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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Making Common Core work, pt1: Why it's awkward

Forget "aligning" with Common Core; how the heck do you even begin to use Common Core?!

This multi-part series will explore some possibilities for making Common Core relevant and actually useful in real-world classrooms.

I've been engaged in a number of great discussions lately about how best to incorporate the Common Core English/Language Arts (CC ELA) standards into the classroom. My vision for how to work with these standards is evolving quickly and I wanted to share my thoughts to stimulate further discussions.

And very soon I will be implementing some form of Common Core integration with EssayTagger. I'd rather have the idea be well-thrashed out before I build a half-baked solution.

But first we have to understand the Common Core ELA beast for what it is.

Basic tensions
Common Core is inevitable. It'll be on us faster than any of us are ready for and we best get prepared ASAP. Gripe and moan and cry all you want, it ain't gonna change a thing.

Worse: The language of the Common Core standards is not classroom-friendly or, more accurately, it is not student-friendly.

Worse(er) (hee hee! Relax!): The Common Core standards are not directly compatible with how we classroom teachers work with our students and provide feedback.

This all being said, the Common Core ELA standards are not bad. They are actually quite reasonable. They're just not a great fit; the administrators' standards-based data-tracking world does not align smoothly with classroom reality. Shocker.

Common Core - A closer look
Let's stop talking and dive in.

Here is the first CC ELA standard for 9-10th grade level argumentative writing:
W.9-10.1a: Introduce precise claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that establishes clear relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.
Nothing controversial here. Like I said: quite reasonable.

But how would you use this in class? It reads a lot like the generic, formal rubrics that school districts and edu-experts love to craft. What does it mean if a student received a 3/5 on W.9-10.1a? What are the odds that your students will gain valuable insight -- or any insight -- about their writing based on a W.9-10.1a score?

A big part of the problem is that we need to change the way we think about and use rubrics. They are so high-level and generic that they don't provide enough meaningful, specific feedback for students. They are an assessment tool, not a learning tool. Read the article linked and come back. I'll wait.

Common Core is too high-level
W.9-10.1a incorporates a lot of different crucial elements for an argumentative essay:
  • Introduction ("Introduce precise claim(s), [...]")
  • Thesis ("precise claim(s)")
  • Opposing Viewpoint ("distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims")
  • Overall Organization ("create an organization that [...]")

As a classroom teacher I need to evaluate each of these elements separately. My seniors desperately needed work on Thesis. I need them to see that they're struggling with Thesis and I want them to see when they finally start showing progress. W.9-10.1a is simply too coarse. The Common Core ELA standards as a whole are too coarse.

This simple example demonstrates the biggest barrier to bringing the Common Core ELA standards into our day-to-day classroom lives.

Common Core isn't really built for us
Administrators deal with coarse, high-level concerns. Common Core speaks their language and it fits their needs quite well. It's a way to look at an entire course or even a full course sequence and see the coverage; which standards and skills are being hit hard, which are being neglected?

But we deal with the fine-grained. Administrators need help to understand this crucial difference. Unfortunately your administrator is not going to say, "Oh, right, I see your point. Okay, forget that Common Core stuff. Just carry on." No, the conversation is more like, "Sure, whatever, but you still have to make it work."

Gah! This is frustrating!
So it's a bad fit for what we do and what we need, and yet increasingly our jobs will depend on us being "tightly aligned" to Common Core. Cue the despair, right?

Not just yet. There's hope. Throughout this series I'll lay out a number of ideas for how we can not only coexist and align with Common Core, but maybe even derive some benefit for our classrooms and our students. Seriously.

Feel any better?

Read on: Part 2: The Big Picture