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Making the Shift to Deeper Learning

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    Erin Wheeler

Erin Wheeler, Principal of Clairemont Elementary School in Decatur, Georgia, shared her perspective on the Common Core and Deeper Learning in a commentary that originally ran last week in Expeditionary Learning's National Conference newsletter Signpost. Clairemont Elementary is an Expeditionary Learning Mentor School.

A couple of years ago, before we shifted to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I spent a good deal of time sifting through both the Common Core and the Career and College Anchor standards, and looking over feedback from leading educational reformers.  At first I did not feel the full weight of this shift.

I thought, “This is very similar to what we have done before. We just need to increase the amount of informational text we use and deepen our math discussions a bit.”

Everything changed at the end of our second Expeditionary Learning Mentor School Institute. Expeditionary Learning President & CEO Scott Hartl charged us with being national leaders in implementing the CCSS in our schools. I began to understand that this work was about far more than teaching different content.  It is about developing a different kind of student and thinker. And it was my responsibility, as an educational leader, to make this happen for my students and staff.

My first priority was to set the stage for my staff. I knew I had to change their paradigm – a far more difficult task than supporting my teachers to just teach a different set of standards. Before we could truly understand the CCSS and their implications on our teaching and our students’ learning, we needed a foundation. That foundation became Deeper Learning. Fortunately our years of work with Expeditionary Learning positioned us well to make this shift. My goal was to attach the good work we were currently doing with Expeditionary Learning to Deeper Learning.

We first started with a common text explaining the Common Core shifts in ELA and math. We studied the definition of Deeper Learning and connected it back to the language in Expeditionary Learning’s Core Practice Benchmarks. I used practices that we were deeply implementing – job-embedded professional development, planning backwards, guiding questions, and meaningful final products with authentic audiences. We revisited this text several times throughout the year as we dug into the standards. We made a good deal of progress last year unpacking the standards, realigning expeditions to the standards and delving into complex text. Although I knew we were making progress, something seemed to be missing. Deeper Learning was still just a definition posted on our workroom wall.

Reflecting on the year, I kept coming back to our students. What kind of students are we growing so that they can be truly successful beyond our classroom walls? The piece that was missing became evident to me after reading articles surrounding performance traits. We were spending all of our time focused on what our students needed to learn instead of focusing on how our students learn – the traits that keep them going in the face of great challenge – the perseverance they need as they discover the purpose behind their learning.

I went back to Scott’s initial challenge: it is about teaching and developing a different kind of student and thinker. I started this year with a central question for my staff:  What kind of students are we developing so that they can demonstrate the rigor of the Common Core and be deeper learners and thinkers who will be successful outside our classroom walls?

Our conversations started to shift. We were talking about the student first and the content second. This question now hangs next to our Deeper Learning anchor chart and has also helped us view our role differently. It is pushing us to be more thoughtful about when and how we scaffold; and when and how much time we give students to grapple; and when and how we step in and coach. Some of our discussions have simply been around the topic of how much wait-time we give our students before stepping in. Other discussions have gone far deeper and pushed us to choose text that would have once seemed way beyond our students reach. For example, our third grade team decided to use Brown v. Board of Education as the complex text in their democracy expedition. But most importantly, our conversations are turning to the skills and traits we need to explicitly teach our students so that they can confidently tackle a text like Brown v. Board of Education.

In my observations of teacher conversations, a common theme emerged. The teachers were frustrated and felt unsure if their moves were the right ones.  “Are we being developmentally appropriate?” became an overwhelming theme. Overall, I recognize that what we are asking teachers to do is really hard. They just want to get it right, do right by their kids, and sometimes that means playing it safe. It is far easier to use the text that feels easy enough for the whole class to tackle, not the one that is going to take great perseverance to understand. It will take time to teach students about perseverance, and that time can feel risky when there is so much pressure to teach all the standards well now. It is important as leaders we acknowledge that.

I have come full circle just in the process of writing this article. It became clear as I grappled with how to best share our story, that the question that I need to be asking myself is this: What kind of teachers am I developing so that they can demonstrate the rigor of Common Core, be deeper learners and thinkers who will develop successful students outside our classroom walls? Before it can be about the students or even the teachers, it is about me, the instructional leader. I am responsible for teaching and developing a different kind of teacher and thinker. I need to reflect on the traits that keep teachers going in the face of great challenge, the perseverance teachers need when they have not yet seen the purpose of their teaching. I need to challenge them with rigorous work that is guided by thoughtful learning targets. I need to engage them in the same close read protocols I expect them to use with their students. Even though I feel the pressure of implementing the CCSS deeply today, just like my teachers, I know the best moves I can make are taking the time to develop deeper learning and thinking teachers.