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Core of the Matter: Helping Struggling Secondary Students Find Their Voices Through the Common Core (#CoreMatters)

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April 21, 2015 10:14 am


The following blog post is another in the Alliance’s “Core of the Matter” blog series focusing on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and struggling students. It was written by Rod Powell,  a National Board Certified Teacher from Mooresville High School in Mooresville, North Carolina.

I love teaching sophomores. They are at times silly, at times reflective, on the cusp of figuring high school out, but always talkative. My students of color and my economically disadvantaged students are largely no different from their peers, except that many of them encounter obstacles beyond their control that hinder their learning—obstacles that might include poverty, low expectations, racism, and/or an unsettled home life.

Much is made about the rigor of the Common Core (CCSS) English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Standards and how they benefit students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Many articles and blogs have affirmed the value of the Common Core. For example,

My own classroom experiences have shown that the Common Core does an excellent job of providing a framework for educators to develop problem solving, critical reading, and writing skills in their students. While there are currently no specific social studies standards under the CCSS, the ELA standards foster an opportunity for educators to engage their students in more authentic and relevant examinations of history than are possible under the current standards, which focus more on breadth of content rather than depth of understanding. They offer an organized avenue for students of color and economically disadvantaged students to explore “insider” and critical views of political, social, economic, and legal interactions of history—a history that has shown many of them to be its victim.

As I enter my twenty-eighth year of teaching, I ponder some of the lessons I’ve taught my students. How to memorize a list of American presidents. How to recite the “Gettysburg Address” from memory. How to regurgitate key dates in history from a list. These skills are great for impressing family members and for that improbable spot on Jeopardy, but not really for college, career, and life. The current spotlight seems to shine on the reading and writing components of the CCSS, and well they should. But for students of color and economically disadvantaged students, the speaking and listening skills emphasized by the CCSS are equally important. I see so many of my students struggle with their communications skills—in the classroom, with other students, and with adults. Some students realize that there are different ways in which we speak to different audiences or in different situations. However, many lack the guidance and skill to communicate effectively regardless of audience.

The Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards provide an organized way for me to teach my students a truly valuable life skill—how to communicate with a wide audience on a wide range of topics. It’s a more difficult task than imagined for many students of color and economically disadvantaged students. Some may have a tough time in class discussions with abrasive comments. Most are terrified of speaking in front of groups or to adults. Providing my students with a myriad opportunities to speak and present in different settings are experiences that will far transcend my history classroom.

So, a quick view of where the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards meet my social studies classroom:

  • Students discuss an essential question or discussion topic in small groups (three to four students). A recent topic centered on what reform movements of the 1840s had the longest lasting effects. This is a great beginning step for teaching students how to speak effectively in front of their classmates.
  • Ten  to twelve students participate in a Paideia seminar where, after reading a collection of documents, they consider the question, “Should President Johnson increase the United  States’s troop commitment to South Vietnam in 1965?”
  • Formal, whole-class presentations where a student goes it alone, practicing eye contact, gesticulation, and movement while listeners in the class practice  active listening (e.g. nodding in agreement, eye contact, sitting attentively). Sharing a rubric for both listeners and presenters beforehand seems to calm nerves and make for a more practiced presentation.
  • Impromptu discussions with a stranger from another class about an essential question or timely issue. Why not break down traditional classroom walls and have  pairs of students from a biology class and history class discuss the question, “Is fracking worth its cost?” Journaling about discussions  afterward would foster student reflection.
  • A Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) colleague of mine, Bill Ferriter, offers three easy ways to get students blogging in CTQ’s Collaboratory. Students seem to “step up”  their writing when their audience is their peers. In a time of immediate  communication via social media, this seems to be an excellent opportunity to teach students about how tone, word choice, author point of view, and audience should impact their written communication.

My classroom on any given day may seem to be a bit loud for some—perhaps even for the teacher I was twenty-five years ago when I believed in the value of a quiet classroom. But now, I don’t hear a cacophony. I hear a symphony of students learning how to communicate with the world. Where others hear noise, I hear my sophomores finding their voices. That is a valuable life lesson this teacher can fully get behind.
Rod Powell, M.Ed. is a National Board Certified Teacher from Mooresville High School in Mooresville, North Carolina. He currently teaches tenth grade American History. You can follow him on Twitter at @RodPowell.

Common Core Equity Series, Literacy

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