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Time for the Common Core?

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Teachers and district administrators are busy attending staff developments and planning days on aligning curriculum to the Common Core English Language Arts Standards. Experts are making their rounds at districts still lucky enough to have a few dollars allocated to staff development. Far more often it’s the sales reps from publishers, eager to cash in on Common Core-aligned curriculum, who are assisting educators in instructional planning.

For most English-language arts teachers, the chief question to be answered is not what to teach or how to teach, but how much to teach. By and large, English teachers will teach what they are paid to teach. Few teachers have real issues with the overall concept, parameters, design, or scope and sequence of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). We may grouse about the shift to expository reading and writing, but beneath our posturing at staff meetings, we are really a compliant bunch. Just let us hang on to some semblance of sovereignty re: how to teach, and we will willingly accept the dictates of what to teach.

But the question of how much to teach is keeping English teachers up at night. All instruction is inherently reductive. It’s an agonizing process of give and take. If we give additional attention to this Standard, we necessarily take attention from this Standard. Gone are the days when we simply fretted over losing cherished projects such as building Medieval Castles, writing Anne Frank Diaries, or performing Romeo and Juliet. We’ve been on this no-frills Standards kick for quite a while. We’re down to bare bones, and any new instructional focus takes away from teaching an English Language Arts Standard.

And let’s just take a moment to call out those well-meaning colleagues who insist upon some hodge-podge all-inclusive Standards, akin to 1990s thematic education. You can’t teach specific reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language Standards in one easy unified lesson. Gone are the days when we pretended to teach everything by teaching nothing in detail. It all sounded good, but it never worked.

So how do we teach the CCSS English Language Arts Standards with fidelity and specificity and still have time to take roll? It’s not easy, but here are some thoughts.

How Much Time for the Common Core?

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My take on the CCSS English Language Arts emphasis of Standards is that a consensus is building toward a 35-30-25-10 plan. That would be 35% of class time spent on the Reading Anchor Standards (Literature and Informational Text), 30% of class time spent on the Writing Anchor Standards, 25% of class time spent on the Language Anchor Standards, and 10% of class time spent on Speaking and Listening Anchor Standards. Percentages include differentiated instruction in all instructional Strands.

Now percentages are useful in that we all have different instructional minutes and some of our history/social science, science, and technology colleagues are actually getting serious about teaching their fair share of the CCSS Literacy Standards. But detailed minutes get to the nuts and bolts of how much to teach.

I’m fortunate to teach seventh grade English-language Arts in an eighty-minute block, five days per week. No, I won’t tell you where. You’re probably a better teacher than I, and I still have a few more years ‘til retirement. Adjust to your own instructional minutes, but here is how I make sense of allocating instructional time to the CCSS English Language Arts Standards:

  • Reading: 25 minutes each day with a fifty-fifty expository/informational, narrative/descriptive split.
  • Writing: 20 minutes each day with a fifty-fifty split of process pieces and essay strategies, sentence combining, quick writes, etc.
  • Language: 15 minutes each day of grammar and usage, mechanics, spelling, language application, and vocabulary development.
  • Speaking and Listening: 10 minutes each day of Speaking and Listening Standards: direct instruction and application in all facets of communication.
  • Differentiated Instruction: 10 minutes each day of specifically adjusting instruction to individual needs.

Homework: 20 minutes each day of independent reading at the student’s instructional reading level with interactive, graded discussion involving parents and book clubs.

Of course each day is not rigid according to this time frame and allocation of instructional minutes. I do tell a joke occasionally and take roll when I remember to do so.

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 programs to teach the
Common Core grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary Standards. Diagnostic assessments and targeted worksheets help your students catch up while they keep up with rigorous grade-level direct instruction.

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