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In Other Words: The Difference Between the 'What' and the 'How' of the Common Core

by Lori DiGisi
August 18, 2011
At the 2011 IRA Annual Convention, literacy leaders from twenty-five states gathered to discuss the Common Core State Standards. We discussed a variety of issues, including:
  • how to unpack the Common Core Standards
  • what the expectations are for students to read and write across different types of text and media
  • how to teaching writing that explains, informs and argues in kindergarten through high school and in history, social studies, science and the technical subjects
  • why students will need to learn to read increasingly complex text as they progress through the grade levels.
This exciting discussion revealed that there is a great deal of work to do in order to implement these standards and that states—and state councils—are approaching this work differently.

As a literacy professional working with teachers to understand the Common Core, I have found that unpacking the standards is an essential task. Just as the standards ask us to teach students how to “undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature,” we have to give these standards a close attentive read. And as skilled readers, we will want to discuss our thinking with others.

IRA Engage offers us an opportunity to collaborate with others across the nation that are working to make sense of this complex text, and think about what these standards mean for literacy instruction in our nation’s schools.

It is important to note that these standards were constructed by thinking about what students need at the end of grade twelve to be college and career ready, and then progressing down the grade levels to kindergarten. Although these standards have been adopted by many states, there are still concerns. For more information on some of these concerns, see Freddy Hiebert’s post about complex text in Kindergarten.

Yet, David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the Common Core State Standards, reports that according to ACT data, the single most reliable academic predictor of whether or not a student is going to succeed in college and/or a career is the ability to “read a complex text independently with confidence.” He then goes on to model his view of what a close read of complex text should look like with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

A literacy educator watching this video may be taken aback by his dismissal of the many pre-reading activities that are typically part of our practice. So, how do we take this image of the expectation of what students are supposed to be able to do independently, according to the Common Core State Standards, and think about what our teaching should look like in kindergarten, when children are just beginning to learn about text, through 12th grade, when students should be able to read complex text independently?

I think that the key to the conversation lies in understanding that the standards describe what students are supposed to know and be able to do at each grade level, while our teaching reflects how students are going to get there. As teachers, we know that students will arrive in our classrooms differing in their background knowledge, experience with print, language, cultures, and attitudes toward books and writing.

We also know that some students will be curious, passionate about specific topics, eager, able to persevere, confident and ready to explore any text, while others will be hungry, anxious, limited in their world and literacy experiences, and as a result, tentative toward learning. I believe that knowledge about our students and knowledge about multiple approaches to teach students to read, coupled with a passion for literacy is how we will help students read complex text independently and where we need to focus our energy.

We can recognize the differences between these standards and our current practices. These standards call for a greater emphasis in reading and writing informational text. From kindergarten on students are encouraged to engage in reading activities with informational text and draw connections across those texts. They are encouraged to share their opinions in pictures and words. When we look at these standards closely, we can start to think about how our classrooms will look differently with this greater emphasis on informational text and writing.

We can recognize that these new standards place a greater emphasis on disciplinary literacy, the specific ways of reading and writing in the disciplines of history, social studies, science and technical subjects. For teachers in grades six through twelve, this means that they will have literacy objectives in addition to their content objectives.

We can also recognize that these standards call us to integrate new literacies into the work we do with students. A recent YouTube search turned up this video, in which two year olds are playing with iPads, suggesting that some children who come to our classrooms will have multi-media literacy activities at their fingertips, literally.

Fortunately, at IRA there are so many excellent researchers and teachers who have written on these topics. I know that I will be using the knowledge that I have gained from these publications as I look at the Common Core Standards and think about creating classroom practice that will address the diversity of readers we teach. And, of course, we have each other. I hope that you will join this discussion. Talk about the standards that you are thinking about and working with, and share the resources that assist educators in helping students to understand and enjoy complex works of literature.

I do want to point out that the standards include the word “enjoy.” The key to engaging students is to create a joyous literacy environment—one where reading and knowledge gained from reading is celebrated, and sharing the books we read for pleasure becomes a classroom norm. The challenge is to support joyous inquiries for each of our diverse students while integrating opportunities to engage with different texts of varying complexity. And it is a challenge, but I remain optimistic.

After all, we have this IRA community, and all the knowledge that exists within it. Now, with Engage, we also have the ability to communicate with one another 24/7, from anywhere in the world.

Lori DiGisi serves as an educational specialist for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Previously, she worked as a literacy specialist at Fuller Middle School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. She's a past president of the Massachusetts Reading Association, the current president of IRA's Secondary Reading SIG, and an active member of the Legislative Action Team.

© 2011 Lori DiGisi. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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