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Texts, Tasks, and Talk: Instruction to Meet the Common Core in Grades 9--12

By: Brad Cawn
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Align teaching with next-generation standards. To fully address the Common Core State Standards, educators must pair standards-aligned instructional goals with high-quality texts or content. The author underscores the crucial role of selecting, preparing, and incorporating texts in curriculum design and the importance of close reading, rigorous task construction, purposeful classroom discussion, and focused collaboration in literacy instruction.

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Introduction: The New Standard

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Introduction

THE NEW STANDARD

The relationship between standards and instruction can often be paper-thin—literally. We’ve all been there—drawing up a unit or lesson and then dropping the standards on top right before hitting the print button. As high school teachers, we know our students and our content—instruction is surely aligned to standards. But does our instruction address the standards? It’s not always clear.

Teaching that is up to standard is different. It starts with standards–aligned instructional goals paired to high-quality texts and content. It is learning centered, prioritizing the literacy skills and conceptual knowledge needed for students to be proficient and independent thinkers, readers, and writers in the content area you teach. It is dialogic and inquiry oriented. Student work that is up to standard is different, too: it is complex, knowledgeable, and divergent and creative, to use just a few of the descriptors from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS); it does not fit into a template. This is rigor.

 

Chapter 1: Five Essentials to Teaching With Next-Generation Standards

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FIVE ESSENTIALS TO TEACHING WITH NEXT-GENERATION STANDARDS

The Common Core and other next-generation standards are neither the salvation nor the destruction of education. As standards go, the Common Core and other newer standards frameworks are okay. They are better than most previous standards, to be sure; they are not, however, perfect. But standards don’t need to be perfect; they only need to be useful to teacher work—all of the things teachers do to ensure their instruction is up to standard. The Common Core or any other standards framework is, after all, not an initiative; standards are just learning objectives, occasionally vague, and by no means comprehensive. Most importantly, they are nothing without great teaching. The only initiative in the CCSS is what you or others push to do with the standards.

While your literacy standards likely dictate very little about what classroom instruction should look like, they’re organized and articulated in ways that, when read closely, provide a framework for what instruction could be. Grab your standards: let’s get to work! We will begin by exploring five key ideas for teaching with next-generation standards.

 

Chapter 2: Shifting to Complex Texts

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SHIFTING TO COMPLEX TEXTS

Text complexity, as the next three chapters make clear, has upped teaching complexity. For students to read and understand grade-appropriate complex texts independently and proficiently, high school teachers must be more intentional about selecting what students read, more conscious of when they expose students to certain texts, and simply better at how they help support students’ understanding of these texts. Without a shift in teaching commensurate with the new demands for text complexity, it is unlikely that students will be college and career ready in accordance with the new criteria (Williamson, Fitzgerald, & Stenner, 2014). Texts and teaching, in other words, must both be up to standard in order to foster learning capable of meeting these new demands.

The fundamental difference between next-generation standards like the Common Core and previous iterations of state learning benchmarks is the expectation for what and how students read; it is now an actual standard, and students will be tested on it. That standard, Reading anchor standard ten, is the critical outcome of your work during a given year: it represents students’ ability to comprehend—“independently and proficiently”—appropriately rigorous texts with the appropriate intellectual rigor. This is at the core of the work, no matter the content area, but it is also a benchmark for daily instruction. What texts you select and how you support students in meeting the demands of the content are what many of the grade-level articulations of Common Core Reading standard ten defines as the “scaffolding as needed” to enable all students to engage in and do work that is up to standard (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). This is complex work, but the two principles underlying text complexity are themselves quite simple.

 

Chapter 3: Creating a Long-Term Vision for Complex Texts

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CREATING A LONG-TERM VISION FOR COMPLEX TEXTS

Next-generation standards like the Common Core put the text at the center of instructional decision making; it follows, then, that the text should also be at the center of how high school educators prepare to teach. The challenge is that nothing in Reading anchor standard ten, or any standard for that matter, specifically addresses the how. The standards, as it is commonly said, address only the what. That leaves three lingering questions for teachers to address as they get their curriculum and instruction—and then their students—up to standard.

1.  What are the best, most appropriate texts in a given text-complexity band for my students?

2.  Because there’s a band, or range, of text complexity, how do I structure student experiences with these texts over time?

3.  What kind of scaffolding is necessary to ensure proficiency with these texts?

To answer these questions, a teacher needs to deliberately and strategically plan student experiences with texts over both time and skill level, supporting and scaffolding these experiences instructionally. Planning with texts demands the same intensity as planning with standards—that is, it should be a focus all the time. Texts, then, must be a part of the same conversations about standards and intended outcomes—not an afterthought.

 

Chapter 4: Preparing Texts for Daily Instruction

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PREPARING TEXTS FOR DAILY INSTRUCTION

Whether or not to commit to using more rigorous texts and tasks should not be the question; rather, the question should be how—on a given day, in a given unit, given students’ current level of capacity and understanding—to do so. Here again is that key planning shift for teachers: the text serves as not only the core of content learning but also the tool by which teachers make determinations for how best to support student learning.

Indeed, in choosing to use a complex primary source or scientific journal article, a teacher’s control over what and how to use the text—the purpose, the content focus, the length—is not limited. In fact, preparing texts for teaching is a strategic act of enabling student access. The goal is to leverage the texts—not to mention your ability as an expert reader—as a teaching tool and, conversely, to be proactive about avoiding the potential frustration, disinterest, and distractions that might cause hesitation about increasing complexity in the first place. This chapter discusses two ways of leveraging text as a teaching tool and avoiding potential challenges. The first section discusses how to cluster texts in order to solve rich content-area problems. The second section discusses how to present those texts to students, ensuring access to the ideas students can use to solve the problems.

 

Chapter 5: Collaborating—Reading to Teach

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COLLABORATING: READING TO TEACH

For nearly three decades prior to the creation of the Common Core in 2009, the dominant paradigm of literacy instruction focused on what is sometimes referred to as the “just right” book. What students read was determined by what they could read—what was just right for them as determined by the teacher and assessments. When students struggled, what was just right changed: Shakespeare written in contemporary English, a summary of a laboratory report or article rather than the original document, the textbook summary of primary sources, and so on. The text met students where they were.

Those days are over. The new standard is for texts to meet students where they could or should be. In articulating as a standard the reading of grade-appropriate complex texts independently and proficiently, Common Core Reading anchor standard ten makes clear that all students need to have every available opportunity to engage in grade-appropriate complex texts; it is the teacher, not the text, who must now serve as the primary support in enabling student access and understanding of disciplinary content (NGA & CCSSO, 2010).

 

Chapter 6: Creating Rigorous Tasks

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CREATING RIGOROUS TASKS

Changes in teaching brought forth by next-generation standards are necessary if students are to master the increasing demands to comprehend and critique complex content. Next-generation standards like the CCSS have done more than simply raise the complexity of texts—they’ve called for reading, writing, and thinking skills that go beyond traditional definitions of comprehension and therefore go beyond what is typically included in curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices (Goldman & Lee, 2014). Thus, significant adaptation of instruction is likely for many teachers. They will have to carefully and concurrently select and design tasks and texts, provide strategic discipline-specific skills instruction, and increase deliberate opportunities to practice complex thinking and reasoning processes with complex texts (Goldman & Lee, 2014; Williamson et al., 2014). This is no easy task.

Enactment starts with a clear vision about what it would look like to be up to standard—that is, the task and expectations for student performance. Begin, then, with the end in mind: the writing components of the assessments that will define students’ college-readiness (such as SBAC), college entry (such as the ACT), or college credit (such as AP). With the Common Core in hand, examine examples of the college-readiness or entrance assessments your students take, first by considering each task individually: what does it demand of students, and how is this different from previous iterations of the assessment, or from other similar assessments? Next, look across the tasks. What seems to be the trend, the connection, in the design and demands of the next-generation assessments?

 

Chapter 7: Teaching Close Reading

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TEACHING CLOSE READING

Nowhere in the text of the CCSS is there explicit articulation of or reference to the term close reading; even appendix A, the addendum on text complexity, doesn’t mention it (NGA & CCSSO, 2010, n.d.a). The closest the standards get to specifying or alluding to the idea is in Reading anchor standard one: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text” (NGA & CCSSO, 2010, emphasis added). What appears to be a small distinction is, in fact, a critical implication for your work.

Let’s start by being clear about what close reading is, since it’s a term mentioned often in Common Core literature. Close reading has two common uses: (1) as a verb (to close read) to indicate a kind of practice and (2) as a noun (a close reading) to indicate a kind of pedagogy. In the former, as it has traditionally been used, close reading refers to a reader systematically reading and rereading a text in order to “investigate the specific strength of a literary work in as many details as possible … understanding how [the] text works, how it creates its effects on the most minute level” (Mikics, 2007, p. 61)—what Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (1972) call “x-raying a book” (p. 75). In the latter usage, an idea spawned by the writers of the Common Core, a close reading is a kind of lesson in which the teacher spends significant instructional time—two or more days, often—walking students through a text, line by line or paragraph by paragraph, in order to unpack the literal and inferential meanings of the text (Coleman & Pimentel, 2012). Recommendations for conducting this kind of close analysis range from anywhere between once a month to three times a week.

 

Chapter 8: Setting the Standard for High-Quality Talk

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SETTING THE STANDARD FOR HIGH-QUALITY TALK

With the Common Core, collaborative discussion is more than just a good teaching practice—it is the standard, literally. Indeed, Speaking and Listening standard one for grades 9–10 and for grades 11–12 both demand that students “initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions … with diverse partners on … topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively,” making collaboration part of the comprehension process (NGA & CCSSO, 2010). This aligns with a growing body of research indicating that rich discussion can increase students’ abilities to think about and learn from text (Beck & McKeown, 2006), students’ engagement in reading (Guthrie et al., 2004), and the sophistication of their thinking, not only mentally or verbally but in writing too (Resnick, O’Connor, & Michaels, 2007; Sfard & Kieran, 2001). Interaction, then, can be thought of as a mechanism for learning; it is not just an activity, as we often think of when we plan for small-group work. It is an instructional support that, if designed strategically, helps scaffold students toward an understanding of complex material. Get students to carefully talk about texts, and it stands to reason that they’ll be able to read, write, and talk about them better on their own as well.

 

Chapter 9: Moving Collaboration to the Core

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MOVING COLLABORATION TO THE CORE

Uncertainty around teaching with new standards is inevitable, as an evidence base for expert practice remains elusive. However, this gap creates the opportunity for teachers and schools to embrace exploration, practice, and reflection and to inquire about and design best practices rather than simply accumulate them. Implementing next-generation standards means not simply teaching but learning, too.

Thus, no vision for supporting the enactment of next-generation standards can require expertise to simply be imposed. We can’t improve instruction merely by being informed about instructional improvement. We must improve instruction itself, and this work takes place in classrooms and for classroom practice. Research confirms that the most effective professional learning is focused on the work of teaching and is situated in the context of that work: teachers working together to study their actual teaching practice (the work of teaching) in and about the sites and settings in which they teach (their context; Borko, Jacobs, & Koellner, 2010; Desimone, 2011). With such a practice-centered vision, teachers regularly participate in intentional, structured mentoring and coaching; learn, observe, and rehearse teaching practices; analyze student work; and collaboratively develop new curriculum and assessment (Glazer & Hannafin, 2006; Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2001; Hertzog, 2002). Beyond simply imparting instrumental knowledge—to know new things about teaching or new ways of teaching—professional development that focuses on practice advances the development of the mindset and problem-solving capacity critical to helping teachers respond to complex and uncertain teaching situations. In other words, it helps them implement the next-generation standards.

 

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