Common Core in Action: Finale

photo-1At the beginning of the year, I wrote a lengthy essay about how I intended to incorporate diverse texts into the Common Core curriculum and laid out my first semester plan. At our semester break, I gave an update with my success and my challenges. Well, the school year is about to come to a close, with finals being next week (yay!), so I thought I’d reflect on how the first year of full implementation of the Common Core standards went.

Well, to be blunt, this year was a tough one and I’m glad it’s just about over. As I stated in an earlier Common Core post, my students are low-skilled therefore they struggled with much of what the standards asked of them. In order to help them attempt to even come close to meeting the standards, I had to slow down my pace which resulted in me having to make a tough decision. I usually teach Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in combination with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio which meets Literary Standard 8.9,  “Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.” This year I had planned to really dig into poetry by reading Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and then having the students write a memoir of their own lives using verse. I was really excited about the prospect of digging into poetry before Shakespeare, but alas, that dream was not meant to be. My students struggled with writing arguments (which I know is tested), so I chose to forgo my exciting poetry unit and allow the students to spend more time analyzing and writing about the issues presented in All American Boys. It was a tough decision, but in the end a good one.

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I didn’t end up skipping poetry entirely, but made it a shorter unit where the students just learned to analyze poetry by looking at a poem’s different elements and by writing a lot of poetry. We read Nikki Grimes’s classic Bronx Masquerade, and the students really got into the book. They, again, connected with a number of the characters and found their own voices by seeing how open the characters were with their words. In addition, we were studying Bronx Masquerade during National Poetry Month, so the students were writing poems almost every day. I was astounded by the creativeness and the depths my students were willing to go to in expressing themselves with their poetry. We all had a lot of fun, while meeting more Common Core standards.

At the beginning of this month, my students took the SBAC (Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium) test. While I have not received the results of the test back yet, I am cautiously optimistic because I know that my students were prepared for the test. By slowing down my pace, I allowed my students to really think about what they were reading, analyze it, and then write about it. I gave them the tools to craft good arguments, and I saw these strategies come to fruition during the test. While I was not over their shoulders reading (or even giving feedback because that is against the law), my students took their time during both sections of the test, and were using all the tools the SBAC test provides. I was very pleased to see that my students were displaying the knowledge that they learned over the past school year.

So, what did I do with my students to wrap up the school year? Well, they are currently preparing to give a panel type presentation of a social experiment they performed last week. Because I teach 8th graders who are fidgety this time of year, I have them participate in a Rice Baby project, which ultimately grounds them in the last few weeks of school year. They read Gaby Rodriguez’s memoir, The Pregnancy Project and used it as a template to perform an experiment that tested people’s perceptions about teen parents, specifically teen parents of color. Again, students really got into the novel, especially since Gaby is Mexican-American like many of my students. They enjoyed discussing the novel and got into the research, planning, and execution of their experiment. At this date, they are working on their experiment write-ups and preparing their panel presentations where they will share their conclusions from the project. This project, again, meets a number of the Common Core standards, yet has the students engage with the standards in a unique way, that connects to their daily lives.

Overall, I’ve worked hard this year to help my students get to where I want them to be and I can only hope that when they begin their high school careers in the fall, they feel like the education they received from me was worth it.

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Common Core in Action: An Update

photo-1As my first semester ended this past week, I thought it would be a fun idea to write a follow-up to my August post about the Common Core in Action. In that essay, I described my units for the first semester and how they connected with the Common Core standards. I was cautiously optimistic that my students would be able meet the standards I set out as I knew that they would struggle with some of the Common Core standards and the new structure to the curriculum. The Common Core focuses on in-depth analysis and use of evidence whereas No Child Left Behind did not. I also knew that many of my students, this year, were low skilled so I anticipated that many of my students would struggle with the curriculum. I hoped that by creating unique and “magical” learning experiences for my students, they would be able to succeed.

As expected my students did, and continue, to struggle with the Common Core curriculum. On the other hand, by exposing them to diverse texts, they have been able to see mirrors of themselves in the literature and that has helped a number of them become more interested in reading. In my first unit, I allowed students to choose from a list that I gave them, and many ended up choosing diverse texts because my list contained numerous diverse books. They did enjoy being able to choose books that were of interest to them instead of reading a book that was forced upon them. It was a great way to start the school year and allowed for some fun classroom discussions as students shared their novels. A number of students ended up reading their classmates books when they were done because of the conversations they had with each other. Watching & listening to their books talks was fun for me and I even ended up reading a few books at the request of my students.

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My biggest success, to date, has been the student’s “hero’s journey” narratives. Unfortunately, because of their reading levels, many struggled with Prophecy, but there were a number of students who enjoyed the novel. They connected with Kira and her journey, and reveled in the fact that Kira was a kick-ass hero, which was a departure from what they were used to. This ability to see themselves, and other people of color in literature, was reflected in the writing as a number of students chose to make their characters people of color. In addition to my students using a geographical location from their 6th & 7th grade social studies, I required students to research different culture’s mythologies and incorporate the stories into their narratives. While not all achieved this, a good number of students did an excellent job with their research and tying different cultural mythology into their stories. One student, who is half Filipino and half Samoan, wanted to use the stories from his Samoan side and I can tell you he did a great job! The excitement on his face when I told him he could, and his realization that his story, his culture matters, will forever stick with me.

Due to schedule conflicts and other crazy stuff, we started reading All American Boys just before the holiday break. It threw off my momentum a bit as some students really got into the novel and read it within a week, while others only read what was required of them. So, as the semester ends I am in the middle of reading All American Boys, and have actually been having some fun with it. My principal is teaching one class, so we are teaching this unit together, and we’ve come up with some very creative ways to engage the students into the content. We decided on the social justice prezi assessment, and will focus on students crafting their persuasive arguments after the semester break. However, we have spent the past few weeks laying the groundwork for evaluating arguments and crafting arguments using All American Boys and articles about police brutality. A number of students have connected with the subject, so the topic has been relevant to their lives.

So, while there has been some hiccups and some frustration, I’m happy that my students were able to see themselves as the hero and become involved in the reading. I am looking forward to the novels I will be teaching in the next semester (there has been some changes) and continuing to creating unique learning experiences for my students. I will admit that I’m very apprehensive for state testing as it is just 2 months away and there is more I’d like to get done in that time but I know it’s just not logically possible. Instead, I will continue to prepare my students the best way I can and hope they remember the lessons I taught them when they are taking the test.  While having my students score well is a goal, the fact that many have become readers again is much more satisfying.

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Common Core in Action

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With many schools already returning for the fall, and even my return tomorrow, I thought I’d do a different, more teacherly post today. There has been a lot of talk about Common Core the past few years and how it is going to “ruin” our students. Now, while that is a matter of debate, the theory behind Common Core is actually a good idea. The theory is to have all the states curriculum united so that when, say a student from North Carolina attends college in California, they should have the same exact skill set. We can’t disagree with that. However, the way Common Core has been rolled out, starting with testing and then the creation of a curriculum, is what has many folks up in arms (at least for English/Language Arts).

A few years ago I attended a conference designed for teachers to learn about the Common Core standards and how it would change our teaching. A teacher asked about curriculum plans, and when the responder stated that the plans would not be available until 2018, yet testing would begin in 2014, the room was filled with a thousand gasps. My co-worker and I glanced at each other and chuckled. See, I haven’t used a purchased curriculum plan in…oh never. I’ve been given textbooks, but I’ve always used them a supplemental to the curriculum I create. In fact, I stopped using my literature textbooks a few years ago and now they’re just decorating my shelf. I’ve completely switched to novels and supplemental non-fiction articles that I find in the news and on sites like the New York Times Learning Network Blog. By creating my own curriculum I can tailor my units and lessons to content that will be of high interest to my students. All of the writing that they do is relevant, in some way as best I can, to their lives allowing them to take ownership of their work. Of course, not all assignments are popular and sometimes just don’t work, but I do have students asking me “When are we going to do _______ project?” They are excited about learning, sometimes excited about the novels (can’t win them all) but most of all, they learn about their world and even discover what types of literature they like and don’t like. Most importantly, I choose novels that have diverse leads and all of my students are able to see themselves as the hero.

So today, I thought I’d give a little bit of insight into my thought process and how I chose the books for the first semester. I will also be including the Common Core standards to underscore how the novels and the assessments meet the standards.

First unit is titled “The Elements of Fiction” and has students looking deeper into what constitutes a fictional story and evaluating a novel for its elements. The students get to choose a book from a list I will give them; and based on my experience from last year, none of the books will be current movies. Students will either write a 500 word book review or create a new book jacket that evaluates the character arc, plot construction, the writer’s style & theme, and finishes with their own brief review of the book. The Common Core standards this meets are: Reading Standards for Literature 2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standards 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. Of course, throughout the unit I will be addressing other standards that will help the students meet the two main standards I have chosen to assess.

The second unit is titled “The Hero’s Journey” and builds off the previous unit. This time, students will use the knowledge they have gained about the elements of fiction and will use those skills to write their own fiction. In the past, I’ve told students “just write a story” and many floundered, so a few years ago I changed tactics and now give them more specific parameters. The parameters change depending on the unit. Last year, the focus was on the theme of Coming of Age, this year is the Hero’s Journey. The novel they will read is Ellen Oh’s Prophecy. I chose this novel because I want the students to see a girl as the hero, as the special one, and to experience a culture outside of their own. Prophecy fit the bill perfectly. In addition to reading the novel and studying Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey,” students will actually write their own “hero’s journey” story. Students will chose out of a hat, the age and gender of the character, an external conflict (all are required to have internal conflict) and to throw in some research, their story must be from a geographical region they studied in 7th grade. This bit of research also meets one of the Common Core writing standards. Students will, again, choose to present their story as a graphic novel or as prose. The Common Core standards this unit meets are: RSL 3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of character or provoke a decision; and WS 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experience or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. Just as in the unit before, there are other standards in addition to these two main ones that I will use to asses students.

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The third unit, and last unit of the semester, is currently titled “Fight for Freedom” and is reboot of a unit I did a few years ago. In all the excitement over the Hunger Games, I decided to do an experiment and teach the entire series. The third book, Mockingjay, and its theme of revolution fit perfectly with the U.S. History curriculum my students were learning at the time, which was the start of the Revolutionary War. In addition, the Arab Spring was still in the news and I thought that tying the three revolutions together would be a good idea. In theory, it would have worked, but I was tired of Hunger Games and so were the students. The unit kind of ended up a dud, but what ended up happening was an issue with the city and my school, so the students were actually able to take the lessons learned about standing up for their beliefs and putting them into action. They were able to truly be a part of a real revolution. Anyways, I’d been toying with bringing back that unit in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and how my students who feel they don’t have a voice (many of them are immigrants, or are the children of immigrants) can somehow find a way to share their voice. I hadn’t decided on a novel until I read Jason Reynolds & Brandon Kiely’s All American Boys. If there ever was a novel that was timely and full of protest, this is the novel. I know my students are asking questions about the topics they see in the media, and even hear from family members, and I want them to be able to learn to express their thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about issues that directly effect them. So while I haven’t exactly decided how I’m going to asses them, I do know what standards we will be addressing. The Common Core standards this unit will meet are: Reading Standards for Informational Text 2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of a text, including its relationship to supporting ideas, provide an objective summary of the text; and Writing Standard 1: Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence. Last year, I had my Honor class choose a Social Justice issue that had meaning to them (a few even did police brutality) and had them create a Prezi presentation that persuaded us to their side. They had to provide research and facts to support their opinion. Those went over very well with my students, with many of them referencing what they learned from their classmates later in the year. At this point in time, that is the assessment that I’m leaning towards because the project allows them to choose a topic, research, present an argument AND use technology (which is another Common Core standard).

And that, my dear readers, is how my first semester is structured. If you have read all the way to the end, I thank you for your time. As you can see, teaching and creating relevant and interesting content for our students can be time consuming and require a significant amount of thought. It requires a teacher to truly know and be aware of their student population, and also be current on what is being published in YA literature. We don’t have to stick to the classics to find quality literature to teach. In fact, second semester my students will be reading two award winning books (Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson) and William Shakespeare. It’s all about how you present the material. I routinely change up my units (I even changed twice mid-year last year) to keep my teaching fresh and to meet the student’s needs. For example, with William Shakespeare, I always paired it with Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio, and as much as I love the book, I was getting a bit bored with it, so to keep it fresh, I changed up the novel. This year my students will be comparing Romeo and Juliet to Una LaMarche’s Like No Other (and it meets RSL 9). I read the novel over the summer and found it to be a sweet quiet story that retold Shakespeare’s R&J in a unique way. We shall see how it goes.

Fellow teachers (and librarians who help teachers), I implore to think outside of the box and try to create your own curriculum. It takes a bit of work, but it is worth it. Teachers are some of the most creative people around, but are often forced to used purchased curriculum plans that don’t have a lick of relevance to our students. These cookie-cutter plans continually exclude children of color and they rarely get to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. It is up to us to help change that, and until your district requires you to use the plan of the month, create your own. You will be liberated with what you can create, what you can do in your classroom, and what your students can achieve. Because at the end of the day, we want our students to be betters readers and writers when they leave our classroom than when they enter it.

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Teachers! Choose Diverse Books!

Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian

In the past couple of weeks or so, there have been a couple of articles about the importance parents, librarians, and teachers have in exposing children and young adults to diverse voices. Matt de la Pena’s article, How We Talk (or Don’t Talk) About Diversity When We Read with Our Kids, focused on the little ones and how when we read with our children that instead of focusing on the “otherness” of the story, we focus on the actual story. Next, Lee and Low, in their blog post titled, Why Do We Need Diverse Books in Non-Diverse Schools?, went a step further discussing how diverse books need to be shared in a non-diverse classroom to help the children become more empathetic and open to other view points and ideas. Lastly, Sara Megibow of KT Literay, shared her experience of helping her son’s 4th grade teacher make the classroom library more diverse. In her blog post, Diverse Success Story, she shares her process of how she went about donating the books to the classroom. All of these three articles truly resonated with me as a teacher, and I thought I would add my voice to the discussion, sharing my experience how I go about choosing the books I use in my curriculum.

Last year, I had a conversation with the then 7th grade teacher about his reading list. His co-teacher happened to mention that they were reading books that had only one type of character; I’ll let you guess what type. I just happened to be sitting there and of course, I had to say something. His response, “Well, I wanted them to read the classics.” Argh! And then I let him have it. Okay, not really, just reminded him that our student population was 60% Hispanic/Latino and 40% African American and that it would be a good idea to include different voices into his reading list so the kids can see themselves reflected in the books they read. I reminded him that our goal is to not only teach, but to create life-long readers and when we force our kids to read the classics, we alienate them and turn them off reading. We also do not give them an opportunity to connect the literature to their lives, allowing them to become open-minded, well-rounded students. Needless to say, after that conversation, he changed up his reading list based on my recommendations. My point in sharing this story is that as teachers we MUST be mindful of the books we are presenting to our students. We cannot rest on sharing the “Western Literary Canon” anymore because the canon only represents one type of voice and excludes all others. Sure, you have Maya and Langston and Toni in there, but one would think that there were only great Black writers decades ago. Then again, the canon cannot include just Black and White writers. America is a plethora of diverse voices and our canon should represent all of those voices. That is why teachers should move away from reading straight from the “canon” and work to make a more inclusive reading list.

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So, about my process. I am lucky that I work in a school where I am able to create my own curriculum. I know many teachers do not have that freedom and are instead required to use a “pre-packaged” curriculum. However, in a Common Core workshop I went to a few years ago, we were informed that “pre-packaged” Common Core curriculum wouldn’t be ready until 2018, which leaves many teachers having to create their own curriculum for the first time. Freedom! I think this is a great opportunity for those teachers to show their creativity in the classroom and create some amazing, and enriching, learning experiences. One of the best ways to create these experiences and to open their students to different points of view is to use diverse books! This requires teachers to be thoughtful and strategic in their planning and perhaps conduct a bit of research. Let me assure you, however, that the results are worth it.

I’ve been teaching 8th grade now for about 8 years, so my curriculum is pretty much set, though I do change it up every year, adding books, changing books, changing units. Shoot, this year alone I changed one and added two books in the middle of the year! But, in deciding which books I want my students to read, I make sure that I have a variety of voices, both male and female lead characters, as well as find books that are different genres so students can find a genre they like to read and hopefully read similar books on their own. This year’s book list includes…

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (my Honors class read this)
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (Honors class again)
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Romiette & Julio by Sharon Draper
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Pregnancy Project by Gabi Rodriguez

Quite an impressive list, yes? You might be wondering how with Common Core pushing more non-fiction reading, how can I get away with basing my curriculum around novels. Well, I supplement the novels by using non-fiction that is related to the content of the novels in the classroom. By having my students read the novels and then reading non-fiction articles that deal with similar subjects in the classroom and using those to frame lessons, my students are able to truly learn about different lives, different places, different points of view, and therefore become more open-minded students. My students are able to connect with the literature in unique ways (my Honors students connected with Gatsby through their mutual hatred of Daisy, and Gatsby’s desire for the American Dream) and are always able to see mirrors as well as windows. Not all the students like every book (and that is okay), but they all at least find one book that they connect with and always, always, ask me for more books by that author. And honestly, love for reading is the takeaway I want my students.

Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.

Engaged students in our first annual Book Talk Day.

If you are wondering where to begin, take a look at any award winners list, with the ALA being so diverse this year you can’t go wrong. Or, create a theme you’d like to focus on for the year and then search for books that have a similar theme. I usually begin 8th grade with units that focus on the self, and then second semester focus on issues that students are facing or will face (such as pregnancy). Lastly, since Common Core is encouraging cross-curriculum, why not try to tie books that fit another subject? When I taught 7th grade, I loosely tied my curriculum to the Social Studies curriculum. In CA the 7th grade Social Studies curriculum is World History, so I made sure that all of my books were either written by authors from around the world, or featured characters living in different countries. My students that year were exposed to Nnedi Okorafor and Thanhha Lai.

It takes a bit of research, work and planning to make sure you choose diverse books for your students, but as teachers, we are tasked with creating well-rounded, critical thinking, open-minded students. We have a stake in making our world more inclusive for everyone by showing diversity through the books we share with our students. We have the ability to allow our students to have the tough discussions about race, fairness, etc, by using novels. We have the “power” to help bring about change, we just have to be mindful with how we go about it. Making the decision to include diverse books is just one step.

PS. I will add that the topic of sponsoring a classroom and donating diverse books to students is a topic that came up at the Day of Diversity, so if that is something you are interested in, read Megibow’s blog and then get started on your own project. There are still 2 more months to the school year; it’s not too late!

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