OK, I’m going to say “Common Core State Standards” and at the same time implore you not to click the make-it-go-away button on your screen. Scream, cheer, curse—whatever feels right—but stay with me for a moment….please.
The Common Core State Standards are here and rapidly becoming the tail that wags. What the tail wags, of course, are the standardized tests your students take and, by extension, what you do to help them prepare.
The Standards are rigorous, no question about it. Rigorous standards engender rigorous tests…not necessarily a bad thing, but one that requires teaching that challenges students to achieve. By challenge, I mean requiring that students think critically.
Thinking critically is an ability we have by virtue of the fact that we are human; it is our common core. It is something we, each and every one of us, can do—but, of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we do do it. And therein lies the issue. The ability to think critically is a bit like a muscle. The more it’s used, the stronger it gets; with disuse, it atrophies.
As teachers, one of our overarching jobs is to help students become responsible citizens, which means they need to think critically about issues and events that affect their lives, their community, the nation, and the world; it means analyzing problems and evaluating solutions. The Common Core State Standards speak to these very processes. So let’s get to it.
Suppose your goal is to guide your students to read informational text critically. An alternative to divining critical-thinking questions as a follow-up to a reading assignment is to have kids do the reading in order to form an opinion about the text, and then express that opinion in writing. An assignment like this can be designed to support several Common Core Reading and Writing Standards.
Roughly summarized, Reading Informational Text Standard 1 requires students to refer to details and examples from a text, quote accurately, or cite evidence to support inferences and conclusions. Standard 2 calls for students to determine the main idea(s) and supporting details of a text. And Standard 8 asks students to explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support a particular point. Writing Standard 1 outlines the requisites for writing opinion pieces…and that’s the key to this particular approach….expressing an opinion. (To see the actual language of the Standards go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy.)
We all have opinions, including kids. Inviting students to express and support an opinion can be fun and empowering, a great opportunity to help them grow their critical-thinking skills.
To take this approach, you’d probably want to start simple. For example, you could have students analyze and develop an opinion about the effectiveness of an advertisement. The ad may be on the Web, in a newspaper, on a billboard—anywhere.
The advantages of starting with an advertisement are many. For one, students are constantly seeing and hearing advertisements; they are part of their world. Plus, thinking carefully about ads—not just blindly accepting what they say—is the hallmark of being a wise consumer. In addition, advertising text is usually brief and easy to comprehend. These qualities allow students to focus on critical thinking and analysis without getting bogged down with issues of literal comprehension.
To start, you could ask students to read the ad and form an initial opinion: Is the ad effective? Suggest they write their answer in a complete sentence, which they can revise later if they change their mind. This is the start of their opinion piece. An analysis of the ad would yield reasons and evidence that support the opinion.
To help students analyze the ad, they could use questions like these as a guide.
1. What is the ad trying to sell me or get me to do? (Standard 2: main idea)
2. What claim does the ad make to influence me? (Standard 2: details)
3. What are the specific words, phrases, or sentences that express the claim? (Standard 1: quote accurately to support conclusions)
4. What reasons and evidence does the ad’s writer use to support the claim in the ad? How does the writer use them? Does the ad contain claims that are not supported? (Standard 8: explain how reasons and evidence are used)
Answers to questions 1 and 2 would result in a summary of the ad. Responses to questions 3 and 4 would yield an analysis. With the analysis complete, students could expand their answer to the initial question by adding because and a summary statement of why they do or do not think the ad is effective.
I’d like to say Voila! there you have it—a well-formed opinion piece resulting from critical analysis. But the process is not always so straightforward…as you know. Nevertheless, the approach is a beginning, a strategy, a path forward.
In future assignments, the reading content could be more complex, but the process would remain the same. With additional practice, students would strengthen their analytical common core as they prepare to meet the challenge of the Common Core.