Stop by Chris Reilly’s Business & Personal Law class at Jamestown High School and you would see students not only completing legal research on the Internet, but also writing about two defamation cases, one that involved a libel claim and one a claim of slander. Students were asked to identify the plaintiffs and defendants, the basis of the lawsuits, the defenses of the lawsuits and the damages awarded. The defamation activity is just one of many that has students completing hands-on legal research in order to learn about the law. Mr. Reilly’s class showcases criminal, civil, contractual and workplace law. Historically, Mr. Reilly taught the course through cooperative learning by using activities such as a mock trial. With the new Common Core State Standards going into effect, Mr. Reilly used the change as an opportunity to re-vamp his course from the cooperative learning to research- and writing-based learning.
“The Common Core State Standards and APPR have challenged teachers to incorporate English Language Arts into all subject areas. The JPS District has asked everyone to come together to improve literacy no matter what your subject area,” said Mr. Reilly. “I believe this change has helped both teachers and students. Common Core Standards aren’t just new standards. They are higher level standards. A student may understand the concept you are teaching, however, on a test if they don’t understand the technical language used in that subject area, they might answer incorrectly, even knowing the concept. Students gain a higher level of understanding in any subject area when there is a focus on reading and writing. Expectations are greater. Increasing literacy in all areas will reap benefits in everything we do as a district.“
Mr. Reilly has also changed how he evaluates students. Previously, he tested students with multiple choice questions. Now, they are assessed not only on knowledge, but on their understanding through long answer questions. They are given a question such as, “You just graduated from culinary school and would like to open your own restaurant. You friend Paul recently graduated from Harvard Business School and is looking to get involved with an “upstart” business. Discuss at least two reasons why it would be best for you to enter this business venture as a sole proprietor and at least two reasons why it would be best to form a partnership with Paul?”
The students see the difference.
“It is a better way to learn,” said JHS senior Boe Brooks. “I need to learn how to research and write about any topic as I will have to do this in college and in the workplace. It can’t help but make me a better student when I am incorporating English Language Arts in all my classes. In Business & Personal Law, I’m learning about topics that I will personally use in my life. For example, I didn’t know about insurance before I took this class. Through researching, writing and seeing real-world examples, I now understand insurance, not just for a business, but personally too. I will understand when I go to purchase insurance for my family, what I need and why.”
Common Core State Standards Explained
The Common Core State Standards have challenged teachers across the country to think differently about planning their lessons, as they increase their focus on literacy in all academic disciplines. The result of a joint-effort by our nation’s governors and state departments of education, the Common Core standards were drafted in 2010 by a national panel of educators and other experts, based on research, including models of education in top-performing countries. To date, 45 states have adopted the common body of learning expectations, which define the literacy and mathematics skills that students are expected to learn in each grade from kindergarten through grade twelve.
“People often question ‘what’s different’ about the Common Core, or why we needed a new set of standards,” said Jessie Joy, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for the Jamestown Schools. “Research shows that the U.S. has fallen significantly behind many other countries in academic achievement, including the percentage of the population earning a college degree. This was the concern that inspired the National Governors Association to act – to review our expectations for learning against those in other countries, to improve our global competitiveness.”
“There are some major differences in the Common Core standards from the standards of the past,” said Ms. Joy. “One of these is the increased emphasis on literacy in all subjects, as students are expected to read about and write about informational and non-fiction text in every class. This might not seem to be an unusual expectation, as textbooks often guide the course of study in subjects such as history, science, and some elective courses. This is about going beyond the textbook. Actually, research shows that the reading level of high school textbooks is well-below that of college textbooks, research journals, technical manuals, even newspapers. And often teachers supplement the text with lecture and discussion, meaning that students may not even need to read the textbook to learn the content of their class. As a consequence, students enter college, military, or the workforce without the specific skills needed to read and write about academic and technical subjects.
“Mr. Reilly’s lesson is a great example of the kind of authentic reading that the Common Core demands,” said Ms. Joy. “It would be much easier for the teacher to summarize the key points of a difficult text, and to ask a series of short-answer questions to assess whether students recall the important facts, but this isn’t a realistic expectation for students once they leave high school. If they want to be successful in college or a technical field, they need to develop the ability to read for information and write clearly to explain a procedure or persuade one to agree with their position on a controversial topic.”
Common Core in the ELA Classroom
The Common Core standards have also made a significant impact on the type of reading and writing that occurs in the English Language Arts classroom. Washington Middle School English Language Arts teacher Jason Williams has embraced the new Common Core State Standards by incorporating only non-fiction in his classes. He uses Scholastic’s “THE 10” series based on a Top 10 countdown format. “THE 10” develops critical thinking and comprehension skills through engaging titles that focus on science, social studies, and the arts. Through inquiry-based learning, students build comprehension and content-area vocabulary while scientifically, socially, and artistically exploring key content-area concepts and themes. Each book centers on one critical question designed to encourage students to think and read for meaning. Subject matter ranges from “The 10 Deadliest Sea Creatures” to “Top 10 Greatest Accidental Inventions” to name just two of the interesting and colorful topics.
Mr. Williams recently used the “Top 10 Greatest Accidental Inventions” book as a starting point for a small group project. Students created invention advertisement presentations based on inventions they read about in the book. The subject fired students’ imaginations and included a Public Service Announcement by students Drew Simmons, Courtney Russo, Amelia Dolce, Hannah Wells and Matt Woodard. The group started with the consumption of a “tainted” string cheese and ended with Louis Pasteur (played by Drew) coming back from the dead to rap about how he discovered a way to “fix the food.” The hands-on, real-life presentations helped the subject matter come to life, while also including the reading, researching and writing skills necessary for student’s ELA success.
“I decided to incorporate all non-fiction in my ELA classes. I wasn’t sure that the students would embrace it but they love it. The books focus on topics they are really interested in learning more about,” said Mr. Williams. “I still incorporate fiction but through the non-fiction. For example, when we were read about the ten most extreme fighting styles, bow and arrow came up, which lead to a discussion of The Hunger Games, a fiction book they all want to read. Students are also making connections on their own between the non-fiction we are reading in class. They will find something that interests them in non-fiction and then go and find a fiction book that has that subject in it.”
“The focus of reading in the ELA classroom has typically been literature, fiction, drama, and poetry. ELA teachers have a passion for and expertise in this type of reading, and naturally want to share that in their students,” said Ms. Joy. “The Common Core standards don’t suggest that we eliminate fiction, but rather add more non-fiction so that students develop the specific reading skills that help them to learn from academic and technical text. The vocabulary and syntax of non-fiction is much different, and often harder to read, than fiction. If we don’t give students a ‘balanced diet,’ they will be less likely to grow into strong and capable readers.”
The Common Core standards have challenged teachers like Mr. Reilly and Mr. Williams to change their thinking, and to stretch their teaching to include lessons they might not have otherwise considered important. “Change is the hardest part of implementing the Common Core,” said Ms. Joy. “We grow very comfortable and familiar in the habits that we know well and have perfected. It doesn’t always mean these are good habits, though, especially when our students need more to be successful in the long term.” Ms. Joy says that collaboration is also a key to making this change successfully. “We have much to learn from each other – across departments, across the state, and across the nation. Teachers are sharing strategies and resources like I’ve never seen before, and our students will ultimately benefit from a broader, richer experience in their learning.”