Staying on Point With Common Core (CCSS)

    Children reading a book sitting on the roof of the house. Boy and girl reading by the light of a flashlight at night.Ryan East celebrates the factual rigor demanded by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

    People cannot even agree over basic facts any more. Unfortunately, current political divisions are deep, and the political party with which one identifies now often dictates not only where one stands on social and fiscal issues but also where one stands on what we once might have thought were basic facts. Is Earth getting warmer? Do vaccines prevent diseases or cause autism? Did Hillary Clinton have a life-threatening illness while running for president in 2016? These questions—and their answers—are straightforward, but they have become charged and divisive. Lines have been drawn, most have chosen sides, and some families are even falling apart because of this divide.

    Here in the U.S., many people refuse to talk about anything political with someone from the other side of the aisle, and worst of all, it seems like everything is political. Few states are swing states during the presidential elections.

    Most states produce lopsided victories for one party or the other, and this seems to be breeding extremist political leaders. The problem with this polarization is that it deepens the gap between the two sets of citizens. To fight this deepening divide, we need to intermingle. We need to understand each other’s pain, problems, and joys to work together.

    Many of us are reading and believing “fake news”—articles that are not substantiated with any legitimate primary or secondary sources.

    Our social media are carefully curated echo chambers in which we have filtered out the words and views of people from the other side of the aisle. We like and repost “news” that merely confirms our own thoughts and biases. And outside of social media, we are often only willing to converse face to face with like-minded neighbors and friends. All of this is a recipe for losing track of the thoughts, the emotions, and perhaps most importantly the facts from the other side.

    However, the wheels have been put into motion on a large scale to make people more skeptical, or at least more careful, when reading news. Also, the doors of effective, interpersonal communication are reopening.

    Reading and citing reputable sources and talking about them with various partners and heterogeneous groups are at the core of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), now adopted by over 40 states. 

    An example of a history/social studies CCSS standard for grades 6–12 has students “cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.” The history/social studies standards do not require students to restate any historical events, but students do have to read and analyze primary and secondary sources on historical events and cite textual evidence to support their claims.

    A similar CCSS English language arts (ELA) standard requires that students “determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.” Another history/social studies standard for grades 6–12 has students “identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).”

    “Let students analyze the realia of their choice—blogs, magazines, online news, and so on.”

    These are valuable skills for anyone consuming news. This is our chance, as educators, to empower students to judge whether an author is using fearmongering tactics, “cherry picking,” or speaking half-truths to push a predetermined agenda.

    Luckily for us educators, real-world, fun examples showing these tricks of language are ubiquitous. Fake news articles from both sides of the aisle employ these standard tricks of language. Pick examples covering various genres—nature, health, sports, beauty, and so on. And let students analyze the realia of their choice—blogs, magazines, online news, and so on. Have students use their inductive reasoning skills to figure out which tricks of language the author is using and what he is attempting to accomplish with this language. Then, have the students talk to others in the classroom about the language used by the author.

    Under the CCSS, history/social studies students in grades 6–12 learn to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” It is important for anyone reading anything on the internet—that is everyone—to be able to distinguish opinion from fact and both of those from reasoned judgment. And, again, given our ever-polarizing and ever-expanding political realm, it is easy to find fiery and postulating language on almost any topic. It will be easy to find realia that will interest each and every student in a classroom. We are lucky to live in such times to have endless fodder for the classroom.

    A CCSS ELA standard in the same vein has students “delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.” This is a really elegant way of asking students to point out liars. We can frame this task to students however we like—although I would imagine students would be more engaged if they were asked to spot liars and expose them to their peers.

    These core skills—knowing how to find and being able to analyze primary and secondary sources, making claims, citing textual evidence to back up those claims, identifying loaded language, identifying the purposeful inclusion or exclusion of certain facts, and the ability to distinguish between facts, opinions, and reasoned judgement—are all vitally important skills for students in these days of the 24-hour news cycle.

    These standards require students to dig deep into texts and question everything they read every step of the way. These skills will have students questioning all of the news they read, all of the news they hear about, all of the news they listen to, all of the comments they read about the news, and so on. Frankly, I think most adults could use a crash course in these skills.

    The CCSS ELA standards do more than just emphasize the use of reputable primary and secondary sources: they require a lot of collaborative conversation, and they are intended to make students college and career ready. The aim is to set students up for success in contemporary workplaces with open floorplans and constant communication by talk, text message, and email. Interpersonal communication is a major part of many modern jobs. Many professionals do not actually produce a physical product at their day jobs, but they do talk—a lot. Effective communication being the bedrock of most professional careers, these standards have become crucial for students. And, as we will see, I think they could have unintended political consequences.

    Young children wearing aprons are playing with a water table together in nursery.A sixth-grade ELA standard requires students to “engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade six topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.” This standard not only requires effective communication but effective communication with “diverse partners.” Students cannot just talk with their like-minded friends in the corner of the classroom. Students have to talk with everyone in the class.

    This standard extending to “issues,” in addition to “topics” and “texts,” is clearly important and paramount for our up-and-coming youths. This standard effectively covers the gamut of things students could possibly talk about.

    Teachers, pick a topic or issue that interests a pair of students, a group of students, or the whole class, and be sure to have everyone share their thoughts. Facilitate conversations around interesting, relevant topics and issues with riveting texts. Again, the internet seems to have been invented to house interesting reading materials. Make sure students keep talking, collaborating, presenting, speaking to others’ points, citing textual evidence, and refining their ideas.

    In the CCSS English language arts standards, there are seemingly no bounds to what students should talk about and to whom they should talk and listen. These standards could have students talking politics, unlike adults who avoid such topics in order to maintain peace. Under the CCSS, today’s students should be talking about their analysis of primary and secondary sources, coming up with novel ideas, and having well-informed conversations about current issues facing the nation and the world. This open communication will hopefully lead to an understanding of “the others.”

    The gregarious English language arts standards will have people talking again, and the history/social studies standards will empower students to be well-versed, informed consumers of information. But the Common Core is just that—the core. It is the responsibility of the states, districts, communities, families, and teachers to teach beyond these core skills. Some states may wish to teach students their state history. Some districts may want their students to read literature by a local author. Some teachers may require their students to read a local newspaper.

    The Common Core is not meant to address every single aspect of students’ educations, but it does teach a set of skills to be implemented through various mediums in the classroom. The standards are open to let teachers cater to their students’ interests. And teachers can teach in their own styles.

    Specific content aside, teachers are teaching their students critical-thinking skills and how to use reliable sources. The trickle-up of these core skills to our future electorate will be immeasurable and the timing impeccable. We should feel lucky that the vast majority of states have chosen to adopt the CCSS. Now, it is on the teachers to put these standards to work making relevant and riveting lessons for the modern classroom.

    Ryan East is an editor in academic publishing. He received an MEd in languages and a BA in Spanish and philosophy from the College of Charleston. He taught Spanish and English in South Carolina public schools and English and math for the Migrant Youth Project on the coast of South Carolina. He is particularly interested in student motivation, maximizing the effectiveness of standards, and differentiating instruction for learning style, interest, and ability.

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