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Notes from the October 28, 2013 Networking Meeting: Introducing the Common Core Learning Standards: What are they? What do I need to know?

Jan 09, 2014  Suzanne Marten

Anne Lawrence, program officer of the Robert Bowne Foundation, welcomed the participants, noting that today’s topic, the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS), were so popular that a second section was added to accommodate the number of people who wanted to participate.  Anne described how this topic was not an immediate first choice.  In gathering ideas from both last year’s Networking meeting evaluations and from her support visits to grantees, she knew that the CCLS were on many people’s minds.  She also knew that funders are increasingly asking how OST programs are supporting the standards.  But at the same time she felt that OST programs were doing their own important work and these standards in many ways belonged more to the domain of school.  In the end programs’ continued interest and concern about the CCLS made it clear that it would be productive for a Networking meeting to address this topic.  This meeting was an opportunity to think with others in the field about what the Common Core Learning Standards are and what they might mean to our work in OST programs.   

Common Core Learning Standards: What exactly are they?  

Suzanne Marten, facilitator from the Center for Educational Options, opened the discussion by asking, “Who has heard of Common Core Learning Standards?  What have you heard or read? What do you think?  What do you think they might mean for afterschool programs?”  Participants were quick to note that they initially felt that these new standards would mean more work and pressure on them in afterschool programs.  The standards provoked feelings of “what is wrong with the work we do with children?”  They also prompted a bit of a push back on what is the work of school and what is the work of afterschool programs.  But participants also acknowledged that  they were eager to find ways to meet the needs of their children and expressed their concern that they did not know enough about the CCLS and how they might be a part of that.  They had noticed that there was a distinct rise in tension in schools.  Teachers are very stressed out and school had barely begun.  Children have burst into tears over homework in many afterschool programs.  Participants assigned this tension to the changes resulting from the CCLS. 

Suzanne put these tensions in perspective.  They are not completely due to the CCLS.  Much of the stress that teachers are currently feeling is due to the new teacher evaluation system in which teachers are being judged on a new rubric, based on their students’ performance on the standardized tests, and on CCLS aligned tasks.  But everyone is feeling pressured and wants to be as supportive of the children and youth as possible within the goals and mission of afterschool programs.  Understanding the CCLS could be a support to afterschool providers and the children, youth and families they serve.  The goal of this Networking meeting was to begin to develop an understanding of the CCLS and to see what afterschool programs are already doing that supports or is aligned with the CCLS. 

Brief Overview of the Origins of CCLS

The Common Core Learning Standards were initiated at first as the Common Core State Standards in response to No Child Left Behind legislation.  Governors from most states appointed educators to come together and once again consider the question of national standards, and to work toward consensus on what the educational system in the United States needs to do to ensure that all children are what is now referred to as “college and career ready.”  Over time these standards were articulated from Pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade.  The original focus was on English Language Arts ( ELA) and Mathematics, but the intention is for the standards to span Science and History/Social Studies as well.  Though the standards are national, each state adopted them and New York State tweaked the language in a few places and adopted them as the Common Core Learning Standards or CCLS. 

The Networking meeting focused on the ELA CCLS from Pre-K through 12th grade.  The ELA standards are in sections according to age of students, Pre-K-5th grade, 6th-8th grade, and 9th-12th grade: Writing, Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, Speaking and Listening, and for elementary programs Reading Foundations.    

How are the CCLS structured and organized?

In pairs the participants in the Networking meeting examined one section of the CCLS; they looked at Writing, Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, Speaking and Listening, and for elementary programs Reading Foundations.

Participants noticed that the language of the CCLS is not easy to grasp at first, but it is quite general.  The standards ask for children/youth to do such things as: evaluate, assess, analyze, incorporate, compare, explain, and describe.  Participants noted that the CCLS was NOT a curriculum; no where did it tell you what materials to use leaving the door open to working on those skills in the context of a variety of themes and topics.

Participants also noticed that the CCLS can be read “down,” going through all the skills and strategies expected for an age group.  Reading “down” through all the sections of Reading Literature, Reading Informational Text, Writing, Language, and Speaking and Listening they could also see some language that was the same or similar.  For example, a reading standard might ask for children to be able to identify big ideas and supporting details, whereas a writing standard will ask for children to write using big ideas and supporting details. 

The CCLS can also be read “across,” looking at how a particular skill or strategy develops from Kindergarten through 12th grade.  Shifting from one age level descriptor to the next, the language shifts a bit to indicate new levels of independence, getting progressively more sophisticated.  For example, in Kindergarten the description of the skill could include the words “with scaffolding” but when we read on to what this skill looks like in 1st or 2nd grade, the phrase “with scaffolding” has been removed and children are expected to do this skill on their own.  Or looking at a skill descriptor for high school, the standard might include the phrase “opposing viewpoint” whereas in earlier grades this expectation would not be present.  This structuring of the CCLS across many age levels affords us the ability to see what comes before and what comes after the description of a particular skill or strategy at each age level.  Participants further commented that you were never really done with a standard as it would re-appear in the next age level with more sophisticated expectations.  This meant that you could continue to expose children and youth, knowing that you are continuing to build their skill and strategy level.  

However, the language of the CCLS also prompted the initial observation that the standards as presented in the CCLS were “high,” as one participant said, “My kids are not here!”   There were words that did not seem clear: “truth,”  “narrative,” “multi-modal.”  Yet on further examination, participants began to see how the rather formal, dense and academic language of the CCLS hides some of what they actually could mean, at least initially.  As participants looked more closely, they began to see how these skills and strategies could easily relate to what they do every day with their children and youth.  For example, “collaborative discussion” could be “snack and chat” for Kindergartners after school.  Or “narrative” really just meant a sequenced story. 

As participants each selected one specific standard and articulated it into plain language, we really began to see how what the standards are asking for is not really different from what afterschool programs already do. 

Where do CCLS show up in Afterschool program lessons and activities?

Following this general review and assessment of the CCLS, participants then turned their attention to looking at their own lessons and activities in light of the CCLS.  Each participant was invited to describe to a partner a lesson or activity that they had done or seen done recently and then to discuss where they saw CCLS in the lesson or activity.  Participants were instructed to think of “text” in the standards broadly.  For example, reading a “text” in an arts-based afterschool program might mean the text is a painting, a graphic ad or a film.  We were looking here not to plan from the CCLS but to look reflectively at what participants were already doing and how that might be aligned with the CCLS.

Every participant was able to identify at least one CCLS that their lesson or activity touched.  Many participants were able to identify 3-4 CCLS that aligned in just one lesson or activity.  This prompted the observation that afterschool programs are really doing quite a lot in support of CCLS!  But previously we have not been able to describe it very well in CCLS language.   

This discussion also surfaced three important questions:

  1. What about children who do not fit into the age level descriptor of what they are expected to be able to do?
    This led us back to the CCLS to see how we could look at what comes before a particular  age group on the standards to locate our children.  Because the standards are written in a way that shows development from one age level to the next, participants were able to see how they could just back up a bit in the standards and find a place to start with their children.  Also, because no age group is ever uniform in what they are able to do, the developmental nature of the standards means that we can use them to help us think about creating different entry points for different learners. 
  2. What about the standards we do not cover or touch?
    This led us to consider what exactly is the mission of afterschool?  Afterschool programs are not generally not set up to “cover” all the standards.  Instead they offer a wide range of social-emotional, community-based, social justice, arts, sports and academic experiences in a supportive setting.  Afterschool programs are not responsible for doing all the CCLS; but it is   important to be able to articulate what each program is touching.
  3. How can we get staff on board?  What do they need to know and how can they use CCLS?
    The participants’ initial reactions to the CCLS made them, correctly, feel that the standards were not something that could be given over to staff to use without guidance and support.  The document itself even seemed intimidating and not useful so it needs to be thought through what would be productive and relevant to your staff.  Suzanne described doing the same guided  exploration of the CCLS that the Networking meeting participants were experiencing with line staff in an afterschool program; those line staff left feeling like they understood the CCLS and were not longer intimidated by them.  Several participants offered up other ideas about how to tackle this question.  (And in fact the next Networking meeting on January 16, 2014 will    deal with this issue in more depth!)

Next Steps:  How does CCLS relate to your work?   

Participants discussed in small groups what they were thinking about how this CCLS might relate to their work in their own program and then participants shared out to the whole group.  What participants said highlighted their new perspective on the CCLS: 

  • “In 2 hours we went from ‘huh?’ to ‘aha...’”  Afterschool programs ARE doing high standards work with children and youth. 
  • It is really important to make the CCLS more real and concrete; we all need to at least know what they are.
  • It is also really important to go from what afterschool programs do already to align with the CCLS, not the other way around.
  • We are already doing the CCLS, we just need to translate what we do into CCLS language.
  • CCLS actually helps show a connection between arts and academics because we can see the ways in which skills such as “analysis” are essential and practiced all the time in the arts and are necessary to academics as well.
  • Much of the social-emotional learning that afterschool programs support are visible in the Speaking and Listening standards. 
  • We need to find ways to share an understanding of the CCLS with staff and help them think about how to use the standards.  Tutors and youth staff are anxious that they cannot help children with their homework because it looks different and some knowledge of CCLS might help them.
  • We could also begin to think about how to use some CCLS language with children/youth and with families; it might help to demystify some of the tension that is building up around CCLS and for teens connect them to college and career goals.
  • We can use CCLS language to justify what we do to funders.
  • Some of the media coverage and talk in schools about CCLS has been fueling the panic, but we could be a voice in the other direction; teacher energy is low, but our energy is high so maybe we can make connections in fun and engaging ways to re-energizes things.
  • The CCLS could also be useful in thinking about what to add to afterschool programming; looking up and down the standards could provide ways to think about both supports and enrichment.

Finally, someone noted that the Networking meeting itself was a great model of how to break down complex text and process information!

Next Steps

Over the course of the meeting several important resources were noted:

  1. this website is a valuable link not only to the CCLS themselves but also to lesson plans and information about the connections to standardized tests, just as a point of reference.
  2. this website provides kid-friendly standards for K to 2nd grade. 

 The next Networking Meeting on January 16, 2014 will be “The Common Core Learning Standards: How can we use them?”  Following our October sessions on what the Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) are, there was a lot of interest in learning how different programs are aligning the CCLS with what they do and how they are using them as a tool. 

Kyle Medeiros and Jackie Osorio from Hudson Guild will share with us how they have been using and thinking about CCLS with their staff.  Then there will be an opportunity to work with colleagues to apply their ideas to your own lesson planning or curriculum.  PLEASE BRING A LESSON PLAN THAT YOU HAVE RECENTLY USED. RSVP to Anne Lawrence at anne.lawrence@bownefoundation.org  by January 13th.