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Moving from Content to Standards: Today!

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The quickest way to become standards based in your classroom is to rename units according to the standards--use content as the vehicle to drive instruction.

The quickest way to become standards based in your classroom is to rename units according to the standards–use content as the vehicle to drive instruction.

In many ways, the growth of content over standards has been an impetus for the writing of Next Generation Standards…including the Common Core Standards ELA/Literacy  & Math Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and the C3 Frameworks for History and Social Studies. As teachers, even among those who believed in standards and used standards to design thoughtful and provocative lessons and units, discrete pieces of information–facts-data-minutia, were used in the final measure of sorting out those who were educationally proficient from those who were not. And not always because that is the way standard bearers wanted teaching and learning to be measured but that was the way it has always been done.

Yet the need for teachers to plan instruction around standards rather than content is nothing new to educational pedagogies. A quick Goggle Scholar search turns up nearly 2 million references with publication dates reaching into the 1990s. Even more hits appear on a Bing search…most offering valid examples of practice supported by research based documentation. In the recent past, much has been written on blogs by me and others as well as discussed across Twitter chats. #SBLchat (facilitated by @garnet_hillman, @drjolly, and @WHSRowe) offers weekly discussion opportunities on standards-based learning and grading that attracts hundreds of educators across the country. Yet, for all those words and all that research over all those years, standards-based learning, grading, and assessment is nearly absent in todays’ educational practice. We are a country of content schooling. My wake-up call came last week in a Facebook message when a 1994 graduate of my college prep English class sent me an appreciation note for teaching so much literary trivia that her own teenagers are now impressed!

My summary: Thank you for all the trivia you taught me in your high school English class.

Wendy’s message, though well intentioned, indicated that perhaps I was not the teacher I remembered having been, so I set out to prove that I had not succumbed to “playing the game of school” (Garnet Hillman). Had I, a teacher of critical thinking and proponent of differentiated learning, stayed true to the call of a higher road or had I played the game, followed the rules and objectified learning?

In my search and reflection over years of lesson plans and saved student work, I found many lessons and assessments that challenged students to read cold texts and then evaluate, argue, and synthesize what they uncovered in analysis. But…I also found evidence of being a  game player. The “big tests,” the common semester exams were about knowledge: traits of the hero; characteristics of the epic; structure of Shakespearean drama; identification of speakers from among texts throughout the semester.

Teaching Disciplinary Tools, Concepts, and Skills

My curriculum guide stated “Although a major goal for studying literature is to help students develop an appreciation and understanding of ‘good’ literature, it is essential that students learn the skills that will enable them to read literature on their own and to appreciate and understand it. Teachers should concentrate much of their teaching time in helping students to understand how an author uses characterization [RA.3], structure [RA.5] , language [L.4-6], and setting [RA.3] to create the final effect on the reader” (English IVA and IVB College Preparatory English, p. 4).

Although I am able to identify where today’s standards apply in yesterday’s curriculum guide, I find no place in that guide that directly addresses how help students in that journey.  Rather, the curriculum guide identified objectives that were related to knowledge based on “covering” specific texts and then assessing that knowledge by asking students to recollect what either I had told them or they had discovered with others. Assessment was not based on the very skills deemed in the curriculum guide as essential: “the skills that will enable them to read literature on their own and to appreciate and understand it.” At this point allow me to pause and share another message Wendy had sent me several years ago…a message that assured me although I played, I also did something right.

My summary: Thank you for taking the time to teaching me me how to appreciate literature and giving me the skills to pass my appreciation on to my children.

Here is where next generation assessment diverges from yesterday’s curriculum and assessment: next generation assessment expects and therefore assesses student abilities to put thinking into play as they work through novel (meaning new) texts and problems. If we are to prepare students for a world that daily confronts them with novel texts (from television news reports to blog posts to print media to assembly instructions) then educational lesson and units should focus on those skills and not the content that is the vehicle for teaching. To make my point clear, as an example–instead of teaching Macbeth and testing students over the order quotations appeared in the text, historic background of the play,  and the Renaissance view of the Great Chain of Being–we need to be teaching the use of motif in the structure of a play as a vehicle to build aesthetic impact (RL.11-12.5). And then…evaluate them on that standard rather than reverting to common assessments of quotation identification, ordering of events, symbolism as discussed in class, and other elements of recall.

Start Now: Shifting from Content to Standards

So how do we get there? How do we move beyond isolated content—–teaching the Civil War Unit, the Rock Cycle, The Giver, Westward Expansion, Macbeth, Cell Structure, Young Goodman Brown, Wind & Rain Erosion, Charlotte’s Web and on and on–and into teaching standards? Let’s start now!

Begin by simply renaming your lesson/units. In the past, many teachers have named units according to content: the rocks unit, the poetry unit, the Civil War unit, the Shakespeare unit, the Renaissance unit, etc. By changing the focus of the unit from content to standards and skills, we automatically refocus teaching and learning. So, rather than teach texts such as Bud, Not Buddy (Curtis, 1999)–I rename my unit “determining themes through an exploration of patterns in literature.” The text becomes a vehicle for learning about theme development which I further reinforce through supplemental text (since this is a novel, perhaps using short stories or poems ) demonstrating a similar theme and establishing a literary pattern.

This can as easily be done in science, too, especially with the new standards that support content through practices and crosscutting concepts. Likewise, the College, Career, and Civic Life C3 Framework for Social Studies introduces a similar process and instructional effect in that discipline. Admittedly, C3 Framework states, “…the particulars of curriculum and instructional content…are important decisions each state needs to make in the development of local social studies standards” (p. 14). The skills of questioning, evaluating, communicating, and applying disciplinary concepts and tools pervade understanding throughout social studies content.

Next Generation social studies and science standards provide a framework. The Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards provide grade level continuums. How can teachers combine standards within a grade-level to create cohesive lessons and units that provide practice with teaching and  learning the interdependent skills of literacy? By creating standards based performance tasks built on  groups of related standards rather than teaching standards in isolation.

Regardless of State Assessment, PARCC’s Format Can Work for You

Like the PARCC assessment or not, it has brought the standards a long way forward in doing to some extent what the science and social studies standards do for those disciplines in relating concepts and tools to content. PARCC makes clear what the CC ELA/Literacy Standards do not make clear. In order for students to demonstrate reading proficiencies, they must produce or perform. On the PARCC assessment (for now) this is through  writing–a literacy skill. PARCC has designed literacy tasks at each grade that include (for the  most part) all 0f the standards. They have published the grade-level arrangements on their website under the heading Literacy Form Specifications and ELA/Literacy Task Models. I have simplified those documents  in a tool I will share with you in my next blog. And I have incorporated them in my interactive Performance Task Planners you can find on this website.

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