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Teaching Toward the Third 'C': Developing Common Core-Aligned Units that Prepare Students for College, Career, & CITIZENSHIP

Teaching Toward the Third 'C': Developing Common Core-Aligned Units that Prepare Students for College, Career, & CITIZENSHIP

Written by Nicole Mirra
April 29, 2014

Two of the major purposes of high school classes, according to the Common Core Literacy Standards, are college and career readiness; indeed, these two purposes are mentioned together in the document so often that they are provided with a special acronym – CCR standards. The six-paragraph introduction to the literacy standards refers to the goals of college and career readiness six times, and the standards for the four ‘anchor’ areas of literacy – reading, writing, speaking/listening, and language – are titled, “College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards.” By contrast, the relationship between literacy and citizenship is mentioned only in passing and only once in the document. While no teacher denies the importance of college and career readiness, what is the educator to do who wants to develop civic curriculum and offer students relevant, critical instruction that is also aligned with the Common Core?

This resource offers some of my ideas for developing Common Core-aligned units that foster academic literacy while also encouraging students to engage with their communities and with controversial social issues. I will review the literacy anchor standards and explain how I utilized them to build a year-long youth participatory action research project into my 11th grade ELA curriculum that allowed students to develop research questions about social issues that mattered to them and then search for answers in texts and in the world around them. I hope that this resource will inspire you to create thematic connections between literary and informational texts and develop writing assignments that combine creative, informative, and analytical forms of expression.

Finding Support for Teaching Civic Literacy Skills in the Common Core Standards

Asking teachers to consider incorporating ‘civic education’ into their practice can sound quite stressful, particularly when they are already overwhelmed with trying to impart to students the required knowledge and skills in their subject areas. Civic learning can very easily be viewed as one more thing piled on top of the countless other valuable goals that teachers would love to pursue, but reluctantly sacrifice in order to cover as much as possible before the looming standardized assessments arrive. After all, isn’t civic education just the responsibility of social studies teachers, anyway?

In order to reduce the stress, we simply need to re-imagine what civic education means and what it looks like in action. It need not be a separate body of knowledge and skills to be piled atop what teachers already do (are you imagining diagrams of the three branches of government, or how a bill becomes a law?). Instead, it can be thought of as an overarching purpose to what we do as teachers that pulses beneath every lesson and emerges in the kinds of products we ask students to create with their knowledge and skills. In the end, all of the teachers I know do what they do because they want to send young people out into the world who are prepared to succeed not only in college and in their chosen careers, but who will help sustain our democratic society for future generations. When we shift the paradigm of civic learning from being another subject area to teach to the purpose of what we already teach, we open up a wealth of opportunities to integrate civic learning into our classrooms.

One opportunity that I take advantage of that I’d like to share involves utilizing the Common Core Literacy Standards to support the teaching of what I call ‘civic literacy skills.’ This is a particularly powerful opportunity because it is open to teachers from all subject areas now that we are all responsible for teaching literacy skills to our students.

So what are civic literacy skills? Simple – they are the skills that come to mind when you consider this question: What literacy skills do you think your students need in order to be thoughtful, engaged citizens? The images on this page display the lists of civic literacy skills that teachers came up with in several workshops that I facilitated last year. They range from asking critical questions to recognizing bias to developing informed opinions by harnessing evidence.

And the beautiful part is that these are literacy skills that we are expected to teach anyway through the Common Core. We do not need to do more as educators – simply recognize the potential for civic learning in literacy instruction and make it transparent for students in what we already do.

Consider these Common Core literacy standards for teachers in History, Science, and Technical Subjects:

Reading Anchor Standard #8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Writing Anchor Standard #6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

These standards, which apply to students from grades 6 through 12, provide standards-based justification for introducing informational and/or creative texts in any subject area that relate to real world controversies, encouraging students to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of these texts and formulate their own evidence-based opinions on these controversies, and helping them to publicize their opinions in authentic spaces to dialogue with others.

In my mind, that is quality, standards-based civic literacy education. We just need to recognize the civic potential in the standards, draw it out, and make the process real and engaging for our students.

Now I’d like to take you through my process in developing a year-long youth participatory action research project for my 11th grade ELA students that stressed both academic and critical literacies and focused on civic learning.

Link to Common Core State Standards in Literacy

Civic Inquiry in My 11th Grade English Class

I returned to high school English teaching after five years of graduate study focused on researching the connections between literacy instruction and civic engagement. One of the most transformative experiences I had while out of the classroom was the opportunity to lead a youth participatory action research (YPAR) program called the UCLA Council of Youth Research – a group of students and teachers who spent their after school time researching meaningful issues in their schools and communities and creating multimedia presentations offering solutions to educators and community members (see the YPAR collection here on Digital Is for more information).

During my time with the Council, I recognized some of the freedoms that came with working with youth in after school spaces – the ability to focus on student interests without the pressures of content standards or pacing plans, or to organize impromptu field trips, or to use time in flexible ways. I also recognized the profound effects that seeing a personally designed research project through from start to finish could have on students’ academic and civic identities. And so, as I prepared to teach English to 150 11th graders in South Los Angeles, I wondered: how could I engage my students in personalized research projects within the constraints of 90-minute periods and the need to teach standards-based American literature content?

YPAR is based on the premise that young people are keen observers of society and are deeply interested in exploring discrepancies they see between their experiences and the experiences of others – between how things should be and how they are. And so I decided to organize my 11th grade American Literature syllabus thematically in a way that highlighted enduring tensions in American life – tensions that I would encourage my students to explore through the process of inquiry. Each of my thematic units focused on several core texts, which were supplemented by a variety of creative and informational texts.

For instance, my first unit concentrated on the American tension of majority vs. minority perspectives and experiences. I approached this topic through the lens of gender (The Crucible) as well as race and class (A Raisin in the Sun, Fences). In addition to more traditional, fictional texts, I introduced my students to a nonfiction text that demonstrated student research in action and would set the tone for the yearlong research project that we were about to embark upon that would underlay every other unit that year.

Our America is a firsthand account written by two teenage boys about life in the Chicago Housing Projects in the mid-1990s. The epigraph for the book, written by one of its teenage authors, reads, “You must learn our America as we must learn your America, so that, maybe, someday, we can become one.” The students in my class were thoroughly absorbed in the narratives of the authors, LeAlan and Lloyd, as they sought to understand the death of a 5-year old boy from their neighborhood at the hands of two boys only a few years older than him.

As my students read about the research process in which LeAlan and Lloyd engaged in order to understand their community, I began to prepare them to develop their own research project. Since I found it logistically impossible to allow all of my 150 students to conduct their own independent projects, I asked students in each of my classes to brainstorm issues in their community about which they felt passionate and then grouped students based on similar interests.

In just my fourth period class, the research topics students generated included: teen pregnancy, peer pressure, stereotypes about the Watts community, absent fathers, alcohol and drug abuse, and violence.

We then split the research process into two semesters. The fall semester was spent explaining community challenges, honing research questions, defining ourselves as researchers, harnessing existing research, and laying out plans for data collection. The semester culminated with a graduate-level formal research proposal. In keeping with Common Core literacy standards, we analyzed various informational texts that could bring students’ research to new levels of complexity. For instance, as students began asking questions about why it seemed so difficult for communities to break through cycles of poverty and violence, we delved into pieces of social theory exploring social reproduction and resistance. We also analyzed visual information about the community through a Los Angeles Times database in order to map community assets and challenges. Link to Mapping LA

The spring semester focused on data collection and analysis. We learned how to choose individuals in the community to interview who would have unique perspectives on our topics, and then how to craft interview questions that would encourage them to tell powerful stories. We learned how to weave quantitative and qualitative information together into engaging narratives that would speak to a variety of audiences. We developed a survey filled with items relating to each student team’s research topics and distributed it to all of the students at the school so that we could learn how to analyze survey data and integrate it into argumentative essays through evidence-based claims.

Link to Complete Survey Results

All the while, we continued to prepare for the standardized exams that students were required to take in the spring, and we continued to connect our research to major pieces of American literature. I certainly encountered stumbling blocks along the way – the composition of teams changing during the year as students cycled in and out of my school, the difficulty of organizing opportunities for students to meet with community members who were experts in all of their research topics, the pressures of trying to finish the project as testing pressure (and test prep) ramped up – but my students’ final research reports reminded me that the process was completely worthwhile.
Open All Results.pdf

Your Turn: Resources to Help You Plan Civic Literacy Projects

I hope that my journey of developing Common Core-aligned units that combine academic literacy instruction with civic inquiry has inspired you to think how you could develop your own civic literacy units/projects.

I am attaching a PowerPoint presentation that I’ve used during my workshops with UCLA Writing Project teachers that I encourage you to use and share with colleagues in order to jumpstart planning for projects you might want to develop based on the interests of the students you work with.

Link to PowerPoint Presentation

I’m also attaching a unit-planning template that I hope you might find useful. If you are familiar with backward design, you will recognize this model right away – I have simply added in elements that force me to think about the civic literacy skills I want students to develop alongside their academic literacy skills, as well as possibilities for authentic assessments that can get students connected to local, state, or national communities. I’ve also reminded myself about Common Core alignment by adding space to consider anchor standards and text sets.

 Link to Unit Planning Template

I hope that you will use the comments section below to continue this dialogue and share the projects that you are creating, as well as any resources or questions that you might have. I am excited to see the amazing work that educators are doing to help young people use literacy skills for civic empowerment and social change.
Open Unit Planning Template.pdf
Open Citizenship PPT.ppt

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