Creatively Common at the Core?

Anyone who has been in education for long knows the cyclical nature. Fads of teaching come and go and come again and yesterday’s PD is replaced by today’s workshop and don’t settle in, there’s a new program coming soon! One of those newer initiatives is the Common Core and as it makes it’s way across the country it is ruffling a few feathers. Yong Zhao is concerned that the standardization will negate the strength of a diverse country while others like Karl Krawitz worry about our schools being driven by the big test companies. But perhaps the biggest complaint is that these standards will hamper innovative teaching and this may get at one of the few things that hasn’t changed much in education, the lack of creativity in designing engaging instruction.

chainInstead of feeling constrained by Common Core, teachers and schools should be looking for ways to exploit them. There may be some valid debate about the developmental appropriateness of the grade level standards but I like the suggestion of Grant Wiggins to focus on the anchor standards (for ELA). These basic components of literacy make sense for our students but they are not in and of themselves a curriculum. What if students were taught and learned these anchor standards by developing a comprehensive reforestation plan for the village of Cormier in Haiti? This kind of real-world work requires the skills outlined in the Common Core anchor standards but goes far beyond. Because the target of high stakes testing is constantly moving let’s focus on what really matters in our classrooms, the teaching and learning, and let the tests take care of themselves. We can increase engagement and learning by mashing up disciplines and breaking down the barriers of traditional schooling like my friend Dayna Laur (also the author of a great new book on Authentic Learning Experiences) and Katlyn Wolfgang did with AP Government and Art in this video.

Connecting student learning to the real world like this is a hallmark of well designed project based learning but PBL is certainly not the only way to creatively teach Common Core Standards. Thinking divergently about how adults use those anchor standards skills is a great place to start but don’t limit yourself. The idea of  Zombie Based Learning developed by David Hunter in Washington asks students to use adult-like geography skills in a way that certainly is in no textbook. While Common Core is not mentioned in the article I have no doubt many of those ELA anchor standards and likely math skills are being addressed. It’s worth noting here too the freedom his Principal allowed for idea development who notes “the real attraction is showing teachers how to take standards and materials that seem dry, and build something appealing to the students.” No set of standards should dictate how you teach, instead they should be used as a baseline and set of tools for exploration of passions and interests and while Zombies may not appeal to all students it certainly is thinking outside the box.

I love the example in the above video using Game Based Learning and her point around the 5:40 mark really resonates. It’s all about engagement and when we tug on those passions hurdles like reading levels become much less of a problem. Instead of focusing on the standards to guide instruction, help your students find their way to literacy in ways that mean something to them.

Designing instruction and learning for engagement entails taking some risks and often looks messy. Breaking from the status quo to be a creative agent of change for your students takes courage but don’t blame the standards.  Take the challenge of meeting them and address learner empathy by being thoughtful in your lesson design, our students deserve it.

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