By: Pat Austin
SHREVEPORT — I have just completed year twenty-three as a teacher of sophomore English. I’ve been there long enough that people are starting to ask, “How many more years do you have left?”, wondering if I am planning retirement one of these days. I have always said that I would stay as long as I enjoyed my job, my kids, and my mission.
But let me tell you, teaching today is not what teaching was when I started. Back in the good old days teachers had autonomy in the classroom: as long as you followed the curriculum and taught the mandated standards for your subject area, you were free to achieve that however best suited the needs of your students. I’ve been to hundreds of workshops and training days where we learned that all students learn differently and we learned how best to reach all types of learners.
Apparently the game has changed.
Now, all kids learn the same way from the same script from the same pre-fabricated slides and they all read the same text on the same day across the district.
The Honors kids are taught the exact same material as the remedial learners.
As a veteran educator who has worked hard to bring life and creativity into my classroom, this new method has been a real challenge for me. Common Core has absolutely stripped my classroom of the fun things we used to do. No more classroom debates over the guilt or innocence of the boy in Twelve Angry Men; no more mock trials of various literary characters, no more novel studies, no more poetry slams. Now, we read “chunks of text” and highlight them. We annotate. We fill in graphic organizers. We look at dull slides.
Teaching has always been a passion and it seems to me that the best teachers are those that inspire and mentor. It is about so much more than just the material in the textbook. Teaching is about building relationships; a child will learn more from a teacher if there is a connection made between them. If that child knows that the teacher cares about him and is interested in his success, he will learn. Teachers develop these relationships in part through meaningful lessons developed with the needs and interests of their students in mind as well as through individual conversations with students.
This common bond is harder to develop with scripted lessons.
On my own blog, I wrote an end-of-the-school year post in which I lamented how scripted lessons have changed my classroom and I received several inquiries about the scripted lessons that Louisiana ELA teachers are now mandated to use. In my post last week I wrote:
[The year] began with a series of workshops and in-services throughout the summer last year which served to introduce us to a drastically new curriculum which we were mandated to implement “with fidelity” this year. It was so radically different from what we have been doing that this was a terribly stressful objective to me.
I’m “old school” in many ways and teaching without a textbook and following a script has been hard for me. I am also a rule follower and so while I wanted to follow my mandate, I’ll admit publicly right now that I did not always follow the script. I tried. We are on block schedule and so our academic year is made up of two semesters: I have one group of students from August through December, and then new ones from January through May.
First semester I tried really hard to do that first unit as prescribed. It took less than two weeks for the light in my students’ eyes to go out and for them to start eyeing me with dread. I stuck with it and supplemented more engaging lessons where I could while teaching all the same standards. Second semester it was much the same. I was a little more comfortable with the new curriculum, but it is still mind numbing and dull. Nothing but annotation, graphic organizers, and Cornell Notes. All day, every day.
I’ve always been under the (perhaps misguided) belief that parents would not be pleased with the scripted classroom. “If only they really knew!” I would tell myself. I have railed and ranted about Common Core but it seems that either nobody is listening or else that nobody has the power to change it. Or maybe people just like it. Whatever the case, this post is just one more attempt to pull back the curtain of the classroom and show people what the typical day looks like in a scripted, Common Core classroom.
A few years ago a group of Louisiana educators came together to write a new ELA curriculum designed to help students be successful on the high stakes end-of-course tests:
[Meredith] Starks is one of the more than 75 teachers who have been selected by the Louisiana education department to write an English/language arts curriculum. While most states using the Common Core State Standards tend to look to commercial publishers for standards-based curricula, Louisiana educators couldn’t find material that fully and coherently represented the now 7-year-old ELA standards.
“We just decided … there wasn’t anything on the market good enough for our teachers,” said Rebecca Kockler, the assistant superintendent of academic content at the state education department. And who better to fill that void than actual teachers?
The state started developing its ELA curricula, called “guidebooks,” in 2012, and the first iteration was published in April 2014. Louisiana has since revised its own standards, which are based on the common core, and revamped the guidebooks to give teachers more resources.
These Guidebooks are what we are now using in lieu of traditional textbooks in our classrooms; they are comprised of “readers” which are copies of material bound together which are non-consumable and serve as a sort of textbook. Students also receive a consumable packet with each of the four units and these are copies of graphic organizers, text passages, speeches, charts, etc. that students can write on and annotate as required. These are reproduced and distributed each semester to students.
Teachers work from scripted Teacher Notes and prepared slides which we are instructed to follow “with fidelity” so that every student in every classroom gets the same text on the same day in the same way.
That’s what I mean by scripted lessons.
As an example, let’s just walk through a typical lesson in tenth grade English.
Unit 1 is on Rhetoric in grade ten and Unit 1, Lesson 1 goes like this:
After verbally introducing the unit, this is slide 3 in which the teacher introduces the unit objectives to the students:
With the unaltered slide displayed, the teacher is to say:
“Throughout this unit we will read texts that use language to achieve a purpose. At the end of the unit, you will be asked to select one of the texts and write an essay about how that text uses language to achieve a purpose. You will also research a topic of your choosing and write a speech about that topic. Finally, you will demonstrate your ability to analyze the language of a new text. To do this, we will need to study the specific choices authors make in order to achieve their purpose and advance their argument. We will read speeches, essays, and informational texts.”
The teacher is then directed to distribute handouts, highlighters, and Reader Response Journals. It’s a lot of paper. Students also receive a copy of “What is Rhetoric” by Gideon Burton.
The teacher reads the text to students while students follow along. This is supposed to take about two minutes.
Then with the above slide displayed, the teacher directs students to read the text independently and annotate.
The teacher notes at this point look like this:
Suggested Pacing: ~ 7 minutes Directions: Have students read the first section of the text again, independently. Instruct them to use a yellow highlighter to mark “central ideas” and green highlighter to mark “supporting details.”
Guiding Questions and Prompts: Say, “ Central ideas are main ideas. They are what the reader should remember after studying the text. They are usually followed by details that provide support. What is the central idea of this section?
Say, “Supporting details are specific pieces of information that support the central idea. They can provide explanations and/or examples of the central idea.” What details does the author use to develop the central idea?
Student Look-Fors: Students should indicate that a big idea is an important part of the text.
Access the annotated exemplar in the Additional Materials section. Be absolutely sure students understand what a big idea is before beginning the task.
Students should re-read the text independently, marking the big ideas of the text with their yellow highlighter.
Students are directed to take out their “Vocabulary Log,” write down “rhetoric” and define it.
The teacher notes look like this.
Suggested Pacing: ~ 12 minutes Directions: Be sure students have access to dictionaries. Have students retrieve the vocabulary log they received at the beginning of class.
Say “You will add to this log throughout the unit. It is very important that you keep track of this handout.”
Select a student to read the sentence in grey, using an established class procedure.
Place a blank handout under the document camera.
Fill in the word “rhetoric” and prompt the students to do the same.
Ask: “What part of speech is the word rhetoric?”
Prompt the students to look up a concise definition for the word “rhetoric”.
Fill in the definition under the document camera as students follow along.
Ask students to locate a synonym, antonym, and/or related word for “rhetoric”.
Fill in the fourth column under the document camera as students follow along.
Have students record the source sentence from the slide.
Prompt students to turn-and-talk for 30 seconds to a partner about their understanding of the term “rhetoric.”
Keep time. Have partners switch. Monitor the room during the turn-and-talk, checking for understanding.
Guiding Questions and Prompts: In your own words, what is “rhetoric?”
Turn-and talk to a partner for 30 seconds.
Student Look-Fors: Access a partially completed vocabulary log under the Additional Materials tab. Students should fill out the first row of the vocabulary log along with you.
Rhetoric is a noun. Be sure to clarify what you mean by “concise”
Not all words have synonyms, antonyms, and word families, but each word has at least one of the three.
Refer to the partially completed handout for guidance for each word throughout the unit. Students should copy the source sentence directly from the slide, including the citation.
Additional Notes: Consider collecting the logs and storing them in the classroom to prevent student loss. You could also have the students store the log in their class folder, if that fits in your daily class routine. Develop a system for soliciting individual student feedback early and use it often (i.e. a cold-call system).
Then the student is directed to turn to his partner and talk about the word “rhetoric.”
Following this, students are then directed back to the text and their annotations and the teacher is directed to have the students write a “summary statement”:
Ask: “ What is the most important information in this section of the text?”
Ask: “How can we boil that down to one statement?”
Have students write their summary statement in their RRJ. Then, model a concise summary statement under the document camera or on the whiteboard.
Ask the guiding questions below.
Guiding Questions and Prompts:
“What makes my model summary statement good?”
“Does your model have the same qualities?”
Student Look-Fors: Students should indicate that the definition of rhetoric is the most important information in this section. Students should then write a practice summary statement in the reading response section of their RRJ. Model summary statement: “Rhetoric is the study of the effective use of language in one’s own writing and in the writing of others.”
With this new slide displayed, the teacher then directs students to revise their summary statement.
Following that, the teacher verbally recaps what students should have learned in the lesson and then she moves on to lesson two.
Unit 1, Lesson 1 is comprised of eleven slides that must be displayed as the teacher works through the lesson. In districts on a 90-minute block, two lessons are to be completed each day.
The teacher can vary slightly from the script but must follow the lesson with fidelity.
In Lesson Two, students read the same text again, “What is Rhetoric,” and highlight in multiple colors to identify main ideas and supporting details.
That’s what a scripted lesson looks like. They are literally that: scripted. Teachers have a printed stack of these teacher notes which are to be annotated before presenting each lesson and which she can produce to supervisors upon request. The lesson number and standards must be visible to students on the board each day as well as the objective.
In this way, theory goes, every child across the district gets the same lesson on the same day in the same way. There are no “rock star” teachers who have an unfair advantage over less capable teachers. The playing field is leveled and this helps measure how effective these lessons are in meeting the criteria for standardized testing.
The Guidebooks are on the Louisiana DOE website and most of the graphic organizers and their completed versions can be found there by both parents and students. It’s important that students do not have their cellphones in use in class or they can just look up the answers and copy them down; teachers must monitor this.
Scripted lessons have pros and cons. Many teachers bristle at the loss of their own creativity and autonomy; many feel that scripted lessons strip the passion from teaching and focus too much on the test while others are relieved at not having to write lesson plans or create their own lessons. Districts know exactly what is happening in each classroom on any given day and feel that a prepared curriculum is one way to ensure all necessary standards are taught.
However you feel about scripted lessons and the prepared curriculum, parents should at least know what it is and how their child is being taught.
Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.