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Common Core, Another Think Coming ~ Ryan Murphey

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Ryan O. Murphey teaches high school English in Nashville, Tennessee, is  a Grammy-nominated music producer, songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, and is currently serving as a Tennessee Educator Fellow with SCORE.

Throughout Tennessee and across the country, in classrooms just like mine at Maplewood High School in Nashville, TN., big changes are taking place and it’s primarily thanks to a divisive issue — Common Core. I remember the first time I heard about the standards. Great, another initiative that I’ll have to learn and then forget in a year, I mused, insouciantly. Well, that was before I had examined the standards, before they had changed my teaching forever. Whatever you’ve heard about Common Core, hear this: these changes are having a big impact on students and they are returning meaningful results not only for myself but for the states who are adopting them with fidelity.

When my English department first met to discuss Common Core in 2012, I noticed something different about these standards. I realized two things immediately. One, they were written in a way that was actually asking my students to think! Two, these guidelines reminded me of what I had been teaching in advanced placement literature classes for six years.

In an AP Literature class, students are relentlessly pushed to find the purpose behind literature, not just to identify its structure and mechanics. When discovering an allusion or simile in Hamlet, for example, a student not only must recognize the figurative language such as, “No more like my father than I to Hercules,” and cite the line, but he/she must also explain the purpose behind that device and show how it is used to create meaning or support a larger theme the Prince is struggling with in the play. For years, I’ve seen these kinds of guidelines take students who had never really been challenged and deliver them into a larger realm of questioning and metacognition.

Still, I was nervous to try this kind of rigor and open-ended thinking with Sophomore English students who desperately needed to pass our state standardized test. I was definitely at a crossroads. I knew these standards could work, but I was afraid to put my scores in jeopardy. But I read the standards again and I knew I had to take a chance. I was tired of teaching kids to memorize and anticipate patterns in the same old questions. I decided it was time to pursue this new initiative with great fervor!

I dove in with Hamlet at the 10th grade level. At first, it seemed preposterous to my students and myself, but I explained that we were trying something new. The kids didn’t seem to mind so much. They actually appeared more engaged with something so challenging to read. We analyzed the play’s themes and wrote paragraphs citing evidence of significant connections, and discussed the characters’ motivations far beyond the plot. The sophomores even decided to challenge my AP class to a writing contest. After that, we read the biography of Steve Jobs and designed our own tech products as if we worked at Apple. Something was happening. The electricity in my room was palpable.

In my AP class, the seniors were getting nervous that the sophomores might one-up them, so they decided to turn Hamletinto a hip-hop musical featuring original rap songs and dance routines. Because Common Core demands more project/student-led learning, it just felt like the right thing to do. As fate would have it, that project ended up winning gold at the Metro Project Expo. It was the only Language Arts project in the media division of its kind and it was all thanks to Common Core. I even got invited to a meeting with Arne Duncan and had the chance to tell him about what Common Core had done for my students.

I knew what everyone at my school was thinking. Why are they making movies and designing electronic devices in Mr. Murphey’s class? Well, then the scores came in and nothing speaks louder than success. My sophomores, who had challenged the seniors, scored ridiculously high on the benchmark tests and went on to have a thirty point gain in proficiency for English II over the previous year. Other colleagues of mine who implemented Common Core experienced the same gains. In fact, our school won the award for the highest gains in proficiency for ANY Nashville Metro school!

The bottom line is that Common Core works. Tennessee and Kentucky have seen some of the biggest academic gains in recent history and both states deserve credit for taking this chance. The question now is whether we’ll be able to hold up against an opposition that is sadly misinformed about what Common Core actually is.

I am a teacher, not a politician. I care about kids and not votes. I suppose it’s easy for me to support Common Core because I know that it’s designed to help my students achieve heights that have previously only been reserved for advanced students. Common Core proposes that every student should be taught with a challenging, rigorous goal in mind. What can possibly be wrong with that?

Common Core actually simplifies teaching by eliminating frivolous standards and replacing them with high quality guidelines that allow teachers to be freer than ever to teach content in a more enriching way. It promotes skills that foster higher-order thinking and reasoning as well as assessing kids on their ability to communicate their ideas effectively.

Has there been an adjustment, surely. I have had to modify much of my advanced curriculum in order to differentiate for standard students and that takes considerable time, but it’s worth it. To see my students growing towards a goal that is more beneficial as opposed to merely memorizing facts they will forget next week is priceless. Common Core promotes grit and a chance for a lifelong love of learning that only gains traction as a child ages.

The numbers prove this claim to be true. Now is not the time to let pride or senseless allegiance to tradition stand in the way of such great reforms. Common Core is the way forward. If we turn back now, we will only have fear and our own blindness to blame when we complain about America’s place on the world’s stage of education. Take it from Hamlet and let us not allow “enterprises of great pith and moment, in this regard their currents turn awry, and lose the name of action!” Think about the future, you may have another think coming…