Program Highlights

Inquiry in the Midst of Common Core: What Does Thoughtful Implementation Look Like?

Program Highlights

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 11.07.26 AMA new set of standards has districts and schools racing to implement aligned curriculum. In teacher professional development efforts there is an unprecedented focus on curricular implementation and in the implementation rush, the curriculum can become the end game and the students’ learning is, ironically, not in the spotlight. A question we hold at Mills Teacher Scholars is: What does thoughtful implementation look like?

marijkeLast month we published a blog post from Marjike Conklin’s Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work that illustrates this idea of thoughtful, data-driven implementation. In the midst of implementing new strategies for academic discussion, Marjike’s data collection and analysis leads to new and actionable understandings about her students:

  • She is able to notice what students are doing in the activities and take an asset-based approach
  • She understands what aspects of the activity her students are not yet practicing
  • She realizes that she needs to make a distinction between summarizing and analyzing and must repeatedly teach this distinction if she wants students to get to the analysis required in the Common Core
  • She notices that the type of sentence frame impacts how students interact with the content and as a result is driven to create sentence frames that encourage more than just a passing comment on the text

We encourage you to read the entirety of Marjike’s blog post, but at the very least, read below to understand how curricular implementation can hold what is happening for students in the center of attention rather than over-shadow students’ experience.


While I taught and practiced academic discussion with the whole class, I decided to select four focal students to study in-depth. They were already reading complex text independently so my data collection could focus on the discrete discussion and text analysis skills that I wanted to teach. My reading groups are heterogeneous, and in this one there were two Spanish dominant students and two English dominant. One idea was that this group would become an expert group, which would then model the process for the class. I later discovered that their high reading skills did not seamlessly translate into strong discussion skills – at first.

After reflecting with colleagues, I decided that the indicators of success for the academic discussion would be that: 1) students use all of their talking pieces 2) students vary the types of sentences they use and the types of questions that they ask during the academic discussion 3) their comments and questions reflect the learning goals.

Complex Text in First Grade

At Melrose Leadership Academy it was decided that all of the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry projects would somehow include grappling with complex text. This was done to intentionally align and develop that part of our program. Defining what complex text is was important, and in first grade we decided a text was complex when, among other qualities, it offered an opportunity for differing opinions and introduced academic vocabulary that would help students elaborate nuance in science, math, social studies or language arts.

Summarizing, Superlatives and Structure – Starting Points in Initial Data

With the help of Daniela Mantilla, our Mills Teacher Scholars facilitator, I began to collect video data of student- run academic discussions. I observed how students started to internalize and practice the learning goals over the course of the fall. The videos showed students presenting summary of the text, praising the text, and remarking on structural aspects of the text.

In the first diagnostic video, the four students had independently read the Three Little Pigs.

S1: Now, we ask questions.

S2: Wait. How do you play the game?

S3: I don’t know.

S4: I’ll start. No, I won’t start. You play with the cubes. Start!

S2: I want you to know that the wolf blows a lot. We’ll do it like that.

While I had explained the game to them, it was clear from this first video that they still didn’t know how to proceed.   S1 knows they need to ask questions – but they don’t ask questions yet, and later I realized this group wasn’t sure how to do so.

Student 2 uses one of the first frames I introduced on the grid “I want you to know that ___________” and fills in the thought with a summary of the text. That he summarized was an important and informative piece of data. Throughout the year, students in first grade summarized text, instead of analyzing, and this became an important distinction for me to explicitly teach. In the video, students do not ask each other questions or build on each other’s ideas.

In the second video, the focal students have read The Three Billy Goats Gruff. In an effort to elicit student opinion rather than summary, I shifted the sentence frames on the placemat. One included: “I like the part when __________________ because __________________.”   A student “liking” a part of the story or not wasn’t the goal, but rather a scaffold to get them into the practice of justifying an opinion. The other sentence frame I included to make a connection to the story was, “It makes me think of _______.”

S1: When I read this, it made ​​me think it’s funny.

S2: I liked the part when he said the gnome was saying “Who is that trip-trapping over my bridge?” What part did you like?

S3: It made me think that we will go for a walk to see a bridge.

At this point, students are more comfortable with the game pieces and process. They use the sentence frames and a student asks a question. Additionally, a student makes a text to life connection to our class expedition on bridges. It was an informative video because it helped me see also that I didn’t want them to simply give passing comment to the text (“it’s funny”) and that I could move them beyond remarking on what they liked. I also recognized the frames made an impact on what the content was – and that I wanted frames which addressed the text analysis functions.

In the third video, students have read Hey, Ant!

S1:Raises hand

S2: I do not know what to say

S3: When I read the part at the end I thought there was going to be an ending, but then I realized that there wasn’t an ending. I think we can make one up, and have an idea. It made me think about when … another student interrupts

By raising her hand, a student relies on a traditional participation gesture. Another student expresses uncertainty – and also meta-cognitive awareness – saying she doesn’t know what to say. The third student reflects on the structure of the book – she was expecting an ending but now discovering that there isn’t one, would like to recommend one. This is creative text engagement, but not analysis.

Marijke’s cycle of careful data collection and analysis leading to instruction that responds to individualized and context specific learning needs is just one example of the thoughtful implementation of Common Core curriculum that is supported by the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry process.