How to Implement Rigorous and Relevant ELA Curriculum

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Leaders often look to best practices, scholarship, and other leaders before making changes in their organizations. However, much of my coursework in educational leadership has called on me to look to myself for answers. I find this to be valuable, as I do not yet have years of leadership experience to ponder; it does me good to envision how I will meet the inevitable changes and challenges I can expect when I assume a formal leadership role. Though I have opportunities to reflect in my coursework, prior assignments required me to ground my reflection in research. This may seem contradictory because most of us self-reflect without considering others’ thoughts, but academia demands explanation enforced by citation.

This post, though, is a reflective narrative reflection, a metacognitive exercise—a record of my thinking about my thinking. And in this instance I will write my way through the problem of implementing a rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum. Here is how I understand the issue.

With the onset of Common Core, teachers from elementary through secondary levels are scrambling to unwrap the standards, collaborate across disciplines, and to write and teach new curricula. CCSS raises the bar for students’ literacy, and, unsurprisingly, places greater demands on teachers—especially those of us working in English and social studies. There is the added pressure of SBAC and PARC assessments, of course. And even the most calm and confident humanities teachers will remind you their students’ performance on these tests are linked to their evaluations.

Add the limited time to complete the ELA overhaul and the very public outrage over Washington’s centralization of what will be taught in our schools, and you have what very well could end up as the most drastic and costly failure at ed reform ever seen in this country. Without pointing fingers or delving into politics or ideology, it is easy to plot the problems with CCSS in a line that starts with the standards themselves, leads to teachers, then to leadership.

First, we blame the standards. Many question the developmental appropriateness of CCSS and the validity of the daunting battery of new assessments. But there is a strong focus in learning through literacy. From K-12, students are tasked to read closely and deeply, to speak and listen attentively, and to stake claims backed by evidence—all essential skills that will serve them well for life after graduation.

common core, ed reform, arnie duncan, the simpsons, ela, curriculum CCSS, instruction, bill gates

Agree or disagree with Bill, but he could work on seeming a less disingenuous.

Next, we condemn teachers. Sure, some are early adopters, but most are laggards, right? So many hide behind their unions because they fear change. Others are lazy and want to teach the same boring units they started out with decades ago. Nearly all of them are terrible people who unduly burden the taxpayers in their districts. Dropping the sarcasm, I must admit that the low public opinion is killing our morale. While every assumption has a little bit of truth, most teachers are doing their best to rise to the occasion. Many are overwhelmed; many resent being told what to do, and both reactions are valid. As a CCSS coach, I spend a lot of time try to win over my colleagues. Some of us are more difficult to win over than others. The bottom line is that teachers are people, and people need time to change. This is especially true for idealistic professionals working intellectually and emotionally exacting jobs!

Last, we indict leadership. Arnie Duncan, Superintendent Chalmers, Seymour Skinner. What do these men have in common besides their cartoonish representations? For once, liberal educators and conservative pundits can agree on something: the powers that be are screwing up Common Core royally. CCSS was first criticized for being developed without enough input from practicing educators. Its adoption has been poorly planned and implemented. It was too quickly linked with TEVAL. School leaders and teachers received no encouragement but were told just to “do this!” or they would lose the Race to the Top. Now Connecticut and other states are backpedaling to decouple CCSS-based assessments from evaluations and to provide training to admins and teachers. Needless to say, the roll-out could have gone a little more smoothly.

So, how will we solve the problems posed by this round of reforms? As an aspiring administrator, I can think of different PDs and programs that could promote CCSS and the new rigorous and relevant curriculum it necessitates. But from my own experience as a Common Core coach, I know these efforts will not improve buy-in and could further alienate teachers. Point all the fingers you want, but all stakeholders have valid concerns and hold potential solutions; consequently, everyone—teachers, admins, parents, students—needs to be involved in the evolution of our schools. But how to recruit and organize them?

My preliminary work in educational leadership informs this assertion: the implementation of CCSS and rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum is actually an organizational development issue, and culture is its core.

A school culture that promotes rigor and relevancy will naturally adopt a rigorous and relevant curriculum. This may be an axiomatic assertion, but I think it is being overlooked by many schools. Does your school focus only on college prep? You’ll likely disenfranchise many students. Honors and AP classes aren’t the only places to find rigor. What about inquiry through the arts? Problem solving through auto mechanics? ELA can–and should–support the essential thinking skills behind these endeavors. Right now, most language learning is confined to studying fiction in English classes and nonfiction in socials studies classes. This can’t continue. To remain relevant, advanced literacy skills must disseminate throughout all disciplines. Close reading and analysis of text must expand to include film, law, advertising, scientific research, social media, and other forms of communication. Writing tasks should include things like marketing and sales, new media content development, YouTube channel curation, and computer programming—all of which require diligence and precise thinking.

Furthermore, a culture of rigor and relevancy will set right expectations for students and staff. It will draw the right people. Teachers: Want to stand on a desk and recite Walt Whitman? Better make it challenging and engaging, or you should teach starry-eyed undergrads. Want to surf on some stale lessons about Robert Frost for a few more years before retirement? You should also teach at a university. Students: Are you sick of slogging through books about unrelatable, imaginary people? You’d better start asking to read things that matter to you. Can’t stand to answer anymore “multiple guess” questions about slavery and the Holocaust? You’d need to demand updated coursework. When it comes to adding rigor and relevancy to school culture, everyone is responsible. Working together to audit and improve school culture will make realistic answers to these questions possible.

common core, ed reform, arnie duncan, the simpsons, ela, curriculum CCSS, instruction, bill gates, school culture

I would like to start researching ways to merge rigor, relevancy, and school culture. For now, thinking about problems and solutions has proven valuable; witnessing my own thinking unfold may be even more so. I found that I was stuck with this assignment initially, so I talked through possible topics with my wife and with a classmate. I eventually decided to explore the implementation of rigorous and relevant ELA curriculum. Then, naturally, I got stuck again. So I went for a run. That’s when I pieced together the different obstacles faced by those wishing to implement RRELAC (educators loves acronyms, right?).

Finally, I had to consider possible solutions. I quickly found that merely changing the standards, working to win over teachers, or providing training for administrators would not work. That’s when I saw that the problem lies beneath the surface. All stakeholders need to come together to shift the focus in schools. With the right culture, we can all meet and work together to work out the kinks of the new ELA curriculum and its full implementation.

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