As the national Common Core State Standards sweep across the country, so will a bunch of acronyms, including UDL, EBC, and CCSS. Although science and social studies will be tangentially affected, the major shifts are occurring in ELA and math, shifts that will have huge effects on the way we differentiate reading and writing in the classroom.
In the most recent issue of The American Educator (available at http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/fall2013/Shanahan.pdf), author Timothy Shanahan describes the major shift as placing “the text—not the teacher—at the center of students’ negotiating text meaning,” and leaving behind background and secondary materials typically integrated into the ELA classroom.
This, he explains, means students will be confronted with challenging texts at all grade levels and does away with the notion of matching text to student reading levels. Instead, teachers should anticipate difficulties–such as difficult syntax or vocabulary–and put supports in place to help them navigate those difficulties.
In terms of products, the Common Core also demands that students complete the same essays/projects/quizzes. In the past, a differentiated classroom may have featured some students writing an essay about Romeo and Juliet while another group filmed an update scene from the play.
This is where Universal Design for Learning (UDL) comes into play. This approach, rather than differentiating products, emphasizes multiple “access points” to learning. This means incorporating films, speeches, pictures, and plays into the classroom in order to reach multiple learners. In the end, however, all students should be tasked with completing the same assignments and products.
What does this mean for us special educators? It means we need to shift the focus of our interventions. This past term, my self-contained ninth-grade ELA class completed a unit on the purpose of education in which they read Dr. Montessori’s Handbook and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “The Purpose of Education” as well as listened to speeches by Arne Duncan and Colin Powell. The texts varied between 8th and 11th grade levels, but most of my students read below a 6th grade level.
In order to engage students in difficult texts, I had to push them to consistently compare the text’s ideas with their own experiences. This allowed them a personal access point into challenging material. I showed students several videos (including Rita Pierson’s great TED Talk, “Every Kid Deserves a Champion”) that were student-friendly but did not stray from the theme of the unit.
Before tackling Dr. Montessori’s Handbook, students examined photos of classrooms at Montessori High School in NYC and NYC public schools. This allowed students to practice noticing details and also clued them in on what to look for in the text. Such additions increased engagement and comprehension of the text.
When students began reading the text, I emphasized to them that it would take more than one reading to fully comprehend it. On the first time through, which was done as a class with me as the reader, students focused only on identifying the text’s central idea and generating questions they wanted to further explore.
The second time through, which was done in small groups, students chose one question to explore and identified the details that develop the central idea. Because each reading has a specific focus, students were less overwhelmed by the complexity and were, slowly, able to generate meaning.
While I don’t think my classroom looks radically different than it did a year ago, I do feel that it is more student-centered. The supports I have put into place this year (bracketing of difficult vocabulary, chunking, and adding pictures/videos) have been aimed precisely at engaging students and allowing them an access point into the text rather than guiding their comprehension.
How has the new Common Core affected your instruction?
What reading supports have been successful in the classroom?