By Ilene Shafran

Ilene Shafran is a 2nd-grade teacher at PS 34 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. This appraisal was originally published as a Teacher to Teacher column in the New York Teacher, the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers, and was posted on the UFT website. The opinion expressed in the column is the author’s own and should not be construed as an endorsement by the union.

As a 24-year veteran of teaching in elementary school, I have seen literacy programs come and go. Each new program that claims to be “Common Core-aligned” always seems to fall short of experienced teachers’ expectations. So when I finally had the opportunity to try out and pilot a Common Core-aligned ELA curriculum that I felt had potential, I jumped at the chance.

The program, which is called Core Knowledge Language Arts, is the recommended New York State ELA curriculum for elementary schools. All the materials are available on the EngageNY website. I admit that when you first look at this program, it seems overwhelming and daunting. But I have found that the advantages of getting to know this curriculum on an intimate level far outweigh the risks of being lost in a sea of learning objectives.

Any longtime teacher will tell you that there is no magic, all-encompassing curriculum that is perfect right out of the box. As educators, we know that ELA curriculum needs to be adapted to meet the needs and demands of our students, whether they are struggling readers or high-achieving students. Good teaching means we adapt and differentiate the best that we can with the resources we have available to us.

When I piloted Core Knowledge Language Arts at my school last year, I was generally familiar with the components and basic premise of this program from my work as a New York City Common Core Fellows member, who for two years evaluated different types of Common Core-aligned curriculum options.

The program has two main components: First, there are 10 to 12 domains, or units, depending on the grade, that are heavily content-based (in social studies, history and science) and focus on vast academic vocabulary, background knowledge, critical thinking skills and class discussions. Then, there is a second component that focuses on reading skills, allowing teachers to meet reading foundational standards. Students have their own readers and skill workbooks to practice these important skills. The program is designed to meet students where they are and help them grow as readers.

So far, teachers at my school see our students engaged in the content as well as the vocabulary. Students participate in turn-and-talk discussions about real-world events and form opinions about real-world learning.

There are a few challenges with the program. Each lesson begins with a list of core content objectives as well as language arts objectives. Teacher teams need to come together and make instructional decisions on which ones to focus on in the classroom. Collaboration and sharing of ideas are essential for getting through these extensive lesson plans. Individual teachers also need to determine the needs of their students and choose the objectives that will be most effective in meeting their needs.

The lessons are rigorous, and questioning is extensive. Lessons are delivered in 60-minute blocks of time (60 minutes for listening and learning and 60 minutes for skills). In addition, teachers need to plan for independent reading and guided reading times. There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking and lends itself well to developing writing activities; however, the writing extensions included in the daily lessons are hit-or-miss. Some activities have perfect writing activities and some lack writing tie-ins altogether, so teachers will need to develop their own writing activities.

The listening-and-learning strand is primarily focused on teacher read-aloud and questioning, which means teachers will need to develop more interactive discussion through accountable talk. It is always a challenge to engage all of our students in discussions. This program lends itself to think/pair/share discussions with rich questioning and discussion topics.

Because of the large volume of vocabulary taught in each lesson, teachers also need to provide additional instructional opportunities to reinforce the new vocabulary. The skills strand is designed to meet students at their current reading level and support their growth throughout the school year.

In my 2nd-grade classroom, my students are eager to learn and discuss some grown-up topics thanks to this curriculum. It is allowing me and my fellow teachers to meet the demands of the Common Core — not in terms of testing, but in terms of meeting the high expectations we have for all of our students.

4 comments on “An appraisal of Core Knowledge Language Arts”

  1. 1
    Ponderosa on April 21, 2015

    I’m glad Ms. Shafran likes the CK program. I wonder, however, about her statement, “There is a lot of oral discussion, which is good for developing critical thinking…” What exactly does she mean by “critical thinking”? And how does discussion develop it? If two students discuss the similarities between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, have they strengthened some critical thinking “muscle” in their brain that will make them better able to see similarities between other pairs of items? Or could it be that the ability to see similarities is built-in to our brains and works with 100% accuracy on anything our brains can see well? If it fails, it’s not because the faculty is broken or underdeveloped but because the “seeing” is imperfect. The two might say that Martin Luther and Martin Luther King are both Protestant and both American; the latter being wrong not because they have weak thinking skills, but because they have incomplete knowledge or a faulty memory of the knowledge they were exposed to. If this is the case, then discussion would not be developing critical thinking, just eliciting it. The discussion would entail recalling from memory some knowledge and then utilizing the built-in faculties of the brain to operate upon it. So if discussion does not build critical thinking, is it not worthwhile? Perhaps its value lies in the fact that it awakens the memory and thereby signals to the brain that the knowledge recalled is worth transferring to the long-term memory (Dan Willingham has written about this). This would be a good thing, since a clear picture of knowledge will be made instantly available to the mind in the future, and the innate thinking skills in the brain will be thereby empowered to quickly “see” the knowledge on which it needs to operate. Discussion, by thus adding to the mind’s permanent library of knowledge, helps the mind’s built-in thinking skills execute accurate thinking on a broader array of topics. Perhaps schools do not need to develop thinking skills, but need to develop a broad and accurate knowledge base in the brain so that our innate thinking skills can have a broader range of action. If this is the case, then the whole premise of the SBAC tests is a mistake. Instead of testing a kid’s thinking skills, and making inferences about the schools’ quality from the results, they should be testing the amount of thinking-enhancing knowledge that the schools have imparted.

  2. 2
    william j. eccleston on April 22, 2015

    Given the massive acts of civil disobedience taking place right now in New York, the most striking things about Ms. Shafran’s piece are not her points, but the sprinkling throughout of the words “Core” and “Common Core aligned.” They strike me like little figures huddled under a lone tree on a flat plain, so earnestly in conversation with one and other that they do not notice the wind picking up, the birds fleeing, and the sudden shadow on the land. How Core Knowledge can survive the Common Core debacle is a question whose time has come. Yes, today, here, in response to Ms Shafran, is not the place. But I hope Lisa will soon find the time. Otherwise, we who have the fondest hopes for this program might just be whistling past the graveyard.

  3. 3
    Janice on May 3, 2015

    I have been advocating for Core Knowledge even before the publication of The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy or What Every American Needs to Know. I wish that all those who are clamororing against teaching facts to our children would read the Introduction to the book, but read it with an open mind, which I doubt would happen. Let’s teach our children to be creative, they say, rather than fill their heads with facts. To them I would like to point out that creativity cannot be taught. Allow me to make my point with one example that symbolizes all others: before William Shakespeare wrote his plays he filled his head with facts from history books, mythology, and the Bible, books on botany, and folk tales. He barely made up a story, but based his plays on the facts he stuffed his head with. Jane Austen learned about the world from the books she read, because her immediate world was very limited. She learned her rather extensive vocabulary from those books as well. I’ll end with Emily Dickinson: “There’s no frigate like a book…” From which she, too, filled her brain with facts before she turned on her creativity.

  4. 4
    moses otieno on May 23, 2015

    Its true that building new concepts from the ones already known to a learner really helps them in grasping what is being taught by the teacher.Learners are able to link new ideas to what they already know.In my career as a teacher I have always been introducing concepts by starting from the simple ones and then proceeding to the abstract ones.This is perfected by linking the new ideas to what the learners already know.

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