Let teacher leaders lead Common Core professional development

Instead of scripted lessons, what teachers really need to successfully implement the Common Core is support and professional development from other teachers.

One of the best aspects of the California Common Core State Standards is the focus on developing students’ literacy across a number of subjects. This is great news for students, because it means that whether they’re taking history, math, social studies, or science classes, they’ll be developing the advanced literacy skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Rather than segregating these critical skills into one subject period (English) and expecting students to “connect the literacy dots” in their other classes, students will apply these conceptual and functional skills across multiple disciplines throughout the school day.

But many non-English Language Arts teachers have not found this emphasis on cross-curricular literacy to be an easy transition. In part, the difficulty stems from educators being asked to teach classes with unfamiliar Common Core techniques and texts—and without sufficient support for using them. In addition, some school districts require teachers to use prewritten or scripted lessons, ostensibly saving teachers’ time and energy but robbing them of the opportunity to adapt materials based on their expertise and knowledge of students’ needs.

These scripted lessons diminish the true value of teachers. Instead of giving teachers the autonomy to evaluate students and present material that meets their specific academic needs, school districts are shortcutting the professionalism of teaching. They are also denying students the unique cultural and regional-specific lessons that they respond to most readily—which only teachers can create.

What teachers really need to successfully implement the Common Core is support and professional development from other teachers.

I witnessed this last year in my school district when the CCSS began to roll out. The lack of teacher buy in—and confidence—in teaching the standards was evident.

Fortunately, my principal is committed to providing teachers with quality professional development. As the Small Learning Community Lead Teacher at my school, I created two professional development workshops: one for English and history teachers and another for math and science teachers.

As a staff member, I was able to take my colleagues’ individual and team needs into account and create appropriate professional development. Our school is a small public math and science magnet high school. Teachers are organized into grade-level teams, and they collaborate on annual interdisciplinary projects. But some were off put by the notion that they would be responsible for teaching advanced literacy skills in their classes. They also noted that the textbooks offered little assistance, and many were distressed about incorporating the reading and writing aspects of the Common Core.

So I chose to focus the professional development sessions on the technique of close reading, helping teachers create their own lessons and find ways to collaborate with their colleagues. The workshops were hugely successful. Here were the four main benefits:

1. Teachers took away numerous strategies for implementing the standards in class. For instance, one history teacher, who was used to assigning readings from a textbook and using the chapter questions to assess what students had learned, stated that the workshop revolutionized his ideas about teaching the reading of history. He learned a technique that pushed students to interact more deeply with the text, rather than simply answer recall questions.

2. Teachers also learned to use familiar texts in innovative and engaging ways. For example, I worked with a biotechnology teacher who created a close reading lesson based on FDA laboratory standards for preparing specimen plates. He was noticeably more confident using this material because it was a text he already knew well. This made him feel more at ease incorporating Common Core techniques into his lesson. He came to see the usefulness of the close reading technique when, after the lesson, his students showed a better understanding of the text.

3. Teachers shared their concerns about the standards. For example, I worked with a pre-calculus teacher who was concerned about the increased reading and writing required for her class. She confided that while she felt confident teaching numbers, she was concerned about her ability to teach literacy.

We worked together to create a lesson that incorporated a text about matrices. The text contained complex vocabulary that, previously, the teacher would have defined for students. However, in her new lesson, she used questions and graphic organizers (which I taught in the workshop) to help her students decipher the meaning of the words on their own. After she taught the lesson, she reported an increase in her students’ understanding of matrices—and the feeling that she had been able to teach the deeper mathematics of the lesson.

4. Teachers learned to better collaborate across the curriculum. One English teacher created a lesson as part of an interdisciplinary project. She used a William Blake poem, “The Chimney Sweep,” to build students’ understanding of classic poetry, aligning it to related lessons in the engineering and history classes. Across those three classes, students were able to learn about an important social phenomenon and view it through different academic lenses. Pre-scripted lessons would never have given teachers the flexibility to create such a dynamic, cross-curricular project.

It’s important for school districts to value and utilize the expertise of their teachers. By using teacher leaders trained in Common Core techniques and curriculum writing, school districts can effectively and cost efficiently transition into Common Core implementation. Each school and classroom has specific needs—which can be best evaluated and met by the teachers who work in them.

Teachers are the experts in their subjects. By treating teachers as the professionals they are—and giving them professional guided practice to build their confidence in teaching CCSS techniques—students will benefit from experienced teachers and the new skills of the Common Core.

Susan Carlé is a National Board Certified teacher who teaches English Language Arts and AP Psychology with the Long Beach Unified School District. She serves as a mentor to new teachers and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory.