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Teaching the Core: Setting an Example for Common Core ~ Elaine Collins

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Elaine Collins has worked for 23 years in a variety of roles in education and is currently the principal at Brownington Central School, a K – 8 elementary school in northern Vermont, where she’s worked for 15 years.

When we consider that high-quality, knowledgeable teachers are at the heart of our work implementing the Common Core, my role as an educational leader in my school made me a good fit for the Teaching the Core Project. Teaching the Core is a collection of full lesson videos that highlight not only exemplary teaching, but teaching that supports students’ progress in meeting the Common Core State Standards. The project needed reviewers who had on-the-ground experience in classrooms – who knew what made sense to teachers and worked well with students. At my school we have taken a long look at theInstructional Shifts that are required by the Common Core and have tried to develop a common understanding of what the standards say and what proficiency looks like for each standard.

As a reviewer for the Teaching the Core project, we first participated in some focused training to help us all get on the same page about what we should be looking for in our reviews before looking at videos. As we watched the lessons, we used theInstructional Practice Guide (IPG) (a resource created by Student Achievement Partners to help identify Common Core-aligned instruction) to help guide our work.  The IPG and my own educational experiences helped to focus my thinking around highlighting exemplary instructional moments.

I ultimately watched more than 50 bell-to-bell lessons multiple times in order to best annotate the videos for teachers. Throughout the process, I came to appreciate two things:  the Standards require teachers to possess intentionality and the ability to back off.  Having spent the last 23 years in education, I can woefully admit that sometimes I pulled things off the shelf and told myself I would “wing it” with my class for that day.  Probably all of us can admit that.  However, when teachers have a purpose for teaching; and clear goals for their actions, the difference is incredible. It keeps the class on track and focused without an oppressive feeling of control.

When teachers plan lessons around a strong  complex piece of text (an important part of a strong ELA lesson) and the key understandings and big ideas they want students to get from the text, absolutely mind-blowing things can happen. Teachers should set up learning for students by intentionally teaching about text structure and allow for meaningful evidence-based discussion about text, providing just enough guidance so that the text is accessible to students without spoon-feeding it to them. This helps students rise to the challenge of complex text.  As I reviewed a diverse collection of videos, I noticed clear differences in the strength of the lessons and how the students reacted to them.  Not every video included students who were engaged, but the students whose teachers possessed purpose and allowed for students to do the work themselves, always were.  Without fail.

In the near future, using the lens of the Instructional Shifts and a common understanding of the Standards, the teachers in my school will benefit tremendously from seeing videos of lessons that demonstrate the standards in action in a real classroom.  Our teachers already do monthly peer observations as a way to share best practices, so I’m excited to see how the IPG can add another dimension to these reflections, helping us to critique each other and ourselves.  Additionally, as I visit classrooms daily, this work has helped me to hone in on what I need to look for by providing me with concrete examples of what the standards look like in action.