Book Review: Pathways to the Common Core

I imagine that there is going to be a flood of books from publishers trying to get an angle into understanding and implementing the Common Core curriculum. My state is right in the mix of the Common Cores — shifts should already be happening — and our Western Massachusetts Writing Project is already seen as having expertise in the ELA components. So, I cast a critical eye on books that center on the Common Core, but I am also very interested in what other people have to say.

Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman is a shining example of how three smart educators come to the Common Core with a critical lens, shift through the expectations of students and teachers, and come out the other side with a fair, logical and open look at how to meet the objectives while still maintaining a professional voice as a teacher in the classroom. They don’t skirt the challenges, particularly around the balances needed in reading a large amount of non-fictional text next to narrative text, and the requirement for a comprehensive review of how argument and opinion is taught across the grades, and how content areas teachers must be ready and prepared to teach reading and writing, too. The authors also highlight the many concerns and fears that teachers may have about the Common Core, acknowledging the tension that “national standards” bring the table (even if the Common Core is not officially being called national standards).

What I liked is how Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman follow progressions of learning vertically as well as horizontally, and offer positive advice on how to meet the challenges. They have clearly done their homework here, and they highlight best practices across the board in meaningful ways. The last few chapters, which may be more for administrators than teachers, gives a blueprint on how to get conversations in school buildings and districts started, and how to support change by first building on strengths already in play and the moving outward from there.

My main criticism — and this is my own lens speaking here — is that the book barely mentions the roles that media and technology can play in the Common Core. Except for a section around Speaking and Listening, Pathways doesn’t really acknowledge the world of literacy that kids are living in, and how the standards actually open doors for collaborative writing, use of technology for publishing, and more. I know, however, that that is not the focus of this book. It was just something I noticed.

Overall, Pathways to the Common Core does what it sets out to do: explain how the Common Core can unfold, highlight the challenges that will face most teachers, and provide a potential path for bringing the standards into curriculum design.

Peace (in the reading),


Book Review: The Key to Aligning Your K-5 Class with Common Core Standards

Actually, it was the subtitle of this book that caught my attention: 30 Projects That Integrate Technology into Core Lesson Plans (although both the title and the subtitle are mouthful, almost as if Fiona Apple were in charge). That said, this handy resource book covers a lot of ground around ways that technology and media tools like Google Earth, Storybird, blogging and wikis and more can be used by teachers to engage students around the Common Core learning standards. Each section is set out with a very basic format, and the writing — while not that exciting — is straight to the point, which is what you want in a resource guide.

Some of the lessons that popped out at me as being particularly interesting:

  • Creating student/peer book review with QR Codes that can be put on stickers, and placed in classroom books;
  • Studying the craft of writing by using webcomics for understanding main ideas of narrative structure;
  • Using mindmapping software for collaboration with other students around informational topics;
  • Tapping into timeline software for sequencing of ideas over a period of time;
  • Touring the world of setting of books with Google Lit Trips, and creating your own;
  • And more.

The book is put out by the Ask a Tech Teacher website, and the introduction reminds teachers that technology should no longer be a separate activity; Instead, as reflected in the Common Core and many state standards, technology and media production are part of the whole literacy package that students SHOULD be using for reading and writing, and listening and speaking. The 30 lessons in this book provide a helpful framework for teachers who are wondering where to even start, and the writers provide links to paid software and web resources, but also alternative free possibilities, too. I appreciated that.

Peace (in the sharing),


The World of Work and the Common Core

If you spend any time reading through the Common Core curriculum — and I mean reading deep into it, not just the standards — then you come to realize just how much emphasis is on the aspect of career readiness when it comes to learning — almost as much as college readiness, but not quite (I think college still outweighs career in the standards). So much of the learning objectives revolve around getting students, even young kids, ready for their lives of work in the world, and I often have a hard time keeping that goal in mind when considering my 11 year old students (and this is one of the striking criticisms of the Common Core — that it is not so much about learning in the moment but more about learning for the future). I know I am planting seeds here in sixth grade, and I know I want them to have a productive and enriching life. I know I have a part in that. It’s just hard sometimes to see that bigger picture.

This is a very roundabout way to talk about a colorful advertising flier (complete with fake Angry Bird-like creatures on the cover) that came in the mailbox the other day. It is promoting an event for business leaders called “Social Media Marketing Conference” in a nearby city. After doing some digging around on the Web, I found it is being put on by a company that helps businesses with marketing campaigns.

Here is what the blurb on the cover says:

“A real-world guide to understanding social media and using it to generate leads, connect with customers, expand your market reach, create life-long customers, drive web traffic — and grow your business.”

I’m not all that interested in the conference itself, but I was intrigued by the sessions going on. Check out some of the titles:

  • The key to social media success: getting off to a good start
  • Success stories
  • Cool tools and how to use them
  • The art of writing for a social audience
  • Managing your online reputation
  • Monitoring what people are saying about you online

The session around “writing for a social audience” intrigued me. Here is what the blurb says that attendees will learn about:

  • How the social audience is different—and what this means to your writing
  • 6 foolproof tips for writing compelling posts, Tweets and blogs
  • Out with the fluff! There’s no room for it in this new social world
  • Reusing content: A good practice—or not?
  • How to sound like a genuine, caring human being—not a corporate robot
  • Responses can be automated—but should they be?

Those are all good skills to have, no matter what field you are in. I’d love to just pop in and hear that sessions, you know?

I also can’t help but think: those are almost the same titles of sessions in educational conferences I have attended in the past few years, with a few wrinkles designed for the business audience as opposed to an educational audience. These sessions center on writing persuasive text, reading for content, collaboration with technology, and use of informational text and media for purpose. Sound familiar? That’s the crux of the Common Core.

I’m not sure what big point I am trying to make here about education and the world of work, other than noticing that businesses are expecting graduates to be using social media and technology for specific aims (even as we often warn students about how they are using social media), and I wonder how many students in high schools are considering how their social media lives might help them land a good job. Meanwhile, those same students need to learn the filters that can weed through the drone of business tweets, Facebook likes, and more that are clearly becoming the norm of the advertising world, and growing every day. Our students need to be armed both for getting jobs and for media-blitz advertising, and be able to take advantage of both.

Peace (in the filter),


Inside The InstaGrok Research Tool

One of my weaknesses in teaching is clearly research. I admit it. I’ve certainly taught research skills, and have students use research in writing, but I have never been all that comfortable with figuring out the most effective ways to get my students using the Internet for solid background knowledge gathering and evidence to use in their writing. Partly, it is me. But it is also the ‘wild west’ nature of Search Engines, and the lack of focus that Google and Bing and others bring to the table for young writers.

Still, with the shift of our state into Common Core, which has a huge research component to it, I know I can’t let this part of the curriculum slide. I need to teach them basic research skills. It’s as simple as that.

So, when I heard about InstaGrok, I was intrigued. It is billed as an online research tool for students, which focuses search content, but still brings in video, images, websites, information and more.  (Plus, the site creates an interesting interactive quiz area, where students can test their expertise). And what is best of all — the site archives and collects notes that students want to remember and use in later writing. Last week, I set up a classroom account in InstaGrok (in a matter of minutes) and after a period of “playing around” with the site, I had them working deep on an environmental essay project.

So far, so good.

By setting up a teacher account (which is free, as is the entire site … at least for now) on Instagrok, I can get a bird’s eye view of the research being done by my student, and even glimpse inside their journal, where they are collecting notes. I can pop in, as I did over the weekend, and get a sense of each student’s progress on the project, and notice areas where I need to do a little more one-on-one teaching, or checking in with them this week. And the students are loving InstaGrok, too, and some are using it at home, showing their parents.

instagrok screenshot


instagrok screenshot2
Peace (in the research),



Daily News: Common Core/Digital Literacy

Common Core Paper
My National Writing Project friend, Fred Mindlin (@fmindlin), is the “curator” of a daily news feed that features lots of great links and articles and resources about the Common Core, but his lens is digital literacy. He uses the site (which I also use for my National Writing Project daily news), and it automatically gathers up information about the Common Core that is in his group of Twitter friends and hashtag topics.

I often find interesting (and varied) takes on the national Common Core movement, and I urge you to consider checking it out, too. The site allows you to “subscribe” to a paper, and this allows you to get an email update every day about the news. Then, you can decide to follow the link to the paper or not. (Note: there is advertising on the news, but I use the adblock plus add-on in Firefox to remove it all from sight.)

Head to the Digital Literacy – Common Core News

Peace (in the core),


Considering Common Core: Why Fiction Matters

If you, like me, are in a state that has fully adopted the Common Core, then you know one of the major shifts in literature is away from fiction and into informational text. That’s not to say that we are to throw away all of our novels and short stories, and stop writing poetry and narratives, but the emphasis of the Common Core is clearly on non-fiction, informational writing and reading.

For many of us, particularly those of us who teach in elementary levels, this is going to be a huge shift in what we teach, how and the resources we have available to us. Although we do use smaller non-fiction texts in my classroom, much of the reading that we do right now is fiction: novels, short stories, narratives, poetry, etc.

The rationale, as I understand it, is that being ready for the world of work and college requires analytical thinking skills and understanding of the world, and the writers of the Common Core seem to believe that non-fiction is a critical component to that kind of learning. Fiction is still part of the expectations (and in Massachusetts, our state has put fiction in greater measure than some other states thanks to our state officials using their “wiggle room” to add in more fiction standards), but reading and writing and research will mostly unfold around informational strands in the new standards.

I had this in mind as I was reading a great piece in the The Boston Sunday Globe last weekend.  In the piece, called Why Fiction Is Good for You by Jonathan Gottschall, the idea of reading fiction as a way to explore the world, make moral decisions, and use critical thinking skills for a whole range of reasons gets its due (although the act of writing fiction is barely mentioned.) Gottschall notes that recent research around the brain and stories seems to indicate just how important this connection is:

This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.


When we think of how learning informs the future citizens of the world, we want to remember that a balance of texts is a key consideration, and as this article shows, the reading and understanding of fictionalized stories is not a frill, but an important part of how we come to understand ourselves and the world in which we inhabit. I surely hope that the push into Common Core does not mean that there are classrooms where these ideas are not longer fully explored.

As he writes, fiction shapes us — for the better.

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.


Peace (in the real world of stories),


The Literacies of Buying a New Car

You can tell I have the Common Core in the back of my mind with today’s post but my wife and I were out buying a new car yesterday (our old car lasted us 18 years, so this is a big deal for us), and it occurred to me that many of the skills that are now embedded in the new standards actually came into play as we got ourselves ready for a real-life situation that neither one of us enjoys.

Consider this:

  • First, we had to do a lot of research on the kind of car we wanted. This involved many hours of online searching (and the need for skills in those researching hours). We collected various strands of information and shared them with each other (through Read it Later bookmarking browser add-on, mostly) and had to “read” informational text to understand the features of the cars that are available in our price range.
  • Second, we had to sit down and persuade each other about the price range of the car we could afford. This involved a little argumentative talking (but only in the persuading fashion) and then some ideas around the economics of raising a family of five, and whether a new car or used car made more sense for us.
  • Third, after agreeing on a brand of car, we both got jittery about having to negotiate with a car dealership. So, back to the Internet, to search for “Ways to Negotiate the Price of a Car.” I found a great website that walks you step-by-step on negotiating strategies and expectations of questions (which it got almost exactly right), and how to turn the situation into your advantage. I also went back for more research on prices, so I would be armed with pricing knowledge.
  • Fourth, we talked through how we would approach it on the drive to the dealership, explaining whose role it was to be the test driver (hers) and whose role it was to be the one who negotiations (mine). We also read again a print-out of the website about how to buy a car.
  • Fifth, there was plenty persuasive talking in the dealership, and the counter arguments that come with the negotiations. (We did OK!)
  • Finally, I am writing this out in an expository fashion to share it with a real audience (I think you are real … pinch yourself for me, will you?)

One of the philosophies of the Common Core is real-life applications of literacy as well as college/job readiness. In our Massachusetts version of the Common Core, the Guiding Principles are all about how literacy impacts life, in its many facets.

I haven’t always bought it, though, and I still mourn the shrinking piece of narrative writing and reading. But I have to admit, my own experience in the real world touches on a lot of skills that are in the Common Core:

  • research skills
  • reading, evaluating, using informational text
  • persuasive, argumentative stance
  • talking and listening as key components of the event
  • expository writing

All of those skills were critical to us walking away from the dealership with a car that we wanted at a price we were happy about. If that isn’t an example of how literacy is important, I don’t know what is.

Peace (with that new car smell),


Research Skills and the PARCC Assessment

Parcc ELA Content Frameworks
PARCC Assessment Model


Each week, I meet with my grade level colleagues for a Community of Practice meeting. Yesterday, they asked me to bring some information about the PARCC assessment now under development as it pertains to our sixth grade. They know I have been diving into the Common Core, PARCC and all that to get a handle on the direction our state is going (moving into full implementation of Common Core and PARCC looms on the horizon). We, as a team want to be ready, knowing that in two years our entire testing system is going to likely change.

I shared the two images above with them. These come from the PARCC site (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), and the assessment criteria and system is still in draft stage at this point. But there is enough of what is being talked about being made public now to understand the general shifts that are surely coming our way, and soon. For us, we have been using our COP time this year and some of last year to begin talking about how to teach literacy skills in the content areas, and certainly, we have beefed up writing assignments and instruction in ELA, Social Studies and Science. We’re sharing and developing common rubrics and communicating more about assignments that touch on the skills, and how to best coordinate those activities together. (We could still do more, though).

As we perused the PARCC materials, it became clear to all of us that we will need to be doing a lot around teaching critical research skills to our students. We know this is a weak area for us.  And in talking to other teachers and working in other districts, this seems to be a common area of weakness.

We’re lucky in that our librarian/media specialist does work with our students around issues of research and citation, but her curriculum and lessons are fairly isolated activities. In other words, her unit is not really tied to an authentic assignment in the sixth grade classroom. I’ll be doing a bigger push this spring in ELA classes around research strategies, the Internet as a source, and citation as part of an environmental essay/multimedia project that brings together a lot of components from the entire year around writing. In the past, I have touched on these issues of research but focused mostly on the writing.

With PARCC and the Common Core, research is clearly a big part of the learning, and students must use what they have found to create a powerful argument on a topic. If you look at the Assessment Chart, you can see that a large project is the main assessment of skills under PARCC. Research and argument is at the heart of the expectations, as far as I can tell.

Talking with my colleagues made it clear we all have some work to do in this area. I think we are up for the challenge even as we are wary of the shifts in the political winds. We see the benefits of some of the changes — research is important; argumentative writing is powerful; literacy in all content area classes is crucial; etc. — yet we remain uncertain of where it will all shake out.

Peace (in the research),

Thinking of PARCC and the Common Core

Have you been following Alice Mercer’s posts about the Common Core? No? You should. Alice has been insightful as she scrutinizes the Common Core from her home/teaching base in California and it well worth your time to read what she has to say and contribute to the conversations. Today, she used the Reading Wars analogy as she dove into the ELA frameworks. Yesterday, she was mulling over the Math frameworks.

Go on. Visit Alice. I’ll wait.


Alice has been asking bloggers to do more writing around the Common Core — to get more teaching voices into the mix. I’ve been doing that here an there over the past year or so (see my posts) and I have a Diigo group where I have been collecting information about the Common Core shift (see Diigo Group). My state has fully embraced the Common Core and so, we are right now in the midst of a “transition year” that almost no district is ready for. But the new assessments are on the horizon. The question is, what will those look like?

Well, it is still too early to say, but since our state of Massachusetts is the lead in the PARCC Model, there are some hints. (PARCC: Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)

These two screenshots come from a webinar about the PARCC as it is now being developed. Essentially, the writers of the assessment are assuming that we will be teaching four main inquiry/research units through the year. One of those will emerge as the one that gets assessed by the PARCC model. Notice again the emphasis on argumentative and expository writing, and less on narrative, and also how informational text is a big part of the reading (moving away from novels at the center of reading).

Parcc ELA Content Frameworks
PARCC Assessment Model

(In some writing guidelines from the PARCC, it notes that in grades 6-8, there should be 35 percent argument writing, 35 percent expository writing, and 30 percent narrative. That shifts to 40/40/20 in the high school grades.)

Tom Hoffman, who has been a thoughtful and vocal critic of Common Core ever since it was first proposed, made a good point at Alice’s blog this morning. He notes, “And everything before the tests come out is just prelude.” He’s right. Until we know the assessment, most teachers are not diving in to find the strengths and weaknesses of the new standards, nor are they making adjustments and shifts needed (in my experience in working with teachers).

I don’t see myself as an opponent or advocate of the Common Core. I think an overall weakness of expectations in many states, and failures in too many districts, have put us all in this position now. The fact is, too many of our kids were graduating without the skills they need for a fruitful life, or not graduating at all. To say otherwise is to ignore the reality. As a teacher, I am trying my best to understand the ramifications of the Common Core, and PARCC, and I suggest that we all be doing the same. And if you blog, share out your thinking. Please. We need more voices, more strategies, more connections with other teachers.

As Alice notes, the loudest voices right now seem to be people like David Coleman, who helped develop the standards and is showcasing so-called “exemplar lessons” that may not jibe with your own teaching practice. But you and I both know that school administrators will be looking for those pre-packaged curriculum units that meet the Common Core (it’s easier than spending time developing your own), and they will be jamming those lessons down our throats, if we are not careful and thoughtful, and full of our own advocacy.

Peace (in and out of the core),