involved in the CCSS and the tests that will be largely responsible for assessing them. Am I the only one who sees the relationship among the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, College Board, PARCC, Smarter Balance, Race to the Top, the VAM, and CCSS as suspicious? All those are in bed together, but no one seems to want to focus on the topic of profitability related to the CCSS. Not even saying that this is a bad thing, but I just find it odd that no one has questioned it.

So there. I’ve said my piece on Common Core. Whether you agree with me or not, your state probably has some version of CCSS adopted. So why not get the resources you need to prepare your students for the assessments that will follow? I have created documents for each grade level, 6-12, with hundreds of ELA CCSS question stems. The link to the 6th grade one is here, and you can find the other grade levels at my online TeachersPayTeachers store.

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Setting Semester Grade Goals

I’m a firm believer in teaching students how to help themselves. You know, that whole – give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll never go hungry – thing? So many students have a learned helplessness that is reinforced every day (mostly unintentionally). One time that this became very evident to me was when I was talking with my students about their GPAs. Report cards had just come out and I told them they could ask me any questions they wanted about them. I got lots of questions about how quarter grades related to exam grades and how quarter and exam grades related to semester grades. I also got a lot of questions about GPAs and how they are calculated. It certainly didn’t surprise me that the majority of my students didn’t know how to calculate their GPAs or figure out potential semester grades given a current quarter grade.

I had so many students that would give up on a class (usually mine) because of a poor first (or third) quarter grade. They thought that because they had messed up and gotten a D or even an F, that their entire year (or at least semester) was over. I realized that if I educated them on how semester grades and GPAs work, they might be more motivated during that subsequent quarter.

So I started my grading tutorials. I took an entire day – each class period – going over how semester grades were calculated and how GPAs were calculated. Then I had students set goals for themselves. I was lucky enough to have a document provided by the district (really designed for teachers, but it should have been a tool for students, as well) that laid out all the possibilities for final semester grades based on both quarter grades and the exam grade. For example, a student got a B 1st quarter, and then he could look at the chart and see all the possible combinations of semester grades based on what his 2nd quarter and exam grade might be. The visible relief I saw on my students’ faces was enough to know that I was doing the right thing by giving up a day of content instruction to teach them this. Students who I could tell were ready to chuck it all and do nothing the entire 2nd quarter because they had failed 1st quarter changed their attitudes immediately. When they realized they could still earn a C (or better, in some cases) for the semester – for that transcript grade – it was like night and day. It also helped my over-achievers who were devastated because they got a B. When they realized that with dedication and hard work that they could still earn an A for the semester, the wailing and gnashing of teeth ceased.

This had unforeseen consequences as well. I had so many students come back and tell me they used my lesson to calculate grades of their other classes. I had students thank me profusely because they knew what they had to do to get the semester grades they wanted. I never dreamed my 1-day tutorial would be so successful. It blew their minds even more that their English teacher had done this for them. They might have expected it from their math teacher, but an English teacher showing them GPA calculations totally surprised them.

Think about teaching your students about this important topic. It might give them the motivation they need to stay on track for the remainder of the semester.

[Side note: I did this with my high school students. I did not do this with my middle school students because their grades were not a semester-based system. This may vary in your school district. You also have to know your district’s policy on how much exams count for in the final semester grade. You might have to do a little leg work up front to get the information you need, but it’s worth it.]

My documents for helping students set semester grade goals can be found here.

What Does That Say?

If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you might know that my teaching experience is in middle and high school. Or you might not. Certainly if you’re reading this for the first time, you probably don’t know that. But now you do. I student taught in 5th and 6th grade and then taught in middle school for 6 years and high school for another 3 before moving into administration. If you teach elementary school, you probably won’t believe this; if you teach middle or high school, you absolutely will: My students’ handwriting had the potential to be atrocious. Sure, I had a chunk of students who wrote neatly enough that I never had to use context clues to figure out what they had written, but there was a large hunk that I routinely had to use trial and error to get through the bulk of their sentences. And that was just for English. Don’t even get me started on trying to read numbers on a math problem. Is that a 1 or a 7? A 3 or an 8? A 4 or a 9? An ‘s’ or a 5? So much head shaking. So. Much. I found it reprehensible that students made it to 7th, 8th, 9th, even 10th grade (or…yes…heaven forbid…12th grade) writing illegibly. I prided myself on being talented when it came to reading what my students thought passed for handwritten work. But it was exhausting. And time consuming.

What to do? Take a page from the elementary school book: handwriting practice. I would identify students who had handwriting so terrible that it took me significant extra time to grade their papers, and I would foist a handwriting assignment upon them. They would be required to do this assignment every day until I was satisfied with their progress. None of them wanted to do it, but I told them I would refuse to take their assignments unless they participated in the program. And the practice worked. Handwriting is all about fine motor skills and muscle memory. It took a few weeks, but I was able to retrain their hands to write more legibly. I didn’t create any calligraphers, to be sure, but I did get them to the point where I didn’t have to take extra time out of my day to try and figure out what certain words were. Don’t be afraid to require attention to detail from your students. If you make it clear that the expectation is there, they will meet it.

You can download my [FREE] handwriting practice tool here. It’s free.

Let’s Make it Happen, Cap’n

When I was a young high school and college student, I fantasized about the wonderful things I would do when I finally became a teacher. I would mold; I would inspire. I would pull Michelle Pfeiffers and save inner city youth from a life of drugs and crime. Students would love me. I would plan lessons worthy of teaching awards. You get the picture. It was easy to be idealistic since I had no actual classroom experience. Then the day came that I actually had real students and was a real teacher. I quickly realized there is a whole side to teaching they never tell you about in your teacher-preparation program (because they know if they did, you’d likely not want to become a teacher anymore): Housekeeping. You know what I’m talking about. Attendance, picking up papers, passing out papers, keeping track of notebooks, collecting locker money, managing tardies, calling home, parent-teacher conferences that aren’t on conference night, IEP meetings, 504 meetings, staff meetings, testing trainings, professional development…the list goes on.

Start looking into any teacher evaluation program around and you will find one of the big measuring tools is the amount of TOT (time on task) for students. Are you teaching bell-to-bell? Are students engaged all the time? Are you able to effectively manage your classroom because it runs so smoothly you don’t really even need to be there? This is hard to do if you haven’t mastered how to deal with the issues in the above paragraph. I started to notice that I was losing valuable TOT at the beginning and end of every class period. It took me way too long to take attendance, pass out papers, pass out notebooks (and other materials), and get students seated and focused on their work. I was losing a good 5-10 minutes a class period, which comes out to 2-4 entire days of instruction. We’re talking about nearly a whole week, people! And if you add that to all the days we already lose for pictures and assemblies and testing and don’t even forget the time each day devoted to the morning show or periodic announcements that interrupt instructional time, and you’re talking about valuable minutes you should be using to teach important concepts and material.

What to do? First, to combat how long it took to take attendance, I began assigning seats to my students. This way, I could just look at which seats were empty and know right away who wasn’t there. For many of the other tasks, I realized that if I wanted my class to run smoothly and efficiently, my students should be responsible and take ownership of the classroom. Thus, I created the class captains. I took all the menial tasks that were sucking the life out of my first and last 5 minutes of class and assigned students to those roles. I even made up applications and students had to “apply” for the “job”. I had a paper captain, a notebook captain, and absent binder captain, an errand captain, and a fill-in captain. My paper captain handed out graded papers and picked up daily assignments for me. My notebook captain passed out any books, journals, folders, etc. My absent binder captain maintained the absent binder students would use after they came back from an absence. The errand captain was the only person allowed to leave the room for runs to the office (This saved SO much time…if an announcement came on that we were supposed to run something down to the office, rather than taking time to pick someone to do it and listen to everyone else whine, I had someone ready to go.). The fill-in captain did any job in case of an absent captain. I “hired” new captains each quarter.

[Side note: I did this in a 7th grade classroom. This idea is actually used relatively frequently by elementary school teachers, but it is successful in middle school as well. My background is in middle childhood education, so I actually came up with it on my own, but realized I had reinvented the wheel when I was discussing it one day with a friend of mine who teaches second grade. Once I moved to high school, I ditched the “cutesy” idea of captains but still had students who routinely did those menial tasks for me each day. And I kept the seating charts…yes, even in high school. The one exception to that was for my seniors. They sat in the same seats every day anyway, so it was pretty much the same thing.]

By using these captains, I was able to devote more time to managing my classroom at the beginning of class, which meant I could focus more on getting students straight to work. I could also teach right up to the bell because I didn’t have to stop to collect things at the end of class: my captains did it. The class ran so smoothly that I never worried about losing instructional time for the menial housekeeping activities ever again.

My class captain matrix is part of my classroom management super-bundle, which can be found here.