We as educators can overreact and be quick to adopt the latest buzzword or change strategies based on understanding of the standards. A Common Core education is neither limiting nor restrictive in literacy. In fact, the standards are the opposite. They push us to think of literacy beyond story and expand our curriculums to include many different perspectives while supporting our ideas with evidence from the texts we choose.
Literacy and Common Core Education
A well rounded curriculum in which students read in both a variety of contents as well as from a variety of perspectives prepares students to read anything put in front of them. This is very important in the common core. It is the main aspect of the standards that is supposed to eliminate test prep as a subject area.
The Types of Thinking and Engagement Must Change
When we read in social studies, we analyze differently than when we read in other subjects. If there is no difference than students lump all reading into literature or informational. Often test prep materials shortchange students on reading passages because they lump them into these two categories. It’s boring and it doesn’t prepare students for higher level work.
Social Studies Thinking
Social Studies and history is a subject not taught by textbooks alone. They are effective in summarizing historical events, but do not provide a full picture. Students need to engage in authentic primary and secondary sources and, consider who the author was and how they wrote from their perspective. They need analyze multiple perspectives on the same events and consider multiple points of view. This is just scratching the surface of the content area, but it is critical to differentiate the material. The strategies and methods for each subject should be different.
Thinking in Science
Science is equally distinct as a subject area. Authentic scientific texts can provide evidence, both in the form of data and observations, that supports the researcher’s conclusions. It is a wonderful content area to explore argument writing because the evidence is often concrete. It can be scaffolded to build student understanding. Science is a subject area where students should not only read, but they should also explore. They should conduct experiments connected to their reading and follow the scientific method.
Expand literacy beyond text to include visual arts, photography, and film. Do not limit students to only the written word, because the expression of ideas happens in many forms, but be careful not to water down the thinking. For instance, if you watch a film or a scene from a film have students think about how the film is edited and how the filmmakers design the scene. Just as in reading text, visual literacy is also about more than the plot. Engaging students in visual literacy not only breaks up the day and makes it more fun, but also helps students become more critical thinkers in a world filled with images.
Change the Teaching Style – Don’t Introduce Every Text
Educators have no idea what passages will be on the test. Going through a test prep booklet will not help students in engaging unfamiliar text easily. Instead, consider the ways in which text is introduced within the classroom. Use the real materials in your curriculum, but rethink your role. Is it really necessary for students to have a historical context before they read a text for the first time? If it is, then text itself is not very effective. Is it really necessary to limit the lens of reading by introducing a skill before students read? Instead, consider high level questions to engage students in while they read text worth reading. Allow the text you choose to do the work and worthy of your student’s time.
Give Students an Opportunity to Engage the Text
How often do your students engage a text on their own with minimal input from you to start? No skill mini-lesson or historical overview. None. This is how they take a standardized test and how most of us engage in the world on a daily basis. All they have is the text in front of them. Variety in length and subject is vital, but not just reading the text, but thinking within the subject area. Hold back at first. Then consider how you will use those texts over multiple days. Do not be so quick to move on.
Vary the length
If you want to prepare students for standardized tests then they must read in a variety of lengths. Engage students in different types of thinking across each type. For content areas, create text sets in your units and have students analyze the entire text set under a single, complex question. Offer opportunities to write and respond both with in class essays and longer form projects. Connect it all to a rubric so students get ongoing feedback.
Limit Your Assessments
Restraint is the key to good assessment. Teacher evaluation rubrics and buzzwords, checks for understanding, can be misleading at times to have us believe this means all assessment all the time. While true that teachers should be checking for understanding all the time that doesn’t mean that students are testing all the time. Spread out assessments so that you only measure student progress when you need to. In between provide feedback to students on their work per the rubric. Plan for the gaps in student understanding. Test again. No need to grade 15 homework sheets a week and grade everything they hand in, in class. Provide feedback, not grades. The space in between assessments allows learning to happen for all students because it doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone.
Engage your students in not only a variety of texts, but also in a variety of thinking about texts. They need this before you even consider preparing them for an exam. It will also help them improve far more than substituting large chunks of time with test prep materials. There are specific skills students need to be successful on standardized tests, but being a critical thinker across a large variety of texts comes first.
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