Scenario: You stopped at the supermarket on your way home from school to pick up a few items for dinner. Unfortunately, you forgot to bring your reusable cloth shopping bags. When you get to the checkout line, the clerk asks you, “Paper or plastic?”. Task: Write a 300-word essay defending the type of bag you would choose. Be sure to use at least two credible references in your defense of paper or plastic bags. A simple problem with two to three positions and a myriad of possible explanations. As a science teacher in the late 80s and 90s, I had my students write such position papers at least once each quarter. Topics were relevant to the units we covered, and required students to use text-based evidence from various sources in their writings. In the process, they read more, wrote more, and learned and used more complex vocabulary. Sounds a lot like today’s Common Core Instructional Shifts.
The Common Core Learning Standards call for significant shifts in teaching, particularly for teachers in subjects other than English Language Arts. And that’s a wonderful thing.
Frankly, it’s been a long time coming for the few but vocal, “I am not an English teacher. It’s not my job to teach them how to read and write.” types. We all have a responsibility for developing student communication skills, whether they be in the form of reading, writing, listening or speaking. Ironically, it is through literacy that our students excel in their understanding and application of subject matter content. With such rich diversity for writing and speaking tasks in the non-ELA content areas, the opportunities for students to persuade and inform are endless. As a science teacher, my student position paper topics ranged from Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the poultry industry to Reintroduction of the Gray Wolf into the Adirondacks and biodiversity. We also explored and debated climate change topics, including comparison of Bill McKibben’s, The End of Nature with Dixie Lee Ray’s, Trashing the Planet.
My students loved the tasks. Well, maybe loved is too strong a word, but they certainly liked/valued the challenge of taking a position and supporting it with researched details. We would even hold mock town board events and debates on some of our more controversial themes. It was fun, and the learning was deep and meaningful. Sometimes the projects took on a life of their own, with extended searches on particularly controversial topics. With the quantity of content required to get through prior to the state test, these extended activities took place outside the classroom, earning students extra points for their efforts. The key message in all tasks was, “Your opinion carries weight when you can back it up with data and text from credible sources.”
We need the Common Core Literacy Standards to ensure we graduate students who can read, write, speak and listen well, and who use evidence from varied, credible sources when making important decisions. They need to be comfortable with the syntax and language of primary documents, and be able to confidently voice and defend their opinions with others. In a time of information (and misinformation) overload, we need to ensure our students are critical thinkers who have the literacy skills necessary to make logical decisions. Students who are well read, well-informed, and who can speak or write with conviction on substantive topics. In the words of Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”