The Common Core standards brought a paradigm shift to my middle school ELA team. We had a great set of thematic units developed over the years: engaging, rigorous, and connected to a broad variety of topics. But when we sat down to map them to the standards, we discovered that some standards were “taught” over and over again while others weren’t even addressed. In order to truly get organized for standards-based learning, we had work to do. We needed to fill the holes and eliminate or adapt activities that weren’t addressing the standards. We also had to ensure that the lessons we used were building on the standards in a logical sequence. In this series of posts, I share the process we followed to get organized.
Organizing the Standards
The first smart thing we did was to look for where the ELA standards overlap. Did you realize the Common Core standards were designed this way? They were never meant to be taught in isolation. So I found the logical groupings of standards that naturally go together. Any concept you teach about in receptive mode (reading or listening) you can also teach in expressive mode (speaking or writing), and the standards reflect that. For example, when you teach about story elements and characterization in literature, reinforce that with practice in narrative writing. Take advantage of that whole “reading as a writer–writing as a reader” cycle.
We discovered several clusters of ELA standards that naturally reinforce each other. This saves time in planning lessons and it feels less overwhelming. Instead of 60-70 individual standards, I can concentrate on one of about a dozen focus areas in planning each week.
We also identified those standards that we practice every single day in the classroom. We read and comprehend literature (or literary nonfiction), engage in a range of collaborative discussions, write routinely, and demonstrate command of the conventions of grammar and usage. I think of these as process-based standards for skills students need in order to interact with the content. I don’t always list these in my lesson plans, but I keep a copy of this poster at my desk. It’s a great reminder when I’m selecting instructional activities to meet the more content-based standards.
Read to the end of this post to order a free copy for your classroom.
Organizing Materials for Standards-based Learning
The next step in my journey of getting organized for standards-based learning was sorting through the piles of lessons and activities we already had. First, I separated everything based on whether it was for a specific piece of literature or could be used with any text. I set aside the novel units and other lessons for specific poems or short stories and focused first on the resources for specific skills. A shift to standards-based learning means that we start with the standards instead of starting with a favorite book or theme.
I made folders for each ELA standard with these labels and started sorting papers, one by one. I also started a pile for activities that addressed standards outside my grade range and one for those that didn’t really support any standards. (More on what I did with those later!) There was also a pretty big stack of lessons that supported multiple standards for my classes. We labeled those and set them aside to be filed after everything else to “fill in” standards folders where we didn’t have as many resources. The big take-away from this phase of the process was how many standards I had nothing for! I had tons of resources for analyzing theme and word choice. Not so much for analyzing structure… Trace and evaluate the argument and claims? Nada.
We did the same with digital files. Can you imagine folders inside folders, inside more folders? I made a Curriculum Resources folder for each grade level. Then inside those, I made folders for each Common Core strand: Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, Writing, Speaking & Listening, and Language. Then I made a folder for each standard: RL.6.1, RL.6.2, etc. and started dragging-and-dropping files into the appropriate places.
Adapting Resources for Standards-based Learning
So what to do with those things that don’t support our standards? Tempting as it might seem, I didn’t just trash the whole bunch. If an activity or practice sheet would work as remediation or extension for a middle school standard, I labeled it as such and placed it in the folder with that standard.
For example, I had tons of stuff I’d bought, scrounged, or made over the years for figurative language. The Common Core standards for figurative language in middle school require students to interpret the meaning of figurative language and explain how it impacts the meaning and tone of a text. Well, most of what I had was more “find the metaphor” or “is this simile or metaphor?”–not in my standards. I kept a few pages that did the best job of explaining what figurative language is or used great examples so that I’d have something on hand to supplement when a student showed up in class without that foundation.
In order for many of those figurative language resources to help my students meet the new standards, they needed updates. In many cases, simply adding two questions did the job. What does it mean in this paragraph/passage/poem? How does it affect the tone? I also wanted some extension opportunities for my advanced students, so on some of those old worksheets I added instructions to change the tone by selecting a different allusion or metaphor. Now I had a folder full of resources to teach and practice the middle school standards for figurative language.
We also found some lessons that just didn’t address ELA standards at all. They had redeeming qualities like exposing students to important art or historical events and developing critical thinking skills or empathy. My friend Nancy calls these lessons our sacred cows. They had survived several rounds of curriculum revision, even lacking rigor and alignment and other jargon, because at least one of our team loved every one of these activities and couldn’t imagine NOT teaching that topic. We didn’t want to toss them, but we were committed to “starting with the standards” rather than starting from an activity. This began a round of rewriting our thematic curriculum units so that each unit revolved around a cluster of ELA standards.
One of my favorite lessons for our first unit in sixth grade, Around the World, was a discussion about Norman Rockwell’s painting The Golden Rule. I knew that I wanted to keep that painting as part of our unit, but just pasting some standards onto it (integrate information presented in different media or formats?) would have defeated our purpose. In order to truly organize our curriculum for standards-based learning, we needed to build from the standards up.
The wonderful thing about Common Core standards is they don’t specify texts we must use to teach a standard.
What we did
So I started with the standards we wanted to focus on for the first few weeks of sixth grade. These included citing textual evidence, reading and writing informational texts, and conducting short research projects. The wonderful thing about the Common Core standards is they don’t specify texts we must use to teach a standard. I realized the level of detail in that painting makes it perfect to introduce standard RI.6.1, citing evidence to support analysis and inferences.
Rewriting the lesson, this time I focused on the skills of making inferences and citing evidence to support those inferences. I also tied it to the process of close reading, going back into a text several times for further analysis. When I taught the lesson, it felt great knowing our work was founded in the standards. No more guilt over sneaking something extra into our curriculum.
That Golden Rule lesson was just one of many “sacred cows” we had to rewrite. And to be honest, the work is not complete. Revising our curriculum seems to be a continuous process. Inverting our approach to start with the standards was a giant first step. In the next post, I’ll share how we incorporated academic vocabulary into our planning and organizing for standards-based learning.
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