Cutting to the Common Core: Changing the Playing Field 2

In the second installment of a two-part article, Jeff Zwiers, Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard present essential shifts for teaching Common Core Standards to academic English learners

The transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a window of opportunity to fortify what and how we teach. It also provides a chance to reflect on how our most marginalized students most effectively learn the most difficult knowledge and skills. The CCSS challenge us to teach students much more than loosely connected pieces of knowledge and test-taking skills. They offer an opportunity to equip diverse students with deeper understandings of content, more expert thinking skills, and stronger communication skills. They offer a rare opportunity, if we seize it, to make some major shifts in moving from surface-level transmission and memorization models to approaches that richly cultivate the cognitive and communicative potentials of every student.

In our work with teachers and students, we have uncovered eight additional “shifts” (AEL Shifts) in instruction and assessment that are needed to help diverse students succeed. Many of these shifts are not new; they are just reminders of (a) practices that teachers have been using for years to make teaching and learning effective, and (b) what we know we should have been doing all along in our schools. Then again, several shifts do require us to step out and take a fresh view of pedagogical habits. We described three in the previous article, and here are the remaining five.

From Individual to Collaborative
The CCSS value the skills of communication and collaboration, which also serve to develop learning of other standards. The better students get at clarifying, negotiating, and explaining content ideas, the better (more deeply, more enduringly) they learn the ideas. And the better students become at communicating in school, the better prepared they are for communicating in higher education and life.

We must therefore shift from preparing individuals for individual tests to having students collaboratively learn ideas and communicate them. This means reducing the time spent on having students fill in blanks and, instead, having students negotiate and clarify with one another the meanings of the words that would go in the blanks — and then use the words to construct clear and authentic messages. We must apprentice students into being able to do many of the things historians, mathematicians, authors, and scientists do as they collaborate in real-world settings.

Example: Ms. Yu’s second-grade classroom, in which students work together to argue, with evidence, whether they would recommend to others living in urban or rural settings. Partner A is told to argue for city life and Partner B against it. Then they switch the topic to rural life. They practice using new language along the way. For example, Ms. Yu models how to state reasons starting with “One reason for living in…, another reason for living in…” Students collaborate to come up with a final recommendation letter for anyone making that decision.

Suggestions for implementation
• Read and watch resources that promote classroom talk, especially paired interactions.
• Focus a grade-level group, content-area team, or professional learning community on the practice of developing productive interactions during lessons.
• Write out a model conversation that you would like your students to use. Notice the various moves and skills used to keep the conversation going.
• Develop formative assessments for use with groups of students, and do not rely solely on individual assessments. You might, for example, develop and use a rubric with the skills needed for paired conversations in history. Sharing this rubric with students helps shift their mindset about the importance of collaboration skills and the role they play in learning.

From Playing School to Learning
As large numbers of students become disinterested in school, they begin to build their skills at “playing school.” This is particularly true of academic English learners, who are more likely to lose interest in school because (a) they can’t keep up with the language and literacy demands of texts and tasks each day, and (b) lessons do not connect to students’ languages and cultures. How do you play the game? Keep quiet, turn in work (even if copied), minimally answer questions, talk as little as possible in class and group discussions, and stay out of trouble.

We must strive to reduce this school game playing and build a culture/mindset in the classroom that focuses on learning. Other shifts in this article, in fact, can help build up such a culture. For example, as students begin to own language and use it to communicate authentic and whole messages, as teachers allow and value collaboration, and as schools treat students as thinkers with ideas worth sharing, a learning culture will form.

Example: Mr. Salazar’s seventh-grade history class. Rather than just memorize ideas from the textbook, students are using primary sources to analyze the Black Plague. As they discuss in groups and pairs, Mr. Salazar has them use the new words and facts they have learned from the texts to argue the issue. They then compare it to other plagues and disasters in history. He teaches students to talk as historians would talk about the issue.

Suggestions for implementation:
• Think of facts and concepts to be learned as elements to be learned for a purpose, as they would be in the real world. Students are more likely to learn if there is an engaging reason or direction. Put yourself in a student’s shoes and think about how interested you would be in the activity or lesson.
• Do some action research on intrinsically motivated learning in your students; survey them and see what kinds of topics, activities, or products make them want to learn regardless of points or grades.
• Hold a discussion about intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for learning in school. Have students reflect on how well they learn despite good or bad grades on certain products of learning.

From “Direct” to “Less Direct” Teaching
This shift might raise a few eyebrows, since “direct” and “explicit” approaches have been around a long time and some have gained momentum in recent years. Direct approaches tend to involve large amounts of teacher talk telling students what they need to learn. Teachers model, describe, and explain as students listen and then do what was modeled. There is often some “checking for understanding” along the way, in which students answer questions out loud, on paper, or on a mini-whiteboard to show the teacher that they have learned.

Of course, some form of “direct” teaching is needed at times in most lessons. Teachers do need to simply tell or explain to students certain things — but not for the whole period. A big challenge is that this type of teaching creates the illusion of learning. Many academic English learners’ minds need to process the ideas, work with (knead) the information, and sculpt it with others. They need to try ideas out in safe settings and do new and engaging things with the ideas.

The development of academic language is a messy, dynamic, social process that is far from linear and instead “spirals” up and out over time in different ways for different students at different rates. For example, in October we cannot check off Carlos’s learning of a standard such as “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.8). We have to monitor growth in a standard like this one during the entire year (and over the years) with a wide range of texts. In most cases, we will never know exactly when or how a student learned a particular academic-language expression or skill. It developed “indirectly,” over time, as a result of purposeful reading and writing of academic texts and working with others in engaging tasks that required Carlos to push himself to articulate and negotiate newly forming ideas.

A classroom snapshot of this shift is Ms. Lee’s fifth-grade math class. With a focus on scale, area, and volume, she is having students design a city and estimate the rough costs of the materials for constructing it. She introduces various requirements, such as building shapes and heights and thickness measures for concrete and pavement. Students also bring in boxes of different sizes to create a large-scale model of the city. She asks students to be city planners and figure out the cost of materials for one building (she holds a box in her hand), telling them the scale is 1:100. She has them discuss in pairs what they will do first and what information they need. She provides the information (e.g., cost of materials per square meter) as they ask for it, and she guides them as they work together to solve problems related to the project.

Suggestions for implementation
• Prompt for, use, and validate students’ ideas throughout each lesson. Build on these ideas to model the types of thinking that you want to develop in the lesson.
• Encourage students to become experts in certain topics to be learned. Allow them to go beyond what you might directly teach to learn more in-depth concepts within a discipline.
• At times, don’t spoil the “plot” of a lesson: don’t start the lesson by describing its objectives. Instead, have students engage in an activity or simulation and have them discuss what they did learn, are learning, or still need to learn in the lesson. Have them come up with the objectives after and as they learn them.

From Testing to Assessment and Beyond
This shift is somewhat controversial (as shifts tend to be), but we include it anyway to spark some reflection. Under NCLB, many classroom practices for academic English learners focused on improving test scores. This meant loads of activities and time spent on learning how to — individually and silently — read many short, unrelated texts, choose or guess right answers, read the test questions beforehand and look for answers, memorize grammar rules, write with writing “formulas,” and navigate the various parts of tests in a short amount of time. The focus, as mentioned in AEL Shift Two, was quantitative: getting as many facts and rules learned as possible, and then using them to score highly on tests. The new standards, however, tend to emphasize the quality of conceptual understandings and communication.

Some of the most important language and skills, such as creating new ideas and conversing with others to solve a problem, are too difficult, expensive, and subjective to assess every year in standardized ways. And yet, such skills are vital — especially for academic English learners. We can use standards and assessments to give us a baseline of what to teach, but we will often need to teach well beyond them. We will need to teach things that aren’t counted on the color-coded spreadsheets.

And when the standardized tests for the new standards do arrive, we must resist the ingrained habits, black-hole-like forces, and temptations to look at the sample test questions, break them down, and focus yet again on parts and pieces that are the most testable. When we use our time on these things, it is at the expense of teaching students how to create and communicate whole ideas. There are many vital standards that will never be tested well enough with computer programs. We will need to (here is the controversial part) design and improve our own assessments, formative and summative.

A snapshot of this shift is several fourth-grade teachers who assess paired conversations in the last month of each semester. Students don’t know the exact day they will need to have an intelligent conversation (much like in real life), so they prepare and practice throughout the semester. They prepare in each subject area. Teachers observe conversations and support the use of language and skills as needed. Teachers realize that this assessment doesn’t directly (or explicitly) prepare students for yearly state tests, but they believe that this focus counts more than many of the things that are more easily counted.

Suggestions for implementation
• Focus professional development and learning communities on improving formative assessment of standards that are linguistically challenging and don’t get assessed in the tests (e.g., conversation skills).
• Share ideas for creating and adapting real-world-like performance assessments that develop and show the learning of multiple standards.
• Develop protocols for the design of assessments of student practices and teacher practices so there is a common language for— and culture of — engaging in data-informed instructional change.

From Silos to Sustainable Systems
All of the previous shifts, of course, require yet another meta-shift: changing the system from isolated pockets of practice to an integrated model that sustains growth. This model includes coaching, collaboration, observations, data analyses, conversations, leadership practices, relationships, cultural practices, and policies that support complex language and literacy development for academic English learners. This shift requires educators at all levels in a system to know what to communicate and how to communicate it.

A key feature of this shift is communication. We can and should share loads of information about our students, how they learn, how they don’t learn, what they are learning and need to learn. And the system needs to be set up to maximize this communication. It builds networks that productively share ideas. Another feature of a sustainable system is its focus on high-quality data. The system should always strive to get and analyze increasingly useful data on student learning and teaching practices.

A classroom snapshot of this shift is Mr. Cook’s instructional coach, Ms. Rizzi, who helps him focus on certain elements of lesson planning that are vital for teaching English learners. Currently, they are focusing on improving students’ abilities to evaluate evidence from fiction and nonfiction texts. After a lesson observation, Ms. Rizzi shared a scaffolding idea that she had seen another teacher use and they discussed how to adapt it for the academic English learners in Mr. Cook’s class. Moreover, to develop her coaching practices, Ms. Rizzi attends professional development workshops and meets with district leaders, school administrators, and other coaches at the school.

Suggestions for implementation
• Cultivate communities in your school where educators collaboratively engage in disciplined inquiry around instructional problems of practice.
• Hold department-level or school-level data sessions where teachers analyze and share student work and discuss ideas for instructional improvement. Beforehand, make sure the data is valid and valuable.
• Allow time for teachers to share their learning from professional development they have attended with others at their school or within their district.
• Develop a school- or district-level design team consisting of teachers, coaches, and administrators. The role of the design team would be to identify cross-cutting instructional challenges and to identify the resources (professional development, collaboration time, tools and materials) needed to address these problems and improve instruction.

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Jeff Zwiers, PhD, is a senior researcher at Stanford University; Susan O’Hara, PhD, is executive director of CRESS, School of Education, University of California, Davis; Robert Pritchard, PhD, is professor of educational leadership at Sacramento State University. This article is adapted from Chapter 1 of Common Core Standards in diverse classrooms: Essential practices for developing academic language & disciplinary literacy, by Jeff Zwiers, Susan O’Hara, & Robert Pritchard, (2014). Stenhouse.