Common Core Literacy in the Content Areas

This week I’m trying to get a head start in developing our upcoming May 1st full day session for teachers and principals on Bringing Common Core Literacy into the Content Areas, and my productivity is much like April weather–intermittent and scattered. One could also say the same for how well education has integrated literacy into the content areas, and by content areas, I mean non-ELA middle and high school classes. I’m struggling. Perhaps it’s getting stuff done after a lovely Easter weekend with family, or maybe it’s the quiet interlude before our next RttT Network Team Institute. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m stretching myself beyond my comfort zone. With no distractions and few communications, it’s really the perfect environment to be productive, think creatively, and write well. Contrary to that logic, taking what’s in my head and putting it together in a cogent structure has been challenging this week. I know what literacy in science looks like, but what about literacy in other disciplines; and how do we help teachers fully appreciate the instructional shifts Common Core Standards demand?

As a former middle and high school science teacher, I was privileged to teach all science subjects from grades seven through twelve. I had the top students in chemistry and physics, and budding tweens in 7th grade life science. It was great fun. My students read a lot. They wrote more than they liked, and to their dismay, gave oral presentations regularly. My philosophy was simple: take what you’re learning in science and apply it to solve problems, think creatively, and defend a position. Positions could be the use of antibiotics and subsequent growth of super bacteria; or the proposed reintroduction of the grey wolf into the Adirondack Park of New York; or the use of genetic engineering to create superfoods; or whether to choose paper or plastic when checking out at the supermarket. My students had to reference their resources and provide evidence that convinced me and their classmates about their position. What fun! It was work, but it was good work. And my students learned much of their science through literacy.

I realize many years later that what I did with literacy as a science teacher was the exception rather than the norm, and that in many ways, my colleagues and I were independent contractors doing what we did because we loved kids and our subject areas (I just happened to also love literacy). Social Studies, Science, History, Technical Subjects, and Unified Arts teachers have essentially taught in silos these past few decades, with only passing, infrequent attempts to work cross-curricularly with one another and ELA. It’s not that the profession didn’t recognize the value of cross curricular, literacy embedded lessons. On the contrary, I remember feature summer session brochures titled “Integrating Literacy in the Content Areas” that were scattered in faculty rooms, mail rooms, and school offices during April and May. These three-day workshops were designed by Teacher Centers for subject area teachers who weren’t exactly responsible for teaching reading or writing, but who might consider strategies to bridge such essentials into their curricula. Unfortunately, interest in the workshops was limited for a variety of reasons; probably the biggest of which was a misunderstanding about the beneficial role of literacy in all content areas. That’s changing thanks to Common Core Standards.

As I mentioned earlier, planning the literacy workshop has been difficult. I know what to do with science, but what about the other content areas? Fortunately, we have the Internet, and Google, and blogs and all those great bookmarked resources. One of my favorites is Darren Burris’ Common Core Online, which is fed daily via Scoop.It. From Darren’s material I’ve come across many useful resources, including Social Studies teacher Michael Milton’s blog. If you are looking for common core resources, or great ideas and activities for teaching social studies with the common core in mind, then you must check out Darren’s and Mike’s materials. Back to the planning part, I was desperately figuring out how to address the social studies and history teachers’ needs for exemplars of literacy-embedded tasks when I came upon Michael Milton’s materials. With his permission, I will be using two ideas from his site: Connecting Lessons to Common Core: A Missed Opportunity, and Connecting Lessons to Common Core: Enlightenment–Declaration of Independence. I’ll also be pulling some exemplars from the New York State Education Department’s Common Core Toolkit on The science piece will be much easier. We’ll do a close read on some Geo-engineering articles, and then a position paper on invasive species.

Depending on the composition of our audience, other exemplars may need to pulled together. Regardless, our essential questions for the workshop are: 1) What are the CCLS for Literacy in History, Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects and how does the rigor change from 6th-12th grade?; 2) What adjustments in pedagogy, curriculum, and assessments do the CCLS for Literacy call for?; and 3) What are some best practices and resources to implement the CCLS in my classroom? We anticipate a hard days work which I hope our participants find invigorating and assuring. We’ll open with Ronnie Bruce’s Typology Poem, work in a Chris Tovani’s piece on purposeful reading, and spend a great deal of time understanding the standards through best practices, curriculum development, and the six instructional shifts ( I’ll post our best practices and products later this spring). With Courtney Jablonski, my highly talented RttT colleague, back in town from vacation next week, I imagine we’ll have a quality final product to present on May 1st. Meanwhile, nothing ventured, nothing gained.


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