By Maria J. Steuernagel
As a teacher of young children, I am involved in implementing the Common Core and welcome the discussion about what the changes mean to our students, teachers and education as a whole. I read with interest recent comments about students’ engagement in a text that in turn opened up possibilities for further learning. The writer mentioned modules – units of study that have been created for many grade levels.
I am happy that the fifth-graders the writer mentioned were engaged in their unit of study, but success with one module activity at one grade level should not be construed as the norm. The modules aren’t criticized “at first glance” as the writer commented, but rather, are evaluated based on a number of factors obtained only after implementation. As has often been the case, programs successfully implemented in upper grades did not enjoy the same success in lower grades.
In their simplest form, the core module lessons I have used consist of a teacher reading from a manual while showing image cards on a smart board screen. The students do not hold books and are not reading but are expected to listen as text is read. When finished, they respond to comprehension questions about what was read. Other activities, like creating graphic organizers, have the teacher doing most of the tasks while the students verbally respond. This format is doable when the topics are inherently engaging for young children, but this is often not the case.
I want my first-graders to be just as engaged as those fifth-graders who read “Esperanza Rising.” But our module is Ancient Civilizations, where examples of content objectives include recognition that Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization and that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers were essential to citizens of Mesopotamia.
It’s hard to believe that primary level teachers had input in the development of this content. Academic rigor is not created by exposing our youngest learners to topics that they are entirely unprepared for. There’s a big difference between appropriate academic rigor and material that is much too sophisticated for a 6-year-old budding reader.
Teachers have spent countless hours working in teams to integrate the Common Core through existing units of study. Contrast the topic of Mesopotamia with that of apples. In first grade, students learned about different genres within the apple theme, made comparisons about text, answered comprehension questions, sequenced events and identified story elements, the main idea and important details.
It seems clear that more and more trainers and facilitators lack the extensive classroom experience necessary to differentiate between programming that is appropriate and realistic for our youngest learners and what is not.
Maria J. Steuernagel has taught first grade in the Gowanda Central School District for 23 years.