Fulfill the dream — Get teachers plugged in

Equipping Instructors to Teach the Common Core State Standards

03/30/2013  |  DEBRA KEMP FREEMON

Authors of the Common Core State Standards, along with educators across the United States have a dream — a dream to prepare our youth for the future.

As with other dreams in our recent history, Martin Luther King’s and John F. Kennedy’s, we the people can make those dreams come true. Highly trained teachers equipped with a new set of strategies and skills are those people. They have the power to unfold the dream of the Common Core State Standards.

Think of a comprehensive professional development program as the rubber plug of a power cord and the prongs that insert into the wall socket. The rubber plug symbolizes professional development — classes, seminars and workshops. Many administrators have come to understand professional development as only classes and seminars and haven’t been happy with their effect — or rather lack of effect. They have not witnessed positive change as a result of professional development in their schools. Of course not, because human beings don’t learn, internalize and implement something new just by attending a class.

The plug by itself proves useless until its prongs fit snugly into the electrical socket — then POWER prevails! When consultants transfer the initial knowledge and skills learned in the training seminar into the classroom with the expertise, gentle guidance and hands-on, face-to face support (the first prong), implementation begins. The second prong represents the support of knowledgeable principals in the school who know what to look for and how to encourage implementation on an everyday basis. The plug head and two prongs of the cord deliver powerful expertise, accountability and motivation. Add to this electrical connection a grounding prong — a supporting scope and sequenced curriculum that meets and exceeds the CCSS — and the results are positive change and empowered teachers.

Why Do We Need a Comprehensive, Three Pronged Professional Development Package?

We must equip teachers because of the rigor of the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, our country has a clear picture of the kinds of skills students need when they leave school. The CCSS address thinking, reading and writing skills students need to excel in our information rich, digital global age. Consequently, the new standards acknowledge growth occurs in a linear fashion — the skills taught to a kindergarten student lay important groundwork to the growth of an eighth grade student. The standards recognize that sentence structures taught in elementary school have meaningful connections to the way middle and high school students read, discuss and write using more sophisticated sentence structures to explain their reasoning. The standards show the connectedness and purpose of putting skills in the pipeline, so to speak, to achieve the wanted results. Furthermore, the CCSS clearly show that a strand cannot be mastered in one year; it requires the connectedness, common language and core skills that span the grades. In order to make a dream this big happen, teachers need to work together and receive in-depth training.

A Higher Level of Instruction — Connecting Reading, Thinking and Writing

The CCSS address more than just content skills. Since the teacher or professor no longer holds the key to content information which students readily have access to on the internet, students need instruction on techniques to selectively sort through vast amounts of information, writing formats and sources. This demands a new level of instruction and implementation support for teachers. Presently, schools test students on the content of a piece of literature or nonfiction article or chapter. However, the CCSS require teachers to prepare students with the skills they need not only to comprehend a piece of writing, but with the skills they require to interpret and unlock the writer’s craft, enabling them to independently uncover and write about the layers of meanings in both fiction and nonfiction books and articles.

Students need to be explicitly taught strategies to examine information thoroughly and methodically and reread deliberately. For example, they need to learn how to paraphrase the basic content of a passage in order to grasp a deeper understanding. In unpacking a piece of literature, teachers must build on typical content questions — “How is Charlotte a good friend to Wilbur?” or “When will the plan go into effect?” — with questions that create discussion and require students to look at the craft of writing: “What symbols are present? What is being compared? Is the comparison between the two animals effective? Does the author use nonstandard English? When? Why? What is the effect? What word describes the tone on this page? How do the sentence structures in the final paragraph, page 184, help the author make his point?” When teachers learn strategies to teach the craft of writing, they can show students how to apply this skill to many different texts they read. If we want to create independent readers and writers, we need to explicitly teach how to approach a text to uncover its multiple layers of meaning.

The Plug — Classes to Learn Skills and Processes

To arrive at this destination we must equip good teachers with additional higher level skills, model the strategies in their classrooms, support them and hold them accountable for implementing the new skills with their students. This instruction begins with foundational writing skills. Most educators did not receive a comprehensive writing education containing structure and language skills as they came through our school systems. When they began working in the schools, they used what was available — maybe the writing process in a writer’s workshop or maybe organization with transition words and planners or maybe traits to measure the writing.

Few teachers or administrators have been taught that a comprehensive writing curriculum contains ALL six components of writing:

  1. The structures of simple, compound, complex and compound-complex sentences to improve reading comprehension, speaking and writing fluency levels
  2. Language and grammar skills to enable students to write and speak conventional English
  3. A knowledge of how to think and plan different writing genres so students are equipped to write for different purposes and audiences
  4. Traits, such as the characteristics of organization, word choices, fluency and style to improve and measure writing
  5. The writing process of planning, verbal rehearsal, goal setting, drafting, sharing, revision/editing and finals
  6. Instruction on how to teach students to set goals and assess their own writing with diagnostic rubrics.

Furthermore, few instructors have been shown how to weave and integrate all six writing components into a typical week’s lesson, but once they learn, they cannot imagine teaching writing without them.

Sadly, some teachers are handed the CCSS standards and told to create lesson plans for new units of study without any in-depth instruction or preparation to equip students to think, read, speak and write at higher levels. Although this is convenient, it is not fair to teachers and does not cause quality change, just more of the same instruction.

Prong #1 — Implementation Support

If teachers attend trainings and return to their schools without support, the rigors of daily teaching consume them and soon the new learning is forgotten. Therefore, follow-up support by the training consultants themselves is essential. These consultants offer time, talent and support to help teachers implement what they have learned.

Research shows teachers require three to five years of support and accountability to internalize and master new curriculum. Thus, visits from consultants should be scheduled every five weeks the first year, five times the second year and four times the third year. Teachers count on the consultants’ friendly faces to answer their implementation questions, to model a lesson’s pacing with new techniques in their classroom and to model discussion and reasoning skills. Teachers can ask questions and ask for support they may not feel free to ask their principal. In each implementation session, teachers share student writing samples so consultants can diagnose where to suggest additional lessons or small group teaching.

Like the support pole in a clothesline, implementation sessions occur just when teachers are sagging and experiencing frustration. The meetings and model lessons provide them with a shot in the arm of answers, confidence and clarity they need. Think about it. We all have good intentions. We intend to write a book or clean the basement or prepare a new unit, but without timely intervention and support, it may never happen — because life happens. Without the implementation phase that provides outside follow-up, accountability and support, teacher training does not reach its potential.

Prong #2 — Support Within the School

In house support guarantees success. When principals attend classes with their staff or when they join other principals to learn how to oversee the curriculum and share stories; they understand what to look for and how to support their teachers. Equipped with knowledge of the instruction process, checklists and teacher rubrics, they observe teachers and student writers and encourage them. By inspecting what they expect and rallying a writing community within the school, administrators set the tone for success.

The Grounding Prong – Comprehensive CCSS Curriculum Guide

The third prong symbolizes a day-by-day curriculum guide that models the “how to” instead of the “what to” teach — a multisensory curriculum designed to provide teachers a scope and sequence framework and model how to weave all six components into weekly instruction in order to meet and exceed the CCSS. The guides explain how to plan writing in different genres, set goals, draft and revise, using differentiation and scaffolding, to ultimately increase student independence. Curriculum guides contain weekly writing models of basic, proficient and advanced writing samples so both students and teachers know what to look for. A hands-on curriculum guide fills the gaps teachers may have when they strive to meet CCSS and improve their students’ test scores.

The Common Core State Standards inspire teaching that prepares our students to think, speak, read, research, reason and write in a new age. Teachers are the key with the power to activate a new depth of instruction and student learning. To lay this responsibility on them without providing them the support and education they need to increase their skills is grossly unfair. Implementing CCSS instruction can be a reality with engaging classes, implementation support and in-house accountability and encouragement for teachers. Empowered teachers improve the future of all their students.

Debra Kemp Freemon, veteran teacher and author of the Writing Alive K-8 Curriculum Guides and professional development, along with a team of consultants, equips schools across the United States and overseas to raise their level of teaching with proven results. Visit www.WritingAlive.com.
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