External Author Name: 
Aaron Grossman

The recently released Fordham report on the implementation of the Common Core State Standards includes the work of Washoe County, my district. Naturally, a report like this cannot include every detail, and what follows is how my peers and I concluded that reorienting instructional practice, to emphasize building a coherent body of knowledge through content-rich nonfiction, was paramount.

If you can remember way back to the spring of 2011, you will recall that states and districts were developing their first implementation efforts around the CCSS. Popular approaches involved crosswalking previous state standards to the new standards. (e.g., personification was in the fifth-grade Nevada Standards and now could be found in the sixth-grade CCSS); employing the assistance of national experts who could describe strategies and schemes for implementation; and buying from publishers their new “CCSS materials.”.

It was against this backdrop that my colleagues and I in Washoe found a video of David Coleman, one of the contributing authors to the ELA CCSS, emphasizing something entirely different then the aforementioned. Instead of a strategy, a new set of materials, or crosswalking, he suggested that educators focus on the instructional shifts. The first of these encouraged teachers to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

In a particularly provocative moment from the speech, Coleman accurately describes what happens in too many elementary classrooms: the literacy block is extended to account for the reading tests, and because of this, little or no time is left for social studies, history, science, and the arts in the K–5 curriculum. Coleman went on to say, “These standards reclaim the elementary teachers’ rightful role to teach their students about the world.”

At first blush, we considered this shift to be a relatively simple one. Included in the front matter of the standards is a table describing what percentage of reading time is spent with informational text. In the elementary grades, it lists 50 percent. It seemed a relatively simple fix to subscribe to a news magazine or read more from our content textbooks to get to the targets listed in the standards.

It was not until we saw a video of Robert Pondiscio, executive director of Citizenship First, that we began to fully grasp what an enormous shift this was. Too often text selection in the elementary grades is only about securing skills and strategies. Consequently, literacy instruction is reduced to reading something and then answering a series of questions to see if students have secured a grade-specific skill (e.g., setting, cause and effect, character motivation, and on). This is further reinforced in our basal, supplemental reading materials and some assessments.

Pondiscio gets this and is unambiguously clear that to do these standards well, teachers have to be liberated from banal skill-based instruction in favor of building knowledge with our students.

We shared the Pondiscio clip with teachers who passed it along to other teachers. Some educators played it at staff meetings, others in professional development offerings, and my colleagues and I built an entire course around it. The video was passed to leadership and to members of our community.    

To be clear, there were many people who were appropriately skeptical of Pondiscio’s assertions and conclusions. Consequently, we watched him debate Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky, and later we read his exchanges with Deborah Meier. We looked closely at his references and the research that informed the speech. As follows, we spent a fair amount of time reading and watching cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. As a community, we became more and more convinced that content mattered. Skills did too, as Willingham explicitly notes, but hoping that skill-based instruction would alone make better readers has significant limitations.

The Fordham report notes that Washoe still lacks a comprehensive and shared curriculum. As many readers know, building this out is no easy task. We are, however, agreed as an elementary community that as we develop curriculum, it must take into account the importance of building a coherent body of knowledge. As a result, we have schools investigating Core Knowledge and hundreds of teachers training with the Read Aloud Project resources. Last year, a group of our teachers came together, under the leadership of our social studies program coordinator, to write units with knowledge, skills and dispositions that are explicitly taught. The units include concept lessons, close readings, argumentative/opinion writing lessons, primary-source analysis, and research-based discussion strategies. These are important educational outcomes that were neglected in the intermediate grades, and our elementary teachers are rallying to bring them back.

I have an eight-year-old son who does a great impression of David Coleman. I share this for two reasons. First, it is fabulously precocious. Second, it highlights how many times he has attended our district trainings, which include the Coleman video. Thus, I will end where our district started. If you are skeptical and have reservations, watch the Coleman video. Watch Pondiscio. Watch Willingham. I suspect you will also be convinced that content matters and we that need to build knowledge coherently with rich nonfiction.

Aaron Grossman is a teacher on special assignment working in Washoe, Nevada’s second-largest school district. He maintains the blog www.coretaskproject.com and the CCSS resource site www.63000resources.com.

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