Like Life, the Common Core Is What You Make of It

Earlier this year, second graders at Goldie Maple studied a Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) domain called Early Asian Civilizations. By listening to and discussing texts that teachers read aloud, they learned about Asia’s two most populous countries, India and China. They heard about the importance of the Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers, as well as basic ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Students were well prepared for and excited about this domain because it extended things they learned in CKLA’s Early World Civilizations domain in first grade. Last year, they were introduced to farming, the initial creation of cities and government structures, how religious beliefs helped shape cultures, and the development of writing.

Angela Logan-SmithIs this a lot for young children to do? Absolutely—and they love it! Learning about ancient China is no more difficult than learning about Star Wars—and there’s no question that children all over America know plenty about that. Inside the CKLA classroom, the children’s tasks are well within their capabilities: listening to the teacher, looking closely at pictures, asking questions, discussing similarities and differences, drawing pictures, and (at varying levels) writing about the things the class has discussed.

The children don’t have any anxiety at all—but parents do. Each fall, Goldie Maple hosts a student-for-a-day event for parents. Parents follow their child’s program for the entire day, and they get to see how enthusiastically the teachers and students interact.

Children get engaged in ideas and love to do projects to extend their learning. Teachers love this too; it gives them a chance to pursue their students’ interests in creative ways. Last year, one class of kindergartners was fascinated with recycling after finishing the CKLA domain called Taking Care of the Earth. Their teacher took them on a walk near the school in which they identified litter that could have been recycled. The next day, the teacher brought in clean examples of all the things they identified. After donning their white lab coats, these little scientists figured out which recycling bin each item belonged in. They also discussed what could have been saved if all the litter they saw outside had been recycled. One little boy noted that recycling paper would save trees—and then he realized that as he gets better at using the computer, he will be using less paper and saving trees too.

Here’s one more great extension. Last spring, after completing CKLA’s Fighting for a Cause domain, a second grade class wanted to learn even more about all of the civil rights leaders they had just studied. They worked in small groups to select a leader from the domain—Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., or Cesar Chavez—to research. Each student took a specific, manageable topic, such as the leader’s childhood or one important event; studied teacher-selected books, websites, and videos to make notes from each source; and then gave a short speech.

I understand that Common Core can be implemented well or badly. That is (as Shakespeare said) “not in our stars but in ourselves.” Implemented well, as at Goldie Maple, it can increase students’ knowledge, skills, engagement, and test scores without soulless prepping for tests.

Angela Logan-Smith is the principal of PS/MS 333, the Goldie Maple Academy, in Queens.  Goldie Maple participated in New York City’s pilot of Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), which showed increases in students’ knowledge of science and social studies as well as good progress in students learning to read.

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