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Feeling ill: Common cold or common core?

5 min read


Like seemingly everyone I know, I have been struck with the oddest seasonal cold I have ever had. Now well into it’s second week of existence, the virus has been a roller coaster of feeling 100% okay one hour and then sweating, coughing, body aching my way through a read aloud with sixth-graders the next. It was so terrible the school’s assistant principal agreed I should go home with the sincere direction: “go get better.” It’s been a leaving work early, nightstand full of tissues, muscles on fire, kind of a cold.

Not knowing how you will feel from minute to minute, roller-coaster from aches to calm and back again, piles of stuff next to your bedside seem to be the symptoms of another national outbreak: Common Corefluenza.

Understanding the outbreak: Standards vs. initiatives

First, separate the symptoms from the cause. This is true of cold viruses, we all present symptoms differently. The same holds true for the standards.

Let me define this virus for a moment. It is not the standards themselves. Just as a cold virus is not cold weather, though related. Common Corefluenza is the deluge of “the standards DEFINITELY say you MUST teach like this” and “these modules are EXACTLY how you MUST organize your instruction” and nearly anything with the term “EXEMPLAR.”

I wrote about this Common Corefluenza for SmartBlog (before hatching that snappy name) in a July 2012 post, which described how the CCSS document states clearly, and I think rather progressively, what the standards do and do not say. Tim Shanahan (whose point of view I appreciate, though don’t always agree with) takes up a similar beat in a recent Educational Leadership article.

Home remedies

I am quite literally writing this with a humidifier running, rapidly cooling ginger tea, a pile of cough drops and, yes, Kleenex shoved in my nose. We are all friends here.Often times the best ways to fix what ails you begin at home. The same holds true for helping yourself deal with making sense out of all of the options swirling around.

1) Ask, “The standards or you?” An important first step is asking: “Do the standards say that or do you [person telling me what I am supposed to be doing] just believe that?” Every educator needs to be scholars of the actual text of the standards. Separate the text-evidence of the standards from the argument of the speaker. Do so for me as well.

2) Ask “Can you show me?” Whoever is telling you how to teach should also be willing to respond to questions like: “Could we set up a time where you could demonstrate this approach with my kids, in my school? Or could I come see this at another school like mine?” By nature there is always a line between idea-making and hands-dirty-practice. How many times have you brainstormed something in a faculty meeting only later to have it flop with students? Flops are essential learning, so make sure any approach has had its share of them as well as reflection and revision. This “show me” can weed out the still-in-infancy ideas while providing great PD when things do go well.

3) Speak up. The Common Corefluenza may be an outbreak, but it is also one that has already had some remedy. It is important that, just as the standards expect students to, we look at things critically and speak back with clear, supported, arguments. That Educational Leadership article I cited earlier describes one example of educators talking back to “you MUST”s from two of the lead architects of the standards:

Although there was a lot of shaky information in the publisher’s criteria documents, the most immediate turmoil raged around claims that it was inappropriate to discuss student background knowledge, have students make predictions about what they would read, or provide purposes….Coleman and Pimentel viewed the increasingly divisive, frustrated, and angry responses from teachers and researchers with dismay, and they quickly retreated. In April 2012, they issued a startling revision of the publisher’s criteria in English language arts and literacy for grades 3–12 that stripped away, among other things, the admonitions against prereading (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012; Gewertz, 2012).

This is one example. And there are many others. Take independent reading. It was being harshly criticized by many as the standards first came out, now in the last week alone people who have spoken out against it are now saying things like students should read a broad diet, have opportunities with texts they can read easily without a teacher nearby, and that balance matters. It’s been refreshing. It is happening because educators who work with students every day continue to speak up.

4) Be innovative and reflective. None of this should be read as suggesting that we fight to keep things the same for the sake of keeping them the same, just as we shouldn’t change everything just because it sounds like a good idea. We do have a long way to go to educating every child, and that road is paved with thoughtfulness and reflection. Take the CCSS as an invitation to experiment with new approaches and be certain your criteria for success is not if you met someone’s expectation for an initiative, but if it led your students to new thinking and more developed independent practice.

Wash your hands regularly: Don’t spread germs

Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands regularly with soap and water. If a questionable “MUST” initiative doesn’t sound right, don’t spread it around.

Christopher Lehman is an author, a speaker and a senior staff developer at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University. His latest book, “Energize Research Reading and Writing,” is now available. He can be found on his blog and on Twitter @iChrisLehman.