Friday, January 4, 2013

Rigor vs. Cookie Cutter Teaching

This morning, as I lazily scanned through my blog feed whilst sitting in my pjs, sipping flavored water and enjoying my last lazy morning of vacation, I came across this post (Ralphie's Math vs. the Common Core)  by Angela over at The Cornerstone for Teachers blog. As always, she shares a lot of great information and then poses a  question at the end:
What are your thoughts? How has your curriculum changed over the years? How do we balance the increased rigor of the Common Core with the developmental needs of our students?

The article and the questions clearly struck me because I composed quite a lengthy reply to her:

I totally agree with you! I gave my class (4th/5th grade) a math facts test just before we went on winter break. 60 problems, 3 minutes. I have 4 students (out of 29) who got 100% of them done and correct. Just 4. I have students who got 1 right in 3 minutes. Yet I will be blamed that these children don’t know their math facts (something we start teaching in 2ND GRADE–I know because I taught 2nd last year and we had to show proof that they knew their 0-5 facts).

It’s frustrating. I think that many times we just move on, without really showing that the students know or understand what is going on, especially with math. I think the Common Core is a good thing. Perfect? Of course not, but definitely a step in the right direction. Children need rigor in order to succeed in HS and college. However, a lot of what we ask students to do, isn’t very developmentally appropriate.

A couple years ago, my district partnered with the Institute for Learning and they created a bunch of “high rigor” writing units for us. Except that these “high rigor” writing units have students sitting through FIVE ENTIRE LESSONS OF TEACHER TALK before they ever really even pick up a pencil. That’s not rigor and it sure isn’t developmentally appropriate. They were created by researchers, not teachers. I doubt very much any of those folks who created them had ever been in front of a classroom of real children.

Another example, we are using Reading Street for our weekly reading program (its our 2nd year with it). I like it, the stories are good and its a very balanced approach to literacy instruction. However, my district had grade-level based PD this summer (ie all 4th grade teachers from the district at one venue) and our task was to come up with higher order questions to ask while we’re engaged in the shared reading. The 4th grade team did this independently–each school worked together and made questions based on their students needs. But the other grades did it collectively and then sent out a list of questions we’re supposed to ask our kids while we read the stories together. I get the concept but my kids aren’t like the kids across town or even in the school three blocks over! You can’t simply give them “cookie cutter” questions and expect that to be rigorous.

I stick by my motto a lot….smile and nod and then close my door and teach to my students strengths and needs. It can’t be cookie-cutter because the KIDS aren’t cookie cutter!
(If you can’t tell, you struck a cord with me on this one lol)

I think rigor IS a good thing. I really do. Students are capable of a lot. When I was a kid, we never did anything algebra related before middle school. My 2nd graders last year had some beginning algebra concepts in our math program that were simple but appropriate for them. Over the past 20-30 years, educators have realized that yes some of these things can be broken down and taught in small chunks in earlier grades. We use Everyday Math. People either love it or they hate it. I personally don't mind it. I hated math as a kid because it made no sense to me. Everyday Math's algorithms do make sense to my non-mathematical brain and thus I find it much easier to teach it to my students. I teach them the way I was taught and the algorithms in EDM and then allow them to choose which they prefer. I say to them flat out, "I don't care which way you do it, friends, as long as you understand the concept and can explain it to me."

Let's talk about that Reading Street thing for a second. It drives me batty that they gave me a list of questions that I'm supposed to ask my students while we're reading together. Maybe some people do need the cookie cutter questions handed to them. I was talking to my Lit Coach about this and said I had a real problem with this because I  never want to stifle my students thinking. Using cookie cutter questioning seems like that's all it will accomplish. So while I do have the questions for my 5th graders, I don't really use them. Sometimes I do if they are really good thought-provoking questions, but often I don't find them to be something relevant to what I'm discussing with my students.

I teach two separate reading curriculums: 4th grade and 5th grade. I have refused to combine them because my students need to be taught grade-level content, period. It's a bit of a juggling act sometimes but we've made it work. I gather my group to the carpet with me while my other grade is working independently on review or another activity. We focus on shared reading--we read together. We look for text-based evidence to answer some multiple choice questions (for the Fresh Reads we do which are short-texts to help build comprehension) or text-based evidence to a question I might spring on them. We look at vocabulary and focus on a short passage to help us with our weekly comprehension skills and strategies. When we read our weekly story, we talk about it. We stop to make meaning (National Board language!) and process what we've been reading. This is a big one for the kids because often they just read and forget to stop and think about what we've been reading. So we stop, we question, we talk and sometimes, they amaze the heck out of me with the connections they make all on their own. 

Once when I was working with my 4th graders, one of my young men raised his hand and made a huge connection to something we had read in our small reading groups with the story we were reading. The connection hadn't even occurred to me and we had a great discussion about it. Even the students who hadn't been in that small reading group were able to join in once the young man and I had quickly explained the context of that lesson and how it related to this one.

That is rigor, in my opinion. This 9 year old child was able to make this huge connection that I hadn't even thought about as we were reading together with the class. You can't make those connections and have those genuine discussions where every single child is learning and participating when you use rote questioning that someone else created for you. Yes, some of those questions are very good and worthwhile, but the spontaneous higher order questions are so much better--the ones that come to you in the moment when a child makes a statement and you want to expand on it for the rest of the group; the ones that really get your students engaged and thinking about what else you've learned in the class, be it in reading or better yet in another subject area. 

Clearly I have some passion for this. I never, ever want to teach where I can't be creative and use my own thinking and what I know about my students to help them grow as readers, mathematicians, scientists and historians. 

I have a lot of passion for the Common Core too. I think it IS a good thing. Again, it isn't perfect (is anything?) but it's a step in the right direction. I have so  much passion for the Common Core and the rigor that it is pushing us toward that when I read an article about how lame it is and how it is really just a regurgitated program with a shiny new bow (in the quarterly magazine I get from my College of Education), I decided it would be fodder for my next PlanbookEDU Common Core post later this month. 

As teachers our jobs are always evolving. Kids have evolved too. No more straight rows of desks and plain looking classrooms. We use anchor charts, pictures, posters and more to help our students learn and master the concepts we're in charge of teaching them. Somewhere in there, however, we have to find that rigor. Developmentally appropriate rigor, that is.



  1. Raye,
    Your post really resonated with me. You made so many good points. I think you summed up how most teachers are feeling about curriculum. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful post!

    Teaching With Moxie

    1. Hi Diane! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Sometimes I have to refrain from really going overboard with how upsetting things in education can be. I try to just remember that its all about the kids!

  2. Hi,
    Here, here! We are currently going through a long overdue curriculum reform in Australia. I applaud the changes being made and the rigor that is now expected. As with your common core our new National Curriculum is not perfect but it's a damn sight better than what we had!! It seems no matter where you are in the world we experience the same issues when change is brought upon us. I absolutely agree with what you are saying and I hope teachers' creativity will never be stifled by systemic change - we are at the coalface and we know our students better than anyone.

    Kate :)