Process of creating lesson plans
I always aspired to be a good teacher when I started out and working with this group makes me feel like a good teacher. I've also been surprised on the other hand, that's maybe not such a positive thing, at how difficult the work has been and how much slower our pace has been than what I expected. We started the project in July. It's the end of April. Our application for our second year of grant money is in May. We have four lesson plans to show for a year's worth of work and those lesson plans aren't even finished.
So it has been surprising that it's taken us as long as it has to accomplish as much as we have, but really as I've delved deeper into the work we're having to do, I think we've gone as fast as we could to do a quality job. This kind of work requires a lot of reflection and a lot of peer review and since we've been collaborating with outside experts from other states, it's quite a lot to get through, but I'm enjoying the work and I'm committed to it.
I've learned that you can't trust a method or a style of teaching or a pedagogy just because someone told you that it was a good idea. Everything that Diane shares with us is heavily based in research. That's where her expertise lies.
So to have that knowledge base of research for us to say, "Oh, this is a good practice. We see teachers do this all the time," and for her to ask, "Okay. Where's the research to back that up?" and for us to just go, "I don't know," it's really revelatory how many things we take for granted as educators that oh, yeah, this is good for the kids. Well, where's the evidence? Maybe it's been good in your experience with your particular classroom culture, but this may not work across the country.
And that's the goal of our work here, to create lessons and strategies that can be implemented nationwide in any classroom culture. So she's really helped to keep us aware that whatever we do, whatever step we take has to be based firmly in research.
Everyone has something to contribute
I've learned that everyone regardless of their background, age, level of experience, intellect, vocabulary, everyone has something unique to contribute and the more voices we incorporate into processes like this, the more informed our work as educators becomes because everyone, when they're in their classroom, the door is closed. The principal isn't watching. The president isn't watching. The governor isn't watching.
When it's just you and the kids, it's your time to shine and everyone handles that responsibility differently. Everyone has a different bag of tricks if you will and different interpretations on what is best practice. What works for this particular population of kids? What do I do that other teachers don't do? What do I enjoy about this job the most?
And hearing all those different perspectives really informs kind of where you fit in the cross section and the myriad of different interpretations of what's the best way to do something, rather than being confounding and confusing, it's inspiring and illuminating to hear all these different voices and "Well, at my school it's like this." "Well, in my room this works." "Well, my principal doesn't even let us do that." It's really, it's really informative and revealing to hear all these different levels of experience and different ways to teach.
Advice: Start teaching
My advice for teachers who are looking at the Common Core Standards for the first time is to remember that this is an opportunity. Not to see it as this scary challenge. Not to see it as this new set of impossible obstacles. I've already heard a lot of the teachers at my school kind of dreadfully groaning, "Oh, no. Here comes a new set of arbitrary requirements that we're going to be asked to fulfill without any funding or training or support or good curricular resources."
And I want to just kind of take them by the shoulders and say, "No. This is your opportunity to start teaching. However you do it is up to you." It's putting the expertise back in the hands of the teachers. And for people who have only been teaching in the area of — in the era of No Child Left Behind, it's incredibly challenging.
They've never been asked to come up with their own lesson plans and their own resources. All they have to do is "Okay, it's this day. I turn to page 13 and read this script and the kids do the worksheets and that's teaching for me." It won't be that way with the Common Core Standards. At least it's not intended to be. So my advice to people who are looking at the Common Core for the first time, take this as an opportunity to reclaim your classroom. Take this as an opportunity to teach what's best for your students.
Take this as an opportunity to teach from your heart in what you know is best and from research and good pedagogy and advice from your peers and advice from your instructional coach. We're moving away from the era of a mandated program and into an era of creative holistic education.
One of the memories that I have the most is of reading Hatchet by Gary Paulsen in fifth grade. The teacher has a class set of the books. Every student in the class got a book. There were different groups. Some kids could read a chapter in a day. Some kids could read three. So we got to be working with our peers and there was no set of worksheets. There was no list of recall questions. The teacher would simply assign us a page range to read in a certain amount of time.
She'd split the class up into their small groups and while the rest of the class was doing various activities, she'd call one reading group up to her desk, maybe four or five students. All she would have to say is, "Okay. So what happened?" And an explosion of discussion would occur with very little prompting from her. You have all these kids interpreting what they read, adding in their own experiences, asking questions facilitated by the teacher but created by the students.
If you don't know the story, Hatchet is about a young boy whose parents are getting divorced and he flies in a plane to visit his father in Canada and on route the pilot has a heart attack. He crashes into the Canadian wilderness and all he's got is this hatchet that his mom gave him as a going-away present. He had it on a holster on his belt. This one piece of steel enables him to survive in the Canadian wilderness for months. For a ten-year old boy this is a fantasy come true. So I remember just being so engaged in the reading that when it came time to discuss it in class everyone was bursting to talk about it.
I always enjoy going back to the old stories too like Grimm's Fairy Tales and Greek mythology. I'm doing a unit right now on mythology from around the world and I'm totally amazed at how engaged my students have become in the Greek pantheon.
My students have adopted identities, alter egos. One girl is Aphrodite. Another boy is Zeus. Another boy is Poseidon and they're having these discussions at recess, "What are my powers again? Oh, wait and aren't you my uncle or did — how does — who's his father? And which god did — who's Prometheus again?" They're doing it all on their own. All I had to do was go to the library and give them a few books on mythology and they've just completely ran with it.
So I think one of the things that's missing sometimes in the modern classroom is trusting students to experience literature on their own terms, that they will be interested, that they will find things that they can claim for their own and take ownership of. And it's that kind of intrinsic enjoyment of reading that will really inspire them to go the distance with their education and give them the skills that they need to be a competitive, intellectual person in a modern world.
Experiences that I've had in my classroom are with very traditional pieces of children's literature. Living in New Mexico, Byrd Baylor is one of my favorite authors to read to my students. Her books are beautifully illustrated by Peter Parnall and they're all poetic. They deal with life in the desert and appreciating the natural beauty of and the harshness of the environment that we live in. Everybody Needs a Rock; Another Way to Listen; I'm in Charge of Celebrations. You really can't go wrong with any Byrd Baylor book that you read.
They make my students aware of the beauty and the magic of life in the high desert, which isn't very often celebrated. So I read Byrd Baylor books to my students any chance I get.
The "Cinderella" lesson plan
We decided on Cinderella as our anchor book, which never would have occurred to me when we began — it seems like such a played out story. But we realized that it's perfect for this lesson because there are so many versions of it from many different cultures. We gave ourselves homework, to each select a different version, find a copy, and make a list of all the vocabulary. I picked Yeh-Shen, and I really enjoyed taking the time to read the story several times, and pull the vocabulary.
However, I increasingly feel as though there are not enough hours in the day. I feel like this work is so important and we have such a crucial opportunity to help teachers and influence the way these standards are implemented — I don't want the quality of the work to be compromised because it's being done by teachers who are already stretched quite thin. I don't really know what the solution is though — I certainly wouldn't want to put my teaching on hold; being in the classroom with the kids is really essential to staying motivated in this line of work.
I'm also starting to try and look ahead, beyond the scope of simply lesson planning. I'm curious about what will come next and what the next phase of our work will look like. I am a revolutionary at heart, and I want us to start taking some kind of action…I have no idea what that should consist of or look like, but I do feel a little antsy. It's not overwhelming me though, and I do feel really good about how comfortable I am doing this work as merely a second-year teacher.
I learned that working with someone who has different expertise than you is really beneficial, even if they don't always agree with you, and in some cases, especially when they don't agree with you.