Transforming My Students and My Teaching

Students in libraryI have taught for fourteen years in a small, rural school.  Currently, I teach tenth through twelfth grade English Language Arts.  My seniors are either enrolled in the college courses I teach in conjunction with SUNY Delhi, or they are in my English 12 class.  Typically, my English 12 students are primarily career bound with a few students planning to enroll in college.  It is often difficult for them to understand why English Language Arts skills are important to their future.  

My English 12 seniors began the school year with a research project.  They explored the types of skills employers are looking for when hiring their employees.  After analyzing studies and reading employer comments, what did they find?  Number 1: Employers want employees that are critical thinkers.  Number 2: Employers want employees that can communicate their ideas clearly to others.  

Bingo! My students now realize that through learning critical thinking skills, making meaning for themselves, and communicating clearly, they will be more successful at obtaining a job.  This is what they needed.

The school year began with the Reading Closely for Details: “Life Steps Almost Straight” Unit.  My students held text-centered discussions after closely reading the ideas of Socrates, Buddha, Descartes and Nietzsche.  During the final class discussion of the unit, which was entirely student-led, my students brought up ideas such as absolute truth, the meaning of life, and the existence of religion, and supported their claims with evidence from the texts we had read and the research that they had done. I was truly amazed by their transformation.  They read, annotated, questioned texts and discussed like seniors in college!  

Dr. Lorie Ostrander, the DCMO BOCES Coordinator of Curriculum and Staff Development, observed the discussion and exclaimed, “I have never seen, except on professional video, a group of students carry a discussion like this with so little teacher talk!!!!!”  One young man, who previously was considered a dropout risk, proclaimed, “Man has psychologically invented destructive, self-torturous emotions and ideas, all of which were created for good reasons, but in reality only made our paths as humans tortured by holding onto the concepts of God, guilt and sin.”  He continued by supporting his claim with text evidence primarily from “The Genealogy of Morals” and connected information from previously read texts, pieces of artwork, and text evidence he gleaned from other students during previous discussions.  The text complexity of the works they discussed and actually understood was beyond even my overly optimistic expectations.  

It is important to note that since the implementation of the Common Core, I focus more on a skills-based approach to teaching rather than “performing” my favorite novels. I have stepped back completely during class discussion and only speak to review the Text Centered Discussion Checklist at the beginning of class.  My students are actively engaged and truly have become active participants taking charge of their own learning.  They continuously astound me with what they are capable of!

The Common Core Curriculum has had a tremendous impact on the growth of my students in English Language Arts; however, it has not only impacted my students, rather my entire way of teaching.

Andria Finch is an English Language Arts teacher in the Franklin Central School District.  She is using the Core Proficiency Units available on EngageNY.org.

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