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The vast majority of states have bought into the Common Core State Standards Initiative which means teachers will be expected to address them in their classrooms.  At first glance the CC seems to be just about English/Language Arts and Mathematics. “Phew!” may be what other content teachers are thinking—but not so fast!!!!

The Standards insist that instruction in reading, writing, speaking, listening,
and language be a shared responsibility within the school…The grades
6–12 standards are divided into two sections, one for ELA and the other for
history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. This division reflects the
unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy
skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well. (CCSS)

Everyone shares the responsibility for the literacy standards of the Common Core.  What a wonderful opportunity to teach in an interdisciplinary manner!   Let me give you an example…

The CC (in literacy) has anchor standards as well as grade level expectations. Two of the anchor standards in writing are

1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant
and sufficient evidence.
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately
through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

So…students must learn how to identify and use evidence from different sources other than just their own experiences to back up an argument or conclusion they have drawn, and they have to write clearly.  Look at the language in these anchor standards–relevant and sufficient evidence, convey complex ideas, effective selection, organization, and analysis.

These are not skills the average seventh grader possesses; they are going to need to see lots of models, have opportunities for multiple practices, and receive descriptive feedback on what specific steps they need to take next to work toward mastery.  The science or social studies teacher cannot expect that just asking students to write an piece analyzing data they have collected will produce good results. They need to teach the process of writing such a piece.  That’s where her language arts colleague will be a big help–language arts teachers are all about writing process!

Here’s a scenario that popped into my head after reading a post on Middle Talk by Charlie Lindgren (retired K-12 Science Coordinator from Massachusetts) related to a workshop he attended at Harvard University about teaching with the fossil record. Charlie’s enthusiasm for all things science just billows out from his posts, and I always check out the sites he recommends even though I have a very shallow background in science. This time he posted fascinating photographs of fossils, and I imagined a combined science – language arts mini unit in writing that focused on drawing conclusions, using specific evidence, and writing with clarity.  Here are the steps I envision:

1. Combine the language arts & science classes
2. The science teacher does a Think Aloud describing what she notices about the fossil Compsognathus Solenhofen

  • Picture of fossil of a Compsognathus(?) Solenhofen's head

including…

  • size of the head using the coin as a scale
  • teeth

3. She invites the students to add their observations as she charts the observations.

4, The language arts teacher takes over to model how to take these observations and use them as evidence when responding to the prompt, “What conclusions can you draw from the fossil about this dinosaur’s appearance, behavior, and habitat?”  Using a Google Docs document that will be available for everyone to refer back to, he thinks aloud as he starts to type. His text is projected on the screen with a LCD projector. He stresses using the observations as evidence to back up his conclusions. For example when he writes that it was a carnivore he uses specific information about the size and shape of its teeth.

5. About half way through his writing he invites the students to help him.  They get into a discussion of its probable size based on length of its head.

6. He finishes his think aloud by doing some rearranging of sentences so the organization makes more sense and ends with a spelling and grammar check.

7. The next day the classes meet together again.  This time the students are paired up and asked to make observations about another fossil.

Picture of a Solnhofen Pterosaur fossil

Solnhofen Pterosaur

8. After 10 minutes or so, the pairs share their information with the classes.  Everyone can revise their list of observations as they listen to the report outs.

9. Individually the students respond to a prompt similar to the one their language arts teacher modeled the day before, “What conclusions can you draw about this dinosaur’s appearance, behavior, and habitat from this fossil?”  The students have a rubric for constructed responses they can refer to, and they also have the teacher’s model. They use Google docs so that their teachers can give them descriptive feedback on what is well done and what specific issues need to be addressed.

10. The science and language arts teachers divide up the class lists and each provides descriptive feedback to the students on their writing.

11. The students are given the opportunity to revise and edit and then the teachers assess the finished products using the rubric.  No letter or number grades are given, just the rating from the rubric–still developing, meets the standard, etc. The pieces go into the students’ writing portfolios that have selections from all of their classes.

The science teacher is pleased she was able to address specific content information about the fossil record, provide practice in the skill of observation, and offer direct instruction in writing in science.  The language arts teacher is satisfied because his students practiced using evidence in building a case.  When they do a similar lesson using literature or informational text, he will be able to make connections between finding evidence visually with identifying specific language in text. He is doubly pleased that students are writing in another class besides Language Arts!  The social studies teacher is intrigued.  He recently came across a site called Image Detective and is wondering if he can’t use the same process and rubric as students make inferences about historical events by exploring old photographs.

A picture of the Image Detective website

Image Detective

This scenario is meant only as an exploration of  the possibilities in addressing the Common Core, not as a lesson to be copied as is and implemented. I know that my readers can improve on it a hundred fold.

It is really important to remember that students will need multiple practices in varied contexts if they are to successfully meet these rigorous standards. However,  by working collaboratively, middle grades teachers can ensure their students tame the Common Core.

Charlie Lindgren’s fossil site: http://www.scienceofsand.info/sand/lessons/harvard.htm

Charlie also has a fantastic site on sands of the world: http://www.scienceofsand.info/   Who knew that sand was so varied and interesting!

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