122/365 The Difference Between a Policy and a ‘Race’ (Part I)

Oklahoma ranked 34th and 20th in rounds 1 and 2 of Race to the Top, respectively. Connecticut ranked 25th in both rounds. Florida ranked 4th in both rounds and was awarded $700 million in Round 2 funding.

The difference between setting policy and sponsoring a competition is that it’s difficult to hold competition losers to the rules of the contest once they’ve lost. As states move to comply with the rules of the game they’ve already lost, we’re likely to see them taking their toys and going home. I can’t blame them.

According to this July 3 EdWeek piece, Oklahoma is having a difficult time pulling together the tech necessary to implement the digital edition of the PARCC assessment in the 2015-16 school year.

A survey of the state’s schools found only 20% of the states schools have the banwidth and devices necessary to deliver the assessment, according to EdWeek.

While they’re still planning on PARCC-ing, EdWeek reporter Benjamin Herold writes, “Officials said Oklahoma is not formally withdrawing from PARCC, but the details of how the state will remain involved now that it is not planning to use the consortium’s tests remain unclear.”

In Connecticut, officials have asked permission from federal officials to give schools the choice in which tests to administer to students. A Smarter Balanced state, Connecticut’s governor would like schools to be able “to choose whether to offer the Smarter Balanced test or the Mastery or CAPT test — or both” according to a July 11 article in The Hartford Courant.

Reporter Kathleen Megan suggests the delay in implementing Smarter Balanced testing is needed while teachers adjust to the new Common Core curriculum which is described as “more stringent” than original Connecticut standards.

If this is referring to comparisons such as the Fordham Institute’s 2010 comparison of CT to CC ELA standards, such a claim of stringency would appear apt.

Examining Fordham’s complaints about CT’s reading standards, though, reveals some questionable claims.

The reading expectations generally place as much emphasis on content-less and often unmeasurable comprehension skills and reading “reflection” and “behaviors” as they do on important content. For example:

Make connections to text representing different perspectives [such as] family, friendship, culture and tradition, generating personal and text-based responses [sic] (grade 2)

While it’s likely difficult to evaluate students’ connections to different perspectives, the claim that such skills as the ones above are unimportant is devoid of a basic understanding of the research surrounding what draws students into reading and keeps them there. This is to say nothing of the sustainability of civic awareness for students whose teachers encourage the taking on of multiple perspectives.

While it’s certain that Connecticut English Language Arts standards could likely have been revised toward increased clarity and structure, it’s unlikely they deserved the “D” awarded by Fordham compared to Common Core standards.

This is all to suggest that both Oklahoma and Connecticut are moving in a direction that isn’t directly tied to thoughtful consideration of what is best for their students and teachers.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2013 report on children in Oklahoma, “A child dies before his or her first birthday every 22 hours” in the state and nearly a third of Oklahoma 19-34 month olds are not fully immunized.

In Connecticut, the two main teachers unions have praised the governor’s request for flexibility. These are the same unions who were on board for the adoption of the new measurements of teacher effectiveness as required for the application for Race to the Top funding when it was first announced at the height of the economic collapse.

The money didn’t come to Connecticut and the state is bracing to take on new standards, tests, and systems of teacher evaluation just the same. With one year of flexibility, it’s likely that teachers will understand that all of the pieces to which their unions agreed are highly stressful and coming without the funding their acquiescences to these changes was meant to attract.

While it’s unlikely RttT losers like Connecticut will completely depart from the suggested path of the contest, there’s no policy or law keeping them from pausing to reflect on the rush of changes and asking, “What are our priorities for the children and adults in our education system based on the expertise of the system?”

To be certain, that dialogue will be better-informed, more thoughtful, and more productive than any policies adopted as part of a race.

What about Florida? That’s a post for tomorrow.

107/365 Shift the “How” not the “What” of Education

As I posted a few days ago, I’ve been reading Pamela Meyer’s Quantum Creativity with varying degrees of interest. While not everything is sticking with me, one piece of Meyer’s chapter on following passion has been knocking around in my brain for a few days.

Usually, that’s a sign that I should write through my thinking.

“…[Y]ou may just as likely discover Follow Your Passion to lead you to change the way you work, not what you do for work,” Meyer writes.

It’s a step above, “Worker smarter, not harder,” and it might be more important.

The example that comes to mind is the elementary teacher smitten with her unit plan on dinosaurs. She’s been teaching the unit forever, and it’s a bright spot in her school year. The majority of the students also end up smitten with dinosaurs by the end. (Because, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?)

The criticism I’ve heard most often when this example is raised in education circles is that this teacher is letting her love of content override what should be her goal of teaching her students content relevant to their lives and that will make them college and career ready.

I get that logic. Meyer’s thinking, though, opens up another possibility.

Give our exemplary teacher her dinosaurs. Do not deny her the what. Dinosaurs are fascinating, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who isn’t at least passingly interested in these great lizards.

The shift, though, need come in the guise of changing the how of the unit. Open the unit to students’ questions and let them guide the study. Incorporate skills across content areas – primary sources, experts from outside the school, art, writing, reading, contemporary biology, presentation, critical questioning, etc.

Most often, those I speak with who are hopeful about the adoption of the Common Core State Standards find their hope in their close reading of the standards are promoting greater student voice and choice.

While there’s no great content jump in the what of the CCSS, perhaps there’s hope in moving toward more authentic, inquiry-driven, personal learning. Perhaps we can shift the how.

My friend Dayna Scott is Deputy Director of Denver’s Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education), and mentioned the other day that organizations like VOYCE might find in-roads to accomplishing their goals of greater student participation in public education through an advanced understanding of the CCSS.

I hope this is true. With some minor exceptions like Texas, the shifts we need in public education, the shifts that will help us build the schools we need, will be based in looking at the how of learning.


To find out more about the work of Project VOYCE, watch the video below.

A practical consideration of Robert Rothman’s thoughts on the Common Core

In the July/August issue of the Harvard Education Letter, Robert Rothman, senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, outlined “Nine Ways the Common Core will Change Classroom Practice.”

He pointed to four ways mathematics education will change and five ways the CCSS will impact English Language Arts instruction in the US. I leave critique of the mathematical implications to those more experienced in teaching math than I am. My focus, instead, is on Rothman’s assertions about how the CCSS will change how we teach students English.

5. More Nonfiction. Reflecting the fact that students will read primarily expository texts after high school, the Standards call for a much greater emphasis on nonfiction. The document proposes that about half the reading in elementary school and 75 percent in high school should be nonfiction. This would include informational texts in content areas as well as literary nonfiction in English language arts; publishing companies are likely to respond by revising their textbooks. Narrative fiction will become less prevalent. The Standards also expect students to write more expository prose.

The caution here is to think about factors that lead to people thinking of themselves as readers and writers. I don’t just mean thinking of themselves as people who can read and write, but as people who enjoy reading and writing as well.

We do a great job of telling students they are “readers” or “writers,” and many schools are able to focus on drilling students to say/chant aloud, “I am a reader,” or “I am a writer.”

As others have pointed out before me, these standards run the risk of preempting students’ development of their own reading tastes and identities as readers. It also ignores the possible effects of varied fictional structures on individuals’ habits of thinking and problem solving. Those people I know and respect as the deepest and most insightful analytical thinkers are also some of the most voracious readers of fictional texts I know.

Both have a place at the table, and to prescribe a reading diet as though all minds need the same percentage of texts is as potentially harmful as prescribing an eating diet as though all bodies need the same foods according to the same schedule.

6. Focus on Evidence. In reading, students will be expected to use evidence to demonstrate their comprehension of texts and to read closely in order to make evidence-based claims. To prepare them to do so, teachers will need to take time to read carefully with their students and in many cases reread texts several times. In writing, students are expected to cite evidence to justify statements rather than rely on opinions or personal feelings.

So tempting to make an off-handed remark about the possible implications of an evidence-driven populace on the standards of political elections and journalism, but I will resist.

I am concerned each time we breeze past the words “take time,” without pausing to consider from where that time will come. Will this mean cutting further into arts education, free time, play, physical activity?

If it is not an extension of the school day, what pieces of instruction within the existing structures will be sacrificed? At the most basic level it is a slight to teachers, presuming they are operating with a dearth of expectations on their time with children.

7. “Staircase” of Text Complexity. Students will be expected to read and comprehend increasingly complex texts in order to reach the level of complexity required for success in college courses and the workplace. The Standards document cites evidence that the complexity of texts used in schools has actually declined over the past forty years. To reverse this trend, teachers will have to choose materials that are appropriate for their grade level; states and organizations are now developing tools to help teachers evaluate complexity.

“Grade level?” To paraphrase Monty Python, “Now we see the ignorance inherent in the system.” Teachers must have and must demand the professional respect of choosing texts appropriate to the students in their classroom, not to the grade level to which students are arbitrarily assigned. As reading scholars like Nancy Atwell have discovered, such an approach doesn’t retard student progress in literacy acquisition, but hastens it.

For teachers, this will also mean revising practice to do away with the arbitrary assignment of whole-class texts and considering individual assignments and needs.

8. Speaking and Listening. The Standards expect students to be able to demonstrate that they can speak and listen effectively—two aspects of literacy rarely included in state standards. One of the consortia developing assessments to measure student performance against the Standards will create a speaking and listening assessment. Expect to see teachers asking students to engage in small-group and whole-class discussions and evaluating them on how well they understand the speakers’ points.

Less about speaking and listening, this point speaks to the lack of teacher agency present in a commodified education landscape.

No matter the quality of the consortium’s assessment, it will be seen, by teachers, as someone else’s assessment. The proctoring of such assessments will be, at its basest level, always be seen as jumping the hoop to get to the real teaching.

A key question here is “Do we want all of our students to speak and listen well or do we want all of our students to speak and listen in the same way?” We are plotting a course toward the latter.

9. Literacy in the Content Areas. The Standards include criteria for literacy in history/social science, science, and technical subjects. This reflects a recognition that understanding texts in each of these subject areas requires a unique set of skills and that instruction in understanding, say, a historical document is an integral part of teaching history. This means that history teachers will need to spend time making sure that students are able to glean information from a document and make judgments about its credibility. Science teachers will need to do the same for materials in that discipline.

Yes.

I agree.

Here is how this has been attempted in almost every school and district I’ve seen across the country:

  1. Training is developed to give teachers the school or district’s preferred method of teaching literacy in, say, science classrooms. This isn’t done in the belief that teachers are incompetent, but in an act of benevolence. The matter is urgent, and asking teachers to develop their own approaches will take time none of them thinks he has in the schedule.
  2. Teachers will take back these prescribed approaches to their classrooms and begin implementing them. Some will not implement them. Some will make them their own. Most will do as they are told for fear of repercussions. Test results will move slightly, but then become stale a year or two after.
  3. Frustrated, administrators will seek out a new way to tell teachers to implement literacy practices, assuming something was wrong with the original approach. Step 1 will be repeated in this process.
  4. Teachers will repeat Step 2. This time, those teachers who whole-heartedly accepted the first approach will be slightly jaded. It won’t be as obvious because their acceptance will have been replaced by teachers new to the school/district who have not seen this cycle before.
  5. The cycle will continue. Teacher agency, creativity, and voice will diminish.

To prepare teachers to make these shifts, states and private organizations are planning and implementing substantial professional development efforts. In Kentucky, for example, the state department of education is undertaking a massive campaign to inform teachers about the Standards and their implications for practice and is making available sample lessons and other materials on a website. But these efforts will only be successful if all teachers understand the Standards and how they differ from current practice.

Key here is the lack of any act of inquiry required by teachers. Utilizing the authority-centric approach of content delivery we are attempting to eliminate in classrooms, state education departments will disseminate materials and step-by-step guides like so many classroom worksheets.

If understanding is our highest goal, we have aimed too low.

Things I Know 330 of 365: This is what I mean when I talk about authentic learning

The closer you stay to emotional authenticity and people, character authenticity, the less you can go wrong. That’s how I feel now, no matter what you’re doing.

- David O. Russell

I met my friend Andrew Sturm a few months ago at ReImagine:Ed. He’s about one of the most kind, thoughtful and creative people you could hope to meet. Among his other duties, Andrew was at Re:Ed to provoke by sharing his work with 5750 Dallas.

5750 Dallas is so named because there were 5750 men, women, and children who were homeless in Dallas at last count. Their goal is to reduce that number while guided by research that supports the idea that the best way to get people off the street is to give them a home and training rather than training toward a home. A model guiding by the organization Housing First.

Inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 5750 took to the streets populating public spaces with plywood cut-outs in the shape of homeless people holding cardboard signs with Dr. King’s words on them.

The signs also included things like:

A frozen yogurt store sells $250,000 worth of product every month. That could buy 500,000 meals for the homeless.

or

For what you spent on your iPod and music collection, you could buy 598 pairs of shoes for those in need.

and

On Super Bowl ticket gives you a seat for 4 hours. That money could give a homeless person a bed for two years.

The 5750 site has more information on the installation and accompanying next steps they organized for those moved to act.

This is amazing work that combines art, math, social sciences, civics, and English.

Why aren’t projects like this starting in schools? The creativity is there, the knowledge and resources are there. And I’ve  a hunch Sturm and everyone associated with 5750 Dallas would have been happy to work with teachers and students if they’d been approached.

These are lessons and unit plans waiting to be written. The algebra, research, persuasion and design skills here are all nestled snugly in the Common Core (though you wouldn’t worry about that if you were in Texas).

I’m blown away by the simplicity, beauty, and impact of the work of 5750 Dallas. Since I met Andrew, I’ve shared the installation with a few dozen people.

Think about it this way, what would students who designed and executed a project like 5750 Dallas know and be able to do when they were done? What would they feel compelled to do next? How long would that learning last?

Things I Know 192 of 365: There’s Opportunity to Empower Teachers in the Common Core

If we use these common standards as the foundation for better schools, we can give all kids a robust curriculum taught by well-prepared, well-supported teachers who can help prepare them for success in college, life and careers.

- Randi Weingarten

A thought that gets highlighted, underlined and annotated over and over again in its many iterations in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is the idea that we cannot expect creative business solutions or creative people if we maintain an education system designed around student compliance.

I’d add to that the idea we cannot expect to move away from a system built around student compliance if we don’t relinquish the idea of teacher compliance.

In a THE Journal interview with Westville, IL School Superintendent Jim Owens I found some hope:

One particularly effective training tool involved flip video cameras and a directive to create a project illustrating the impact that technology was having on the respective teacher’s classroom. This simple exercise frustrated a lot of our teachers, who didn’t know what we wanted from them or what the right answer was. We told them that there was no right answer, that we just wanted them to get creative and share how they were using technology in the classroom. Once they “got it,” the teachers really surprised us by coming up with some innovative ways of integrating technology into their lesson plans.

We did something similar this last year at SLA. Teachers formed their own PLC’s based on self-identified areas of interest for professional development. The areas ranged from understanding the Ethic of Care to exploring issues of education policy.

In the spirit of asking ourselves to do what we asked of our students, These groups were asked to develop a unit/project plan for the semester based on a set number of meeting times and the end goal of presenting to/teaching the rest of the staff.

While most groups took the task and ran with it, one or two groups of teachers experienced the same frustration Owens describes. They wanted the right answer.

We’d opened professional development to pure inquiry based on personal interest, basically said, “Learn what you’re curious about and then share with the rest of us.”

I was surprised by the response at first.

As I started to overlay the experience with what happened when 9th grade students entered SLA. The first few months (sometimes the first few years) are spent helping student to stop worrying about the right answer or worksheet withdrawal.

We had no reason to think teachers wouldn’t behave the same way.

Were I to do it again, I’d look more deeply into how or if the teachers saw their practice change and what possible increases of empathy they experienced.

It’s the kind of deeper analysis we’ll miss with the publication of the “publishers’ criteria” for the ELA section of the common core.

In an Ed Week post Friday, Catherine Gewertz wrote, “The impetus behind the criteria, Ms. Pimentel and Mr. Coleman said in a joint phone interview, was to respond to teachers’ requests for support by helping them focus on the cornerstones of the standards and understand how classroom work will have to change to reflect them.”

It’s the problem Owens and the Westville leadership ran into, it’s the problem we ran into when asking teachers to plot their own professional development.

The best possible answer here is simple, “I don’t know. What ideas do you have?”

In navigating the Common Core landscape, lies the opportunity to have teachers experience the kind of high-impact learning the standards are designed to engender.

Instead of guidelines, I’m curious as to the essential questions.

If the DOE can track grantees and how they’re studying the methods and outcomes of teaching American history around the country, surely we can design a program to track, study and better understand the implementation of the Common Core.

Create a transparent, open access clearinghouse of information and ideas. Design grant opportunities that create teacher researchers around the country.

Let the teachers own the process if you want them to own the practice. I know it’s a far cry from how the CC were created and adopted, but there’s a chance to put teaching back in the hands of teachers.

One of my favorite passages in Gewertz’s piece comes from Gates Foundation Common Core Lead Jamie McKee:

[McKee] said that while the foundation “cares deeply about the quality of the [instructional] materials that come from the common core,” it hasn’t yet decided whether it favors a panel or process for validating such materials.

I don’t care.

ELA Common Core lead and Susan Pimentel said, “If we’re asking students to be able to look at text and draw evidence from it, it means they need to be given text, with good teacher support, but without a lot of excessive spoon-feeding up front.”

It’s time to want the same thing for teachers.

An amazing chance to empower teachers exists in how we begin to implement and appraise the Common Core. Handing that process and the design of those systems over to textbook companies and those with little skin in the game isn’t reform, it’s regression.

Things I Know 190 of 365: At the core what’s common are people

They never really sorted out what the subject of these standards is. It’s rather remarkable.

- Tom Hoffman

I recently had to help show how the activities of a teacher training program I work with align to the Common Core (PDF) as well as the National Board (PDF) standards for English language arts.

While I respect the general depth-over breadth approach of the National Board standards, the Common Core standards leave me sad and alone like a jilted prom date.

Still, the task at hand was alignment and align we did.

And everything fit.

Every single activity aligned nicely with at least two Common Core standards without any embellishment. Should Congress hold hearings tomorrow requiring me to defend the connection of each learning activity to the standard of English education to which I claim it moves participants, I would sweat choosing a tie more than I would sweat making my case.

By that measure, the program looks beautiful. It looks perfect. It looks complete.

That’s the problem, isn’t it?

We know the program requires refinement. We know work is yet to be done. We know that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard if excellence is to be maintained.

It is a standard specific to our mission and vision in serving the specific population of teachers with whom we work.

As forty-three states raced to the top of something or other, they adopted the Common Core. Along the way, they told those they serve those adoptions would improve education for students in their states.

It won’t.

I rarely dole out definitives.

The standards for teaching English language arts are now and always have been helping students to read, write, speak, listen and think.

Such was the case the day before Utah’s August 8, 2010 adoption of the Common Core or North Dakota’s June 20, 2010 adopt. Such will be the case long after the next go round when they adopt standards that are more common and more core.

It will always be the people that matter. A great teacher August 7 in Utah was a great teacher August 9 in Utah. A horrible teacher was much the same.

A child who arrived at school hungry or abused June 19 in North Dakota was likely still hungry or abused June 21.

In the movement to adopt standards;  in the debate (where time was allotted for one); in the funding to print, promote and publish the standards; a point was missed.

The point was people.

Tomorrow, I’ll be working toward a higher standard. No state legislated it. I adopted it.

Things I Know 116 of 365: Something’s rotten at the Core

Pearson already dominates, and this could take it to the extreme.

- Susan Newman, University of Michigan Professor

You may have heard Mr. Gates and Pearson are working together to make teachers obsolete improve online learning. A less humble person would say he called it.

I’ve actually been working with Pearson since last summer as well. The university I’m studying with right now buys their curriculum from Pearson.

I wish they didn’t.

Last night, I finished the final assignment of this module-instructional-block-class. It was a course reflection. I dig reflection. I think the past 115 entries are a testament to that fact. But reflection should be about inquiring into your own learning. Some prompts should be provided, but not mandated.

A few times, I’ve called out my instructors as being ineffective or not modeling the very practices being pushed in the program. While I stand by those claims, this module-instructional-block-class’s instructor has been more present than the previous three. He consistently spells my name correctly, provides personal feedback other than copying and pasting the text of the rubric and sets a tone that implies a higher standard.

With improved instruction, I’ve had time to more clearly see the holes in the materials.

As I was completing the course reflection last night, I found myself hitting my head against the Core Propositions of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

1: Teachers are Committed to Students and Their Learning

2: Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.

3: Teachers are Responsible for managing and a monitoring student learning.

4: Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.

5: Teachers are members of learning communities.

The propositions have been causing an itch in my brain since I first met them when completing the School District of Philadelphia’s induction program. Then, as in my program, the propositions were taken as dogmatically true. What’s more, the implication that these five statements make a quality teacher worries me.

At the end of each module-instructional-block-class, I’ve had to explain how the content of the prior 8 weeks has pushed me to grow as a teacher insomuch as each of the propositions is concerned.

In the previous three m-i-b-c I’ve not so much lied as stretched the truth, grasping at any possible evidence, not matter how circumstantial, to prove I’ve grown. I’ve been the good little student, “Look at me teacher. I’ve done what you ask – even though I don’t care.”

Last night, I decided to tell the truth. My grade hasn’t been posted yet, so I don’t know what the possible repercussions of said honesty might be, but I felt good clicking the submit button.

I’m posting my responses below.

Before I get to that, though, I want to make clear that I have nothing but the highest respect for any teacher who has completed the National Board certification process – successfully or not. It is arduous and life-interrupting. Only those who have fallen in love with teaching could find their way through it. Those friends I’ve watched complete the process are some of the strongest teachers I’ve ever met.

I tip my hat to them.

My beef is with the lack of inquiry and humanity I see in the propositions.

Prop.  1: Teachers are Committed to Students and Their Learning

I cannot say that my commitment to my students and their learning has improved in this instructional block. As with each instructional block reflection, I remain uncertain as to how one is expected to quantify or qualify his or her level of commitment to students and learning. The simplest and truest answer is that I looked beyond the course materials when completing the coursework. If the goal was to improve student participation, I visited peers’ classrooms during my prep periods to observe their methods of eliciting learner responses. I informally polled learners between classes to find out what was working, what was not working and what they wanted to happen in class. My commitment grew because I realized more than what was required of me would be necessary to improve learning in my classroom.

Prop.  2: Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.

I completed each assignment alongside my learners. If they were coming up with exemplars and non-exemplars, so was I. In class discussion, I asked questions and offered answers. I told learners when I agreed and when I disagreed. If they disagreed with me, I found out why. I admitted I was wrong when I was wrong. I grew in my ability to teach my subject because I focused on teaching my learners, not subjects. The best evidence of this was my asking questions of myself and my learners every class period of every day.

Prop.  3: Teachers are Responsible for managing and a monitoring student learning.

I grew with regard to this proposition because I ignored it. Proposition 3 winnows leaners out of the equation of learning management. If a classroom is to be fully learner-centered, then the responsibility to monitoring and managing learning must be shared. In having my learners build an online artifact that was centered around their learning as they saw it, I was respecting their growth and giving them room to experiment and fail in their learning.

Prop.  4: Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience.

The implementation plan drew from multiple models and integrated each one seamlessly with the next. It also used each artifact as learners created it and asked the learners to build something new. That was by design. A note on my answer to Prop. 3 compared to what I’ve just written. I did not know what the something new they would be creating would look like. I just asked the question.

Prop.  5: Teachers are members of learning communities

I learned alongside my learners. I asked colleagues to come view the class and I volunteered my free time to watch those colleagues teach so I could learn from them. I was asking questions all along the way and learning from what I saw and the answers to every question.

Could you do this? Making music tell a story

The Gist:

  • Students in my Storytelling class are now working with music.
  • What we’re doing isn’t explicitly stated in the state standards.
  • No part of me believes this project isn’t helping them to be better readers, writers and thinkers.

The Whole Story:

Looking at the syllabus for my Storytelling class, I noticed I’d planned for poetry to follow our short story unit. Taking the temperature of the students, I decided a course adjustment was in order.

Instead of poetry, we’re working with music-without words.

To start things out, I needed to stand their expectations on their ears.

Everything was to be cleared from their desks. I distributed blank paper.  Crayons, colored pencils and markers laid sprawled on a central table.

“I’m going to play 10 stories for you,” I said, “You need to draw or write the story as you see fit. You’ll have 30 seconds between each story to finish before we move on.”

Papers were folded, coloring utensils collected and chairs situated just so.

I pressed play.

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem wafted from the speakers.

“I’ll let you know when there’s one minute left of each story,” I said.

They started drawing and writing the stories they heard.

When all was done, we’d listened to:

“Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem

“Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland

The theme from the 60s BBC show The Avengers

Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida

“Heart String” by Earl Klugh

“Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony

The tango from Scent of a Woman

Apotheosis’ take on Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna”

The theme from The Rock by Hanz Zimmer

The theme from Pirates of the Carribean, also by Hanz Zimmer

Thirty seconds after the last story, I told the class the story of riding in the back of my mom’s Nissan Pulsar when I was in first grade and we lived in Kentucky. When we’d drive back to Illinois in the middle of the night for holidays, each song that was in heavy rotation on whatever light rock station she was listening to was burned into my memory.

I played “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears and explained, for me, that song was about being 7 and riding from Kentucky to Illinois more than it could ever be about John Hughes’ 16 Candles.

Then came the assignment. They’re to re-tell the stories they wrote after the first day of class as a non-vocal musical track. They may compose something original or remix and mash up other tracks.

The only allowable vocals are unintelligible words like Orff’s Latin lyrics in “O Fortuna” or something along the lines of a doo-wop riff.

I’m excited to hear what they create. My hope is this assignment will stretch their thinking. I’ve tried it, it’s tricky.

Nowhere in the Pennsylvania English Curriculum does it direct students to be this kind of writers. Nowhere does it ask them to read texts as music. For that matter, the draft of the Common Core Standards doesn’t include anything like this.

I could massage a few of the standards into place, but either the assignment or the standard would end up inauthentic.

That said, I have no doubt what my students will be doing is a valid, challenging, authentic form of consumption and creation. They’re reading, writing and thinking in a way no test could measure or equal.

It’s going to be difficult, messy, frustrating and beautiful.

I can’t wait to hear what they create.