The power of teaching (and speaking) in the present tense

Opinion, Chalkbeat Colorado, March 20, 2014 -

Last week, I was able to testify on behalf of the Common Core State Standards to the Colorado state senate committee on education, who convened to hear testimony for and against a bill written to pause implementation. I found out late last Thursday that my voice, along with other voices from CTQ Colorado teachers, parents, union leadership and concerned stakeholders, influenced the committee so much that the proposed bill was voted down by a four to three vote. As a topic of much debate across the country, here are my remarks on how the Common Core (embedded into our state’s Colorado Academic Standards) have become a positive force for learning and growth in my classroom. I am here today to share some of my experiences with the Colorado Academic Standards, past and present, and to help you see how critical these standards are to the growth and success of all Colorado students. I have been teaching for eleven years. I entered the profession around the same time that state standardized tests and the concept of standards driven instruction started to look similar to what it does today. When I started my first job, I was handed the old Colorado standards for English Language Arts, which comprised six focus areas and a laundry list of terms and ideas students were expected to recognize. Very rarely in my early years of teaching did I feel like the old standards asked students to be critical thinkers or consumers of the world. This lack of student-centric instruction led to passive learning experiences for most of my kids. They only learned what I said was important and only learned it long enough to do well on their final assessments for that unit. When I hear the argument that we need to return to the more simplistic and “better” instructional practices that existed prior to the implementation of the revised Colorado Academic Standards in 2010, I truly wonder how going back to passive learning will help our 21st century students be successful in the world that awaits them? I own that my instructional practice as a teacher needed improvement in those early years. But my students and I also needed a higher bar to motivate us towards authentic thinking and learning. Last year was the first official year of implementation for the new standards in my school. It took a lot of time, thinking and energy to realign our classes to these new standards, which on the whole are much more geared towards the teaching of practical skills and assessment of authentic learning targets. At first I was trepidatious about the changes, but as my colleagues and I worked, we engaged in incredible collaboration about the best ways to teach and assess students. The new standards have allowed us the opportunity to move away from lists of ideas and passive learning. Teachers and students now engage in much more authentic learning—learning that is geared towards real-world outcomes rather than rote tasks and memorization. My 10th grade students both this year and last are still reading, writing, researching and speaking. Now, though, they are reading literature and non-fiction with the intention of building comprehension skills that can transfer to any literature or non-fiction text that they might come across in their future learning. They are writing daily and are learning how to review their writing with a critical lens so that it can better achieve their rhetorical purpose and address their intended audiences. They are speaking and listening every day not to earn points, but to grapple with complex ideas and to learn how to negotiate collaborative situations with purpose and grace. They are researching and learning about things that interest them, learning how to create their own inquiry questions and how to review sources for accuracy and reliability. In short, they are learning how to think for themselves and are being exposed to multiple opportunities to experiment with their thinking and skills so that they can be independent learners, workers and humans once they leave the K-12 system. Just this week, for example, my students read an analyzed a series of primary source documents to build support for an in-class discussion about the costs and benefits of rapid societal change—something they will all experience within their lifetime. A great deal of hard and valuable work has already gone into the implementation of the Colorado Academic Standards. More importantly, though students have a high academic bar placed before them and it is exciting to see them rise to the challenges we are putting forth. I believe very strongly that it is our responsibility as stakeholders in the Colorado educational system to ensure that all students have a high quality education that is comparable to what students from across the country receive. We owe it to my students and all students in Colorado to make sure that each child is given ample opportunity to learn and apply skills necessary for whatever the 21st century has in store. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jessica Keigan teaches English Language Arts at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colorado