To be honest, I wasn’t aware of the Common Core Standards prior to this, and I didn’t know what a “module” was. We tend to have a lot of new initiatives introduced, so I think there’s always a little bit of hesitation with new things; a lot of teachers look at it like, “Oh, this is just another thing I have to do.” But being shown one of these modules, seeing how the standards are incorporated, and then talking with people who were originally involved, I decided to opt in and see what it was all about.
The modules really immerse students in literacy skills and help them use those skills to become better readers and better writers. Our kids were a little uncomfortable with it at first. They weren’t used to being so immersed; they hadn’t really had a lot of exposure to that kind of rigor before.
I was a little surprised too, because I thought students would be better writers than they are. When you give students a topic and let them research it, a lot of teachers take it for granted that they’re able to pull out the important pieces of information, that they can organize that information, and they can write a well-structured paper. But I found that a lot of kids—even some of my higher-level kids—were weak in those areas. They really need to be guided every step of the way.
This has definitely made me more aware of incorporating literacy skills into my general introduction. Just because you’re a science teacher doesn’t mean you just teach science content; you should really be incorporating other skills. I think I used to take for granted that kids understood this word or were able to define that word. I don’t make those assumptions any more. If there’s a word that’s kind of questionable, we’ll take the 10 seconds and talk about it so that kids are aware of it. I think that makes a big difference.
That rigor really needs to be there. If the bar’s not set high for the kids and they’re not asked to rise to it, their writing’s not going to improve, and I think they’re not going to improve as students. And you need to be a good writer; that’s how you function in society. I get so many emails and letters with misspelled words and incomplete sentences; it’s really depressing. So unless we put some measures in place to hold kids more responsible they’re just going to continue doing what they’re doing. And there’s no better way to hold them accountable than to teach how to write properly, and then have them just write.
So while it is time consuming to put the modules together and read their five-paragraph essays, I think it’s helping kids across the board—learning-support kids, high-level kids, all kids—learn more. And when you figure out a way to blend these tools with your content instruction, it kind of becomes second nature. Then it’s really not at all just “another thing” that’s introduced to teachers; it’s a more effective way of doing what you have always done.
Quotes from Sean Houseknecht’s Students
“I wrote a whole research paper on biodiversity in science, when last year in science almost all of the work was from a textbook. This year I had to use at least three different articles, highlight what was more important, take notes, and organize the information before writing the essay. I had guidelines for writing the rough draft, and then we did peer editing. My teacher also helped me improve the final draft. I had written about things I was learning before, but now my sentences had to elaborate on the information. I needed a stronger introduction that made a thesis statement and a strong conclusion. I’m sure I will do well in science next year because the research and writing this year helped me to understand the science better.”
“We mostly use textbooks for homework this year, while in class we focus on answering key questions about a topic in an informational packet. The writing we do is a lot more than just filling out answers on a sheet of paper. We’ve done several projects where we have had to do research on the Internet and use a bibliography and citations. For an essay on biodiversity, my teacher was giving me feedback on all the drafts. I learned a lot this year in science and how to set up a topic and give supporting details. This helped me learn the content better and apply the knowledge, and the skills have been useful, too, in communication arts. I want to go into the technology or engineering fields, and I think good organizing and writing skills will help me make better presentations about my work.”