Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Core?

By Jim Delisle, coauthor of Building Strong Writers in Middle School and When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers

Delisle_Jim_FSP AuthorSince 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in English/language arts and mathematics, it’s obvious that they are here to stay for a while. In response, some teachers have fallen over themselves in fear that they won’t be able to teach their favorite unit on Shakespeare, or integrate Civil War history into their unit on expository writing. To them, I have one word of advice:


At this point, no one knows exactly how the CCSS will play out when it comes to day-to-day classroom activities. One thing is certain, though: the CCSS do not represent some sort of conspiracy to make every school in America (at least in 45 states) identical in terms of what they teach and when. In fact, just the opposite is true.

For example, take this CCSS standard in reading: “Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a text.” Or how about this one, in writing: “Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.” There are countless ways in which these standards can be addressed by teachers and students. With the majority of standards (like the two above) emphasizing conceptual understanding instead of procedural skills, the CCSS may, in fact, be the most liberating standards that have come down the pike in quite some time.

© Monkeybusinessimages | Dreamstime.com Teacher helping student with reading skills.Teachers of gifted kids should be especially happy to see the CCSS come into being. For generations, gifted-child educators have bemoaned the fact that most state-based standards (and the proficiency tests that measure student growth) were focused on low-level skill acquisition that required nothing more than a bubble sheet to determine which answers were right and wrong. With the CCSS, students will see the need to explain their answers; to provide evidence for their choices; and to think critically about the possible answers they chose to ignore. For smart kids yearning for a chance to reach beyond the basics, the CCSS bring us as close to Nirvana as we’re likely to get in education.

My advice? Don’t start with the standards and ask yourself, “What can we do to meet this standard?” Instead, take the best lessons and units you have ever taught and tease out what made these learning experiences so rich. My hunch is that the reasons these learning experiences were so memorable had something to do with these things:

  • Was the lesson/unit open-ended enough to allow students to pursue topics/projects of personal interest?
  • Was there hands-on involvement apart from “textbook learning”?
  • Was the use of multiple sources to discover information and solutions in evidence?
  • Was the lesson/unit relevant to the everyday life of the student?
  • Was the lesson/unit interesting to you, the teacher?
  • Did the lesson/unit connect to students’ prior learning experiences and provide bridges to more advanced or diverse learning opportunities?

All of these, by the way, are elements of the CCSS that are totally consistent with their lofty goals for helping students be “college and career ready” once they leave our care at high school graduation.

By asking yourself the questions above, and reflecting on those times when your lessons were most powerful and lasting, you are taking charge of the CCSS, not having them imposed on you from above. There is no reason at all to fear the “Big Bad Core,” as they open up a world of promise for educators willing to take on the same task as our students are being asked to do: Look more critically and creatively at the classroom experiences that make education, and life, more meaningful.

Jim Delisle has worked with and for gifted students for 35 years. Though retired, Jim continues to teach highly gifted ninth graders part-time at the Scholars Academy in Conway, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Saving Smart Kids: How America Shortchanges Its Most Capable Youth will be published soon. He can be reached via email.

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