Posted in Projects

Maybe the Most Important Thing I’ve Done In Grad School…

No, I’m not just blowing smoke here–but I am fresh off of a class that just had me complete 9 discussion posts in one day…because that surely is meaningful learning. Side note, I think discussion posts are the equivalent of free worksheets off of Teachers Pay Teachers–easy to assign, easy to grade, but essentially worthless. Anyway, I completed a version of this task last summer, and I have referred to it SO MANY times–whether it be in meetings with my content area or in one of my many, many discussion posts.

Understanding the standards, at a basic level, is fundamental. It is undeniable that they are important…but what are they really saying? What are they implying? Are they solid and strong like they (and who is they?) want you to believe blindly? Instead of doing this assignment again, and pretending that I am thinking these thoughts for the first time, I want to revisit what I wrote last summer with the perspective of having gained more experience with these same standards. I want to see how and if my thinking has changed. It is like an evaluation of an evaluation, and I just want to share my thinking in a way that is not confined to a simple question/answer format.


Standards and Accountability: What They Mean to Me

Big picture–I think that the Common Core ELA Standards (or Georgia Standards of Excellence if I am being exact) are beneficial to my students. I teach 8th grade at a school that serves a large population of military students. This revolving door brings me many students from all over the country. The fact that the majority of states use the Common Core allows my students to jump right in with us curriculum wise, especially in ELA where the standards are pretty vague and generic. In stark contrast, when the new students start Georgia Studies in the middle of the year, they are completely lost and behind.

I still stand by this claim in theory, but in ELA the standards are so circular and generic  that it almost doesn’t fully matter where the student left off previously. In a typical mini-lesson or learning center day, I hit so many standards. But for the other content areas, I still see its worth.

I love my content area standards for their weaknesses because they allow me freedom in designing what and how I want my students to interact with text and material. In the 8th grade standards, the language is incredibly ambiguous and non-specific. For example: ELAGSE8RI8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is sound and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; recognize when irrelevant evidence is introduced. The standard does not tell me how to achieve this objective or what text I have to use. I am given the freedom to base my instruction on what would engage my students into critical thinking and discussion. I taught this standard by having them analyze the debates surrounding the redesign of Barbie so that it includes different ethnicities and body types. We read numerous informational texts, held multiple debates that turned into deep,critical analysis of what we value as a society and how gender roles are still very much present. The ambiguity allows me to place the learning in the hands and needs of my students. However, the state does offer “suggestions” in the Teacher Guidance page, but again, it is vague. It terms of support for ELLs, SPED, and Gifted students, it just suggests, “Provide explicit instruction and scaffolding as necessary for the skills and concepts students should acquire for RL1.”

Umm, ok? That’s it…

This ambiguity is my most favorite part of the standards. I can literally pull in anything to teach this standard. This year, my students worked with this standard by creating an argument over which techniques to plant our garden—hydroponics vs. aquaponics, composting vs. fertilizer, container gardens vs. in ground gardens. It was relevant, real, and we actually did what they recommended. So much non-standardized learning bloomed from this relevant task. Out of all the standards I teach, my students were the strongest on this one BECAUSE it is so vague. I am given the ability as the teacher to decide HOW to teach it. The common misconception is that the standards are the end goal for students when in reality it is merely the jumping off point–this is the statement that I want tattooed on my forearm. Standards are the minimum. Students can go beyond. 

Frequently this year, I found my students stumbling over the language of the standard. They are written in high-level, dense terminology. My students benefited a lot from me breaking down the standards into “real talk”–putting it into their words. The ELA standards increase in depth and complexity as students progress through the grade level, so with the Language standards aside, most of the ideas and concepts are not new to 8th graders–in theory. I found myself re-teaching and remediating on a 4th to 5th grade level for my struggling students. This progression of standards with high level terminology does not allow for productive struggle. There are too many standards that we are being forced to teach (because of the high-stakes pressure of Milestones) that are not as high impact and real world applicable. Hello, I mean, I have never needed to know how a verbal was functioning in a sentence (GSEELA8L1a). Not ever. But I have needed to be able to identify the main purpose of an email from my boss or to identify bias in a politician’s claim. There is a disconnect in what the makers of curriculum–supposedly teachers–deem critical to one’s learning process.

I still stand by that the verbals standard is the dumbest thing I try to “teach” all year. I have nightmares of gerunds, participles, infinitives, and their so important functions. Anyway, this year, I don’t think I put a single standard in front of my students. I never read them the formal terminology. I just didn’t because they are so dense it almost makes them worthless to students. I did however speak to them in words and with reasons that they could understand and try to make the tasks translate into real world applications. These real world tasks and applications are my goal for the upcoming year. How can I make these standards matter?

I think that the role of education is to produce critical thinkers and problem solvers. I want my students to leave my class with an understanding that they have the capability to contribute to our world in a way that is meaningful. Language Arts, at its core, teaches skills that are “real world” applicable. We need to be able to express our thoughts clearly both written and orally. We need to be able to read for understanding and application into our own situations, but in general terms, the ELA standards do not address those needs of education. The standards to not address why we are teaching students this skill beyond a standardized test. We are trying to produce “college and career ready students” (that’s totally a neoliberalism scheme) but that does not match what is coming out of our education system.

I also really, really love that neoliberalism was the theme of my first grad school class. It totally explained everything else that was to follow Again, real world and relevant tasks are at the core of my beliefs, and they can be obtained using these standards which appear strict and confining. So many teachers get so hung up on the baseline, and then they never move from it. It is completely frustrating. One test does not dictate my students futures. I would rather give them confidence that they can complete any task placed before them over being a “distinguished learner” on some test that makes a bunch of money off of this state. 

This reflection bounces from one idea to another, but that accurately represents where I am at with this process. I know what I believe and practice as an educator, but I still have to have my students pass the Milestones test, so I still am stuck teaching standards that I don’t think matter. I think “stuck” is the perfect word for many educators who are trying to balance relevant content/curriculum and irrelevant testing.  But I still have to work with a highly educated colleague who doesn’t want to teach relevant content, topics, or strategies because they aren’t “mimicked on the state test”…but we aren’t teaching for a test. We are teaching for life skills. The standards should be the jumping off point for content. The baseline–not the total determiner. Their strengths and weaknesses can be capitalized on and made up for by an educator who works for the needs of all of his or her students.

I could have written this last paragraph tonight. I am actually a little proud of the version of me that wrote this. She is right. My feelings, attitudes, and beliefs have not changed drastically in a year. If anything, I am more confident that I am right, and see more of a demand for these practices to take root in more classrooms. This task really is in my “Top 3 Best Grad School Assignments” list (in company with my Action Plan that I did for EDMS 7100 and the Focus Session that I did with female students about the media and body image, in case you wondered). It really demystified these sentences that I felt were holding my teaching hostage and gave me a sense of freedom to do what I know is best for my kids.

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