The impending Hurricane Sandy did little to stop over 2000 teachers from attending the 83rd Saturday Reunion at Teacher’s College at Columbia University on Saturday, October 27. Taking up the microphone in a set of informal welcoming remarks, Lucy Calkins complimented the crowd that had gathered in the Nave in Riverside Church, “So many of you have come here…instead of clearing out storm drains or without stocking up on toilet paper. You have weathered the trip despite the predictions of this ‘Franken-storm’.” The crowd laughed appreciatively.
“Yes. We are in a storm,” she continued with growing seriousness. “Today, we are in a ‘Perfect Storm’ in education, and we must learn to travel these hurricane winds and sail.”
Calkins was referencing the convergence of the Common Core State Standards with educational reform efforts that emphasize standardized testing. Newly designed teacher evaluations tied to single metric tests combined with cuts in funding for public school education because of a stagnent economy have also contributed to this ‘Perfect Storm’. This audience understood her metaphor.
Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project LLC and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as well as the Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature at Teachers College where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program.
At a session that followed her welcoming remarks titled, “Implementing the Common Core: What’s Working, in Big Exciting Ways, to Engine Dramatic Reforms,” Calkins explained that she would not be delivering a big keynote at this conference on the Common Core, despite her belief that she considers this “most important document in the history of American education.” Instead, she plans to take time off from teaching to tour the country speaking on the Common Core and the book she co-authored, Pathways to the Common Core, in ordercto help school districts with the real work of accelerating students to perform at the level required by the Common Core, noting that “85% of our students are not there.”
Calkins also expressed her concerns that our nation’s history of large-scale educational reform is not good. “We have been sent many times to reform school,” she continued, “we have to be worried that this [Common Core] may be just one more reform.” However, Calkins stated that what works in this particular reform’s effort is the “absolute and total appreciation that what will make the difference is the teacher.” She directly confronted all the teachers in attendance and directed, “You need to be knowledgeable, and read the actual Common Core, not the ‘Publisher’s Guide to the Common Core’.” Her concerns at this conference echo her remarks in March 2012 at the 82nd Saturday reunion where she specifically called out David Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Student Achievement Partners and who, according to Pathways to the Common Core, “received a four-year 18 million dollar grant from the GE Foundation to develop materials and do teacher training around the CCSS” (6). Coleman has since moved on to take a position as the President of the College Board. Pathways to the Common Core, co- authored with Mary Ehrenworth and Christopher Lehman, details concerns that this enormous grant and any additional grant money will result supporting those who are “spelling out implications and specifying what they wish the Common Core had said,”(5). Already there has been a growing body of materials that contradict the intentions of the standards:
“There will certainly be additional materials and documents that emerge following this new round of money, with the potential to make similar claims as the Publisher’s Criteria for the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy, Grades 3-12 (Coleman and Pimentel 2011) and the Rubrics for Evaluating Open Education Resources (OER) Objects (Achieve 2011). When documents are presented as if they’ve gone through the process of review and been ratified by the states on subcommittees, it is troubling”(6).
Calkins reminded participants that the crucial difference will be the professional teachers who bring colleagues into their work to build a community of teachers, and that this community should know the Common Core standards.
Turning to the topic of her session, Calkins also explained that some of the most exciting work that was recently taking place on the Common Core at the Teachers College was with their work with students in argument and debate.
She described the success teachers at the Reading and Writing Project were having with students who participated in read-aloud by gathering evidence for one position or another. For example, students had listened to a reading of The Stray and took notes on different positions. Following the basic rules of debate, students were given the opportunity to caucus with those who held their opinions before debating or refuting their debate partner’s position. In order to model the process with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, teachers taking one position that the tree was strong stood to caucus with like-minded participants, while those seated conferred with those who agreed with the different opinion that the tree was weak. Calkins directed teachers to stand, sit, debate or caucus, modeling how this might work in a classroom in one 45-50 minute period. She showed several video clips showed students participating in the same process demonstrating the success of using these techniques. “The results were fantastic,” Calkins exclaimed as the videos played, “so exciting to see the students gathering evidence and using the text in their arguments.”
What was evident during her sessions at this conference was that during this ‘Perfect Storm’ in education, Calkins is confidently empowering teachers to sail through what seems to feel like hurricane force changes in the profession. Her efforts in preparing teachers to navigate these new challenges can help insure that while these controversial storms may rage outside, inside the classroom day after day, the teacher is prepared to be the captain of the ship.