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Diving Deeper with the Common Core

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    April Hattori

In its fourth year of using the Common Core ELA standards, Anser Charter School is focused on three areas: the 4 T’s (Topic, Text, Task, Target), close reading, and text dependent questioning. Michelle Dunstan shares a teacher’s perspective.  This commentary originally appeared in the National Conference newsletter Signpost.

Anser Charter School is in its fourth year of working with the Common Core standards.  We adopted them early after the Idaho State Board chose to adopt them in 2010.  Our experience with this process has inspired us to go deeper in our practice, which we believe will lead to Deeper Learning in the classroom. With the Common Core, I’m focused on being more purposeful as a teacher. It’s a continual learning process.  In our fourth year with the ELA standards, we are focused on three areas: the 4 T’s (Topic, Text, Task, Target), close reading, and text dependent questioning.

The Beauty of Close Reading

When my grade-level team taught our Boise River Expedition last year, we addressed the instructional shift required by the Common Core, but our third/fourth grade students were not making a rich connection to the text and most questions were teacher-dependent. For example, a technical article on human interaction with water didn’t engage kids.

We began to see glimpses of what was possible when we experimented with the Workshop 2.0 model. The first time I brought my crew to this deeper lesson structure, it was amazing. Learning about the “Engage” and “Grapple” elements inspired us to take a fresh approach to teaching students how to read a challenging text.

We modeled for kids how to do a close read.  We also showed them an EL video of students doing a close read and analyzed it with them. We asked them: “What do you see the students doing? What do their bodies look like when they’re doing a close read?”  Then we jumped into our own close reading with text about the history of the canal systems in our area. I thought going through the close reading process for the first time was going to be very challenging for our kids, but I believe allowing them to dig in and grapple with a more difficult text with the support of the process made this a very successful moment in our learning.

After the close reading, we did an inquiry-based activity on different canal systems in our area. The students then paired up and each pair created a poster that had evidence from the text about the specific topic they were given. Armed with their knowledge of the different ways water flows through Boise because of the close reading process, students dived into the challenge.  They were engaged like I’ve never seen before.

When discussing the close reading process with my crew, the comments were: “It was hard”; “We had to really focus”; “I was able to understand what I was reading.” We had to use grit to get through this process and because of it, we connected with informational text in a deeper, more meaningful way.

We also have become more purposeful in finding the right text for kids.   With our Boise River Animal Project, which is part of our yearlong Boise River Expedition, we narrowed the number of books and websites for students to study.  We also gave them the opportunity to engage with other media like video and applications and asked them to pick one piece of research with which to work. To guide their online research, we asked them questions in four categories: What does the animal eat? Where does it live? How does it adapt? Is there a fun fact about the animal?  In the past, the student who had a rattlesnake as his/her animal might have replied with a single answer that it eats mice.  But the close reading process leads to more depth of learning.

Even though all students have their own animals, we use the same close reading process that allows them to be more connected with the research. Our student with the rattlesnake who is asked the question, “What do rattlesnakes eat,” may write that they not only eat mice, but he/she may tell me HOW and WHEN they eat them.  The close reading process enables the student to go deeper with the text, while having more fun with the subject matter.

A Culture of Teachers Teaching Teachers

Leadership is essential to ensuring that the entire team of educators is on the same page with the Common Core. Under Principal Suzanne Gregg’s leadership, we have developed a culture of teachers teaching teachers.  It creates a spirit of collaboration across all grades.

Once a week, all teachers meet for two hours and 15 minutes to collaborate and coordinate our work on expeditions and refine our practice to help our students excel. At these meetings, we discuss the texts and questions we will select and also talk about broader issues. 

With the Common Core, it’s more challenging to have the right questions ready for class. In the past, development of questions tied to the text was the sole responsibility of the teachers. I would often create questions as I was going through the lessons with students. But now, I am focused on being more purposeful in my questioning and planning questions as I am planning my lessons and support my students in developing text dependent questioning skills.  We’re at a point where we want to encourage kids to develop their own questions with a text.

As teachers, we are working through the Common Core and the implications for our students and our practice. I am evolving as a teacher.  Not long ago, learning targets were brought to us to support our classroom learning. Now they’re so much a part of me that I feel naked without them. 

Similarly, we are going deeper into the Common Core and working through what works for our students and our practice. But we have to be patient – it’s an evolutionary process that takes time, collaboration, and leadership to achieve the full potential of the Common Core.

Michelle Dunstan is a 3rd and 4th Grade teacher at Anser Charter School in Garden City, Idaho.  She is in her 8th year of teaching.