Let’s Not Opt Out of the Common Core

By Pam Allyn, LitLife Inspiration Director

A firestorm has erupted around the Common Core Standards. Parents across the country have joined together to create an “opt out” movement, protesting time consuming standardized test preparation and assessment requirements that feel inhumane and developmentally unsound.

Many might think the Common Core Standards themselves dictate such practices. But this is not the case. Let us protest too much inauthentic and joy-stealing test preparation, but let us not miss the opportunity the Common Core Standards provide us to close a catastrophic learning and opportunity gap for every child, and to give every child a far richer classroom experience. Let us not opt out of the Common Core.

The Common Core debuted in 2010, when the National Governors Association commissioned a set of standards to build coherence in instruction and academic achievement across grade levels and zip codes. The Common Core is a bill of rights for learning and teaching, the first of its kind for literacy and math in the history of public education. It lays out a road map for the child’s academic journey through school, creating a safety net whereby teachers can compare outcomes, plan curriculum and assure a more continuous experience for the learning child.

Protest inhumane test prep, yes. Protest unfair and harsh assessment of teachers based on just one test score, yes. Protest the lack of access to resources and materials needed for children to meet standards. But let us stand up together for the Common Core itself, which stands up for the learning rights of every child, for equal access to resources and for professional development for teachers that will help them best meet the needs of all children in the 21st century.

State departments of education launched the Common Core by mandating assessments and linking them to teacher evaluations. In this crucial way, they put the cart before the horse. This all happened before ensuring that all schools had the resources needed (books and technology to start) and before training teachers effectively in new methodologies and best practices for the new era. This was not sensible. It was like demanding that everyone run a marathon without providing any time to exercise, build routine and stamina. It was like not providing basic running shoes to run that same hard race.

This misstep is an underlying cause for the confusion and anger towards the Common Core. I want to help correct the misunderstandings in the hopes that we can rally behind the standards themselves, so they can do the work I want them to do: close the learning gap.

Misunderstanding: The Common Core Standards are a test. Fact: The standards are a set of outcomes. (For example: “By the end of first grade, a student should be able to “use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events”.) The standards clearly articulate goals for children as learners and outline well defined and robust skills in literacy and math. Yet districts jumped straight to assessing rather than implementing the standards through Common Core aligned curriculum and professional development.

I agree that excessive test prep and time spent testing disengages children, takes them away from genuine learning experiences, and produces results that are often not reflective of what students actually know and are able to do.

Let me be very clear: the Common Core does not harm children — the effects of the over-emphasis of preparation for standardized testing that have become conflated with the Common Core can cause harm.

Misunderstanding: The Common Core is a federally mandated curriculum that limits what schools can teach. Fact: The standards never, not once, dictate any curriculum or mandate any lesson plans. The standards do not so much as mention a specific book title that a teacher must teach. The standards specify what students must achieve, but educators are meant to work collaboratively in their schools to determine the best way to get there. They can create their own curriculum or choose to purchase Common Core aligned programs. They can choose the texts they love and that children love to help them meet the expectations of the standards. The standards provide a blueprint for analysis of these programs, helping educators to make sound decisions.

Misunderstanding: The standards are too rigorous, too intense and place unrealistic demands on children. Fact: The standards are purposefully designed with a child’s choice and voice in mind. Emphasis is placed upon a variety of writing types (narrative, informational and opinion writing). Speaking and listening skills and tools for collaboration are valued. Students are encouraged to develop critical thinking skills, not just responding to the “how” and “what” of a text, but to their own “why” questions. In the primary grades, the standards emphasize literacy as critical thinking but also as building and creating, as conversation and storytelling. The core heartbeat of the standards is that each child will reach independence. The role of independent practice, meaningful experience with authentic materials and a child’s own choices all play a vital role in the standards.

It seems as if the Common Core Standards themselves are provoking unnatural testing environments for children. But they are not. It is how some loud voices  (very few of those actual educators or children or parents) interpret them that is provoking this kind of environment. It is time to tell a new Common Core story. Stories about how students are now given more access to authentic and diverse texts in the classroom, are being encouraged to talk more about the deeper ideas in the texts, are encouraged to do the kind of research that matters in their own lives, are given the opportunity to share their opinions in ways that enhance their skills. Stories about how families at home can also be Common Core ambassadors, listening to and sharing stories with their children, all a critical component of what the standards value.

The Common Core Standards are a once in a generation transformational moment for public education. Let’s use the standards as a clarion call for equity and opportunity for every child. No matter her zip code, she has the human right to an education that makes her truly college and career ready and well prepared for engaged citizenship. She has the right to experience the joy of learning and knowledge building in the 21st century.

What If We Measured This?

As teachers, parents, and supporters of our students and children, we are always trying to determine the most important and effective tools to use and bring with us into our classrooms and our homes. We are constantly on the lookout for methods and practices that will best prepare our students for their futures and will nourish their lives and worlds. It can be difficult to evaluate effective classrooms and to ensure that students are learning and absorbing information in useful, creative, and enriching ways. We have pinpointed some of the practices that we feel are most important to our children’s development as learners, readers, and writers and have considered the implications of measuring those activities.

Number of times students are read to

Reading aloud to students of all ages has been proven to have a wealth of benefits. The 2015 Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report detailed the importance of reading aloud. A recent New York Times article summarized the findings of the report in this way: “Reading aloud through elementary school seemed to be connected to a love of reading generally.” Encouraging students to love reading is the most important gift we can give them as they develop their reading lives. If they are motivated to read both independently and with the whole class, they will naturally acquire and continue to grow the essential skills they need as readers, writers, and learners.

The importance of the read aloud is echoed in a U.S. Department of Education Commission on Reading report, which reviewed over 10,000 studies and concluded that reading aloud is the most important activity for building and supporting successful readers. Successful readers will not only likely show positive results on standardized tests, but perhaps more importantly, they will be armed with the communication and linguistic skills they need for successful futures. Measuring the amount of time devoted to this simple yet essential practice will encourage teachers and parents to ensure that read alouds are a consistent and daily part of their students’ lives.

Number of minutes a day students are engaged in independent practice versus whole class instruction

The time devoted to independent practice versus whole class instruction is particularly important when it comes to reading and developing strong literacy skills. Allotted time for independent practice gives students the opportunity to develop their own reading interests and learn to select books that reflect their passions and abilities.

Independent reading time has been shown to directly correlate to the frequency with which students read. The Scholastic report found that, in children ages 12-17, frequent readers are more likely than infrequent readers to read independently during the school day. The report also states that, “Some children have opportunities to read a book of their choice independently during the school day, yet these experiences rarely happen every or almost every school day.” We need to make ample time in our classrooms for independent learning and reading so as to best encourage and model for our students the value and pleasure in developing into frequent and capable readers.

Number of books a child has access to throughout the year

According to a 2003 NCES report, a difference in access to as few as 25 books can have a noticeable and significant impact. The report found that fourth graders who reported having 25 books or more at home had higher scores on reading tests than students who reported that they had less than 25 books at home. This dramatic statistic illustrates the importance of ensuring adequate access to books, both at home and in the classroom, for all children.

Integral to the idea of varied and wide access to books is the importance of providing students with books that will appeal to them and support and sustain their interest in reading. According to the Scholastic report, 73% of kids ages 6-17 say that they would read more if they could find more books that they like. In this same vein, 91% of children ages 6-17 report that their favorite books are the ones they pick out themselves. It is important that we provide space and time for children to select books for themselves and to locate their interests and passions within their reading selections. The measurement of books children have access to should acknowledge and include a discussion on the kinds of books that children have access to throughout the year. Students should be able to read and select books that reflect their experiences and interests and introduce them to new perspectives as well.

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Photo Credit: Wikipedia

As we consider the tools and skills that our students most need, let us continue to reflect on innovative measurements that will best push us to advocate for and support our students in their learning lives. Let’s put the student at the center of our thinking and focus on the practices and ideas that will prepare them for futures as independent and passionate readers, writers, and thinkers.

Common Core Spotlight: Toontastic

We are excited about any tool that promotes creative storytelling, and Toontastic is an app that does just that.

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Image via launchpadtoys.com

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6 Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

How does Toontastic work?

Toontastic is a popular iPad based app that allows kids to create their own original animated stories and presentations. The app has an easy-to-use interface and presents students with five major components of stories, or the “story arc” as Toontastic calls it. These five story components are: Setup, Conflict, Challenge, Climax, and Resolution. Students are not required to use every component, and can pick and choose which scenes they would like to focus on. In constructing their stories in this way, students are exposed to common story structures and themes.

The app also provides for flexibility; students can paint and create their own backgrounds or select from a variety of pre-made backgrounds and scenes. The same flexibility is offered with character creation; students can draw their own characters or select from characters that the app offers.

Once the characters and settings have been selected, students can begin the process of animation. They can shrink and expand the characters and move the characters across the screen, among a number of other actions. Students can record dialogue as they animate the characters and the app simultaneously records the actions and the words. Students can also add music to their stories and animations. The animations created with Toontastic can easily be shared online, allowing parents and other students to view the Toontastic stories.

It is likely that the app will continue to expand and grow as, according to cnet.com, “Google has acquired Launchpad Toys, maker of the popular kid-friendly storytelling app Toontastic.” We can’t wait to see the future innovations Toontastic will offer.

Thanks to Graphite (described here in a previous blog post) for introducing us to Toontastic. Be sure to check out Graphite frequently for more great app suggestions.

How can I use Toontastic in my classroom?

  • Invite your students to create autobiographical animations and share their stories with each other. At the beginning of the school year as students are meeting and getting to know each other, Toontastic can be a great tool to facilitate those early interactions. Encourage students to include their families as they create their autobiographical animations as well, and share the final creations with the entire classroom community.
  • Isolate and discuss major story elements while reading in class texts and enforce those concepts with the story elements in the Toontastic app (Setup, Conflict, Challenge, Climax, and Resolution). The students can create animations that reflect books and stories they have read and discussed in class, or they can create their own original animations while focusing on those specific story elements.
  • Integrate the Toontastic app and storytelling across disciplines. If discussing a historical figure, consider allowing students to animate the life and accomplishments of that person. Students will learn that storytelling and communication are applicable over many kinds of discussions and can be used for varied genres and narratives.

LitLife’s Favorite Winter Read Alouds

It has been a cold and snowy winter. Here in New York City, we have spent the last few weeks trudging through snow, slipping on ice, and trying to stay warm! Nothing is cozier or more warming than a good read aloud and we have been relying on some of our favorites to get us through the chilly days. And for our friends who live in warm climates, a wintry read aloud can be a great way to get a taste of the cool weather- no travel required! Here are some winter read alouds we love:

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

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This classic, Caldecott Medal winning book is a must-read on any snowy day. Ezra Jack Keats’ story describes a little boy enjoying and exploring the outdoors after snow has fallen. Children will love the memorable illustrations and will be inspired to have their own fun in the snow!

 The Mitten by Jan Brett

1556401 This winter tale is an especially perfect choice for animal lovers. The story centers around a boy named Nicki who loses his white mitten in the snow. A variety of animals discover the mitten while Nicki looks for it. The beautiful illustrations bring the animals and the cold, snowy setting to life.

Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear by Nicola Davies

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Ice Bear is another great winter pick for children who are interested in animals. This book is filled with facts about polar bears, presented through Davies’ poetic writing and Gary Blythe’s wonderful illustrations. This beautiful read is perfect for learning about an Arctic animal on an arctic-cold day.

 Snow by Cynthia Rylant

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 Cynthia Rylant is one of our favorite authors and we are always on the lookout for any opportunity to read one of her books. A chilly winter day is an ideal time to savor this one about a girl enjoying the snow.

 Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton

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 Another classic wintry picture book, Katy and the Big Snow tells the story of Katy, a red tractor who plows snow in the winter. After a big snow storm, Katy needs to put her plowing skills to use. Everyone will have a newfound appreciation for snow plows after reading about Katy!

Common Core Spotlight: Project Noah

During cold NYC winters, we dream of warm spring days and the possibility of bringing students outside to burn off some of that extra energy. And our recent discovery of Project Noah has us longing for late spring field trips that bring us back to nature.

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CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

How does Project Noah work?

Project Noah is web and mobile based app that gets kids excited about science. We think Project Noah could be an amazing tool for reaching Common Core’s  requirements for teaching informational reading and writing and for teaching literacy across subject areas. It provides students with engaging tools for exploring the natural world, as well as authentic audiences for their writing.

Project Noah asks students to explore and document the natural world by sharing photos and descriptions of living organisms. When students find an interesting organism, they can upload a “spotting” to the Project Noah platform. Students are asked to include information about their spotting that includes its species, details of its habitat and a description. If students don’t know what they’re looking at, they can ask the Noah platform for help identifying the species and other users will chime in with what they know.

The app also includes “missions” that students can take part in. These missions ask students to participate in investigations of the natural world. There are many built-in missions, but teachers can also create their own that align to a specific life-science learning standard or the local environment. The missions are also often aligned to real-world conservation projects, so students know their research is impacting the world.

Teachers can register a classroom to create student accounts and to set up their own missions. In the classroom space, teachers can manage what their students are uploading and track students’ observations. The Teachers page of Project Noah is currently still in Beta. And according to the Graphite.org review of Project Noah, may of the classroom features only available in the web and Amplify versions of the app. Other mobile versions of the app are not fully supported.

How can I use Project Noah in my classroom?

  • Download some of the lessons and resources from the Project Noah website. The “Writing in the Wild” lesson gets kids interacting with their environment, engaging in research and writing informational text for an authentic audience.
  • Create your own mission that lets students investigate easily accessible spaces like local parks, the school grounds, or a walk around the neighborhood. Have students practice writing descriptive explanations of trees, flowers, and animals they encounter.
  • Use Project Noah as a starting point for additional research. Take students on a walking field trip in which they document their environment. Have students focus on organisms that they can’t immediately identify. With the help of the Project Noah community, students can identify species that are part of their environment. From there, students can do additional research and compile reports about the species they encountered.

The Top 10 Ways Writing Has Changed in the Core Ready Era (And What to Do About It)

The shift to the Common Core standards has put a bigger emphasis on writing instruction than ever before. Below are some of the major changes we’ve noticed in the goals for writing instruction and some tips on what this could look like in your classroom.

  1.  Change: Writing is for real audiencesWhat to do about it:
      • Create products that are designed as gifts for others
      • Engage with organizations that provide ways for children to write to and for each other
      • Build performance into the ways children complete a project
      • Use genres found in the real world as a mode for sharing
  2. Change: Writing is deeply connected to reading
    What to do about it:

      • When children are passionate about what they read, be sure they are writing about that
      • Create productive exercises that are not only products (i.e. essays), but also part of the process of reading (stop and jot)
      • Teach children to see authors as real people making deliberate decisions
  3. Change: Writing is an important part of 21st century learningWhat to do about it:
      • Give children the opportunity to use apps that teach storytelling and story sharing
      • Give children the opportunity to use apps that share information in exciting ways
      • Give children the opportunity to use apps that help them express their opinions

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  4. Change: Writing can be practiced in many forms, both written and visual
    What to do about it:

      • Use text types to experiment with new ways of sharing
      • Practice writing across content areas
      • Encourage sharing of ideas through visual and print forms
  5. Change: Writing must be practiced across a variety of text types
    What to do about it:

      • Build and use units of study
      • Use same topic across text types to show children how text types are in service to ideas
  6. Change:  Writing should be meaningful and purposeful to the writer
    What to do about it:

      • Invite children to share ideas on where writing would be most meaningful for them
      • Make sure children are writing about topics that matter to them
      • Share authors writing on topics of interest to them, share author notes and acknowledgement pages
  7. Change: Writing builds text complexity skills
    What to do about it:

      • Use the text complexity triangle to analyze writing skills text complexity triangle
      • Show models of complex writing, even at the picture book stage
  8. Change: Writing is connected to speaking and listening development
    What to do about it:

      • Talk off a child’s own story, drawing, or picture
      • Have students write a play to be performed with themselves as actors
      • Write songs together and perform
      • Display dialogue starters to craft longer, stronger conversations
  9. Change: Writing is developmental and has stages of growth
    What to do about it:

      • Have students collect their writing in a portfolio
      • Invite students to reflect on their own growth throughout the school year
      • Ask students to identify the ways they have grown and set goals for the future
  10. Change: Writing is a tool for communication
    What to do about it:

      • Provide opportunities for students to write emails to a local congresswoman or congressman
      • Introduce students to different writing styles and demonstrate the difference between writing a text message, writing an email, and writing a comment on a blog post


    For more practical tips on implementing the Common Core standards, check out Pam Allyn’s Core Ready series.

The Core Ready 6-8 Lesson Sets are Here!

We are very excited to announce that the Core Ready lesson sets for grades 6-8 are now available!

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The Core Ready Program is a dynamic series of books that provides educators with the complete tool set for navigating and thriving with the core standards. Showing how to take large complex concepts of the standards and turn them into practical, specific instruction for everyday instruction, the series is organized around Pam Allyn’s Four Doors to the Core:

  •      The Journey to Meaning: Comprehension and Critique

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  •      The Shape of Story: Contemporary and Classical

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  •      The Road to Knowledge: Information and Research

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  •      The Power to Persuade: Opinion and Argument

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These four books are stocked with powerful lesson sets, assessment rubrics, support for ELLs and diverse learners and tips for how to do high tech variations for literacy instruction for grades 6, 7, and 8. This is a “one stop shop” for the standards-hungry student and teacher. The challenging work of unpacking the standards and turning them into meaningful instruction and learning is done. What is here is a rich day to day, step by step guide for how to implement the standards and how students can all become Core ready. Student teachers can learn to teach by practicing with these lessons; professors can assign them for practice in the classroom and for discussion in study groups. Master teachers can use the lessons to teach seamlessly, maintaining what they love and do already but incorporating these lessons to complete and fulfill the guidelines and goals of the standards.

The 6-8 lesson sets follow the staircase of complexity that began in the K-2 books, allowing students to build critical literacy skills throughout the years. As with all of the Core Ready lesson sets, the 6-8 books are accompanied by a digital PD Toolkit, full of additional resources and materials for teachers and students.

The books are available now from Pearson and Amazon.

Check back soon for news about our upcoming Core Ready book, Core Ready ELL.