Why I’m a Common Core Renegade

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Education in North Carolina is at a turning point. Word on the street is that Common Core is in deep trouble here… I guess it all depends on what happens in our capital during the next few months.

So where does that leave us teachers? Should I “ditch the Core?” What do I fall back on? Has my Common Core planning and strategizing over the past few years been for naught?

I seriously doubt the anti-Common Core crowd in North Carolina—or any state—has taken the time to consider a teacher’s viewpoint about all of this. How many of us have they asked?

In general, I think this stems from the fact that the public doesn’t associate teaching with deep reflection or expertise.

John Q. Public thinks that teaching is something you do from 8am to 3pm. Talk in front of some students and grade a few papers, then call it a day—home by 4! Teachers shouldn’t worry about creating curricula or standards—that’s for politicians and educrats.

All of this Common Core battling has me wondering about North Carolina’s future. Will we fall back on the “tried and true,” the familiar reforms? Will we promise to do one thing and really do the other?

Teaching has changed a lot during my 27 years as a social studies teacher. We’ve all seen a lot of reforms and policies come and go—some good, some bad, some great.

Allow me to take you on a tour through time…

Years 1-3

Like many teachers, my first three years as an educator revolved around mastering content, pedagogy, and the world of a high school classroom. I spent those years trying to find my groove.

Year 5

By my fifth year of teaching, my focus was on efficiency and class management… and test scores. In these early days of data-driven instruction, I thought I could organize my way to student learning.

However, I remember that this heavily structured, “down-to-the-minute” classroom approach left something to be desired. The mock trials, projects, and simulations I used to fill the creative void always seemed to get a nod of approval from peers and administrators, but an underlying message was always there: Don’t let that “fluff” get in the way of your test scores. So, I played along and mastered new technology like PowerPoint and word processing programs, parleying them into good test scores.

Year 15

The years flew by, and in my 15th year of teaching, I earned my National Board certification. What a turning point! National Board truly changed my teaching. I became a more reflective practitioner, constantly striving to improve my teaching in deeper and more meaningful ways.

There was still a sense of isolation, however: that sense of having to close my door and teach MY students. I shared ideas and lessons with my colleagues in the classrooms next door, but it usually ended there.

Years 22-27

Around my 22nd year of teaching, I became involved with my incredible colleagues at the Center for Teaching Quality. As part of the Implementing Common Core Standards team, I had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best minds in education today. We explored the Common Core, developed and taught lessons, reflected and shared our successes and failures, and revised and published our practices. Much of this work was done in a virtual community, with occasional face-to-face meetings.

During this time, the pieces of my individual teaching puzzle truly came together.

I discovered an energizing community of educators, opportunities to connect beyond my classroom, and a structure for organizing my teaching to make my classroom relevant to the 21st century—courtesy of the Common Core.

The politicizing of the Common Core often seems to take the focus away from student learning in our classroom. But I’ve seen too much evidence of how it has helped my students and improved their classroom experiences—not to mention how it’s reenergized my own teaching. The earlier days of mundane lesson planning have shifted to the intellectual challenge of crafting meaningful and authentic learning experiences for my students.

But examples of my students’ successes speak louder than any of my words. I’d like to tell you about:

Carlos, a struggling high school junior who led a Paideia Seminar last spring using diaries, memorandums, and diplomatic letters examining the relationships between Fidel Castro, John Kennedy, and Nikita Krushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.

Ahmed, an academically gifted student who began this semester coasting, relying on years of standardized-test-taking expertise to breeze through his classes. He now is challenged daily by a variety of critical reading, speaking, and writing experiences in my class.

My ninth graders, who explored Louis the XIV’s Versailles by role playing ambassadors from the royal courts of 17th-century Europe. They examined primary and secondary sources and wrote diplomatic reports back to their home monarchs, improving their writing skills significantly.

My eleventh graders, who researched, planned, carried out, and filmed an Imperialist brunch. Imagine 25 important figures from the Imperialist era of the late 1800’s, together at tables enjoying brunch and—at times—heated conversations. Every student participant was engaged and improved their communication skills.

So as I think back to what role the Common Core has played in my classroom recently… Should I ditch it?

Nope. Instead, I think I’ll become a Common Core renegade. I plan on striving to challenge my students and prepare them for the 21st century: using the Common Core standards.

The standards have shown me what great teaching can look like. If that makes me a renegade, then so be it.

Rod Powell, NBCT, teaches social studies in Mooresville, NC and is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory.

  • Daniel Larkins

    I really like the ideas you

    I really like the ideas you share here, especially the lesson/assessments and the year by year lookbacks. Thanks!

    • RodPowell

      Thanks for the feedback Daniel.

      Common Core becomes very real in my classroom during these last two weeks here in May.

      My students are stressing about the North Carolina final exam – 40 MC questions to measure their knowledge of World History since the Dawn of Civilization and before.

      My administrators are pushing back – “Why have your not completed the pacing guide and what do you plan to do about it?”

      By teaching deeply, have I neglected their preparation for the NCFE? Should I have taught an inch deep and covered the pacing guide?

      Will the critical thinking, writing, and reading skills I taught and practiced with my students everyday be measured on the NCFE?

      We’ll find out soon.

  • Lynn Wilhelm

    Thanks for the insight.

    I’m so glad to hear your comments about CC. As a brand new science teacher in NC I haven’t had a lot of time to examine CC but what I have seen (as a teacher and a parent) has impressed me. Our current Essential Standards are not bad but I’m hoping that one day we will get the Next Gen Science Standards–but with all the CC-bashing, I’m not optimistic our state will adopt the NGSS.

    What really struck me about your post is your description of your first 3 years teaching.

    ~~Like many teachers, my first three years as an educator revolved around mastering content, pedagogy, and the world of a high school classroom. I spent those years trying to find my groove.

    It seems all I have time to do right now is learn classroom management–it’s been a huge problem. And my mentor and administrators generally seem concerned that I work on that rather than content or pedagogy. Have things changed that much in education? It seems all the amazing pedagogical knowledge gained while getting my masters gets lost in the cacophony of simply trying to keep my students on task.

    I long for the time I can truly work on teaching and not just baby-sitting. I will be changing schools this year, but could this be a systemic problem or is it just my school?

  • RodPowell

    Thanks for the feedback Lynn.

    I’m curious…What appeals to you about CCSS as a parent?

    Most of the feedback from parents that I hear is negative – usually parroting misinformation spread by a few.

    What do you see as a benefit of the standards to your kids?

    I think an important part of the first 2 or 3 years of a teacher’s career is honing our leadership capabilities – which includes establishing credibility, developing routines, cultivating relationships (with both students and parents), AND, perhaps most importantly, the TEACHER VOICE and STARE!

    I think most new teachers have similar experiences their first year or two.

    Switching schools might not be so bad. You will start afresh and can build a reputation. You can be who you want to be!