First Person

Voices: Perfect blend for Common Core

 Jessica Keigan, a high school teacher, describes her own experiences beginning to implement the Common Core through team teaching. 

Maybe you’ve tuned into a concern some have raised about Common Core texts – do the new standards require English teachers to give up teaching fiction to make way for nonfiction? My friend and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson recently raised an important clarification – that there’s no need to focus on “either/or.”Vocabulary or literacy  -stock photo

The Common Core does suggest many changes to instructional practice, but I would argue that we can’t look at fiction and non-fiction as separate ingredients that need to be consumed in isolation. Instead we need to experiment with various blends to find strategies that will work.

Here’s the recipe for how this can look in practice.

Constant  collaboration

I teach in a 10th grade core that blends world history and world literature. Every day, I team-teach a two period block class with a social studies teacher to a group of 55 students. This is our first year teaching this class and it has been challenging, but also incredibly rewarding.

I have the benefit of constant collaboration as my teaching partner and I work together to plan and implement daily activities and assessments. We watch each other teach, push each other to implement best practices and work together to select texts.

In addition to this, we are a part of a larger collaborative team made up of other teachers who teach the same course. All of us work together to monitor timing and classroom activities.

We have a common goal laid out by the standards, which has helped to focus our conversations. Our collaboration has led to incredibly rich instruction for the 10th grade students at our school.

Beginning with the end in mind

As we set out to define the content of the class, we quickly learned that the new standards are not a curriculum. Instead, they are a set of skills for which students will need to demonstrate proficiency. We have to decide what content we will use to help students master those skills.

Teaching in an integrated environment helps to address the fiction vs. non-fiction question in a seamless way. To teach the great ideas of world history, we bring in poetry, narrative, philosophy, primary sources, artwork, music, commentary, etc.

We always start with our formal and informal assessments in mind and choose a wide variety of texts to help students to master the skills necessary to meet the standards.

Gathering tools for success

Right before winter break, the English unit was focused on persuasive writing and speaking. We needed students to analyze text for rhetorical strategy, utilize rhetorical strategies in writing and speaking and recognize effective persuasive techniques.

Meanwhile, the social studies unit centered on the theme of revolutions of the 18th and 19th century.

To address both topics, students read and analyzed fiction and non-fiction that addressed a specific theme – revolution. There was no or in this unit.

My English counterparts and I decided we could integrate with our social studies partners by studying a handful of persuasive texts written by Enlightenment philosophers as well as speeches and documents written by revolutionary thinkers and speakers of the time. We also had our students read A Tale of Two Cities and excerpts from Les Miserables as texts meant to persuade audiences to believe certain things about the French Revolution.

Students read every text with rhetoric in mind. They analyzed each text’s audience, purpose and specific rhetorical techniques. They were, in essence, creating a toolbox for their own rhetorical techniques through these model texts.

Bringing it all together with meaningful assessment

The final assessment was a research-driven, persuasive speech. Students had to apply what they had learned from the model texts and techniques, crafting their own revolutionary speeches. They were awesome! The students delivered speeches on the need for revolution in the American diet, drug laws, gender equality and technological developments. Some students even spoke about the need for revolution in the educational system – a revolution that has already begun.

This year has been a period of growth and learning for me as a teacher. I am working hard to shift away from thinking about units based on texts to units based on skills. I am working hard to find engaging and meaningful non-fiction texts to pair with the fiction that I love to teach. I am constantly re-directing myself towards classroom instruction built around skills. And I am hungry for collaborative opportunities to help me continue my growth.

I’m no longer dwelling on the possible pitfalls of the Common Core – I’m living in the possibilities.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.