Common Core is Here—Don't Panic!
The Common Core standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics are driving factors in the educational reforms facing public education today. As an arts educator in the schools, as a teaching artist who provides supplemental instruction with students in and out of school, as a cultural organization working to partner with a school, and/or as an arts education advocate, how can you approach the Common Core standards?
As information swirls around this topic, I am reminded of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I begin by recommending the first rule of galaxy hitchhiking, or in this case, connecting to the Common Core: DON’T PANIC! Here are the reasons why I believe panic is misguided:
1. The Common Core standards, while they expressly contain literacy references across the curriculum, do not replace content standards in other subject areas. Teaching the arts still means teaching to arts standards. Arts standards are set by your state—visit the State Arts Education Policy Database to find your state’s standards.
a. You can also remain up to date on the revision of the National Arts Education Standards—the basis for most state standards—at the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards wiki.
2. The Common Core ELA/Literacy standards are ripe with places of deep connection to the arts. These standards ask for very strong instructional shifts in the teaching of literacy. I encourage you to research these instructional shifts—my favorite way to dig into them is watching the NY State videos done by David Coleman, soon to be head of The College Board
3. Instructional shifts of interest (and relative ease?) to arts educators:
a. Focus on the text in order to answer questions raised in class. Reading and comprehending text is the end goal of these ELA standards. While theatre certainly includes text reading as part of its discipline, all arts areas include texts within the critique and evaluation parts of our disciplines.
b. IF you use a very broad definition of text to include any primary source material, then you can practice the tools of the ELA Common Core standards by closely “reading” or analyzing a painting, a dance, a musical performance. The work we do in the arts—to engage students in critically approaching artistic works—is an almost natural fit with the Common Core ELA standards.
c. Use your content vocabulary. The arts engage students in content and context-specific vocabulary in a wide variety of ways and every day. We are rich with our own terms, and we use them with our students. This reinforces development of rich, domain specific vocabulary for our students—part of the Common Core ELA standards.
d. Reinforce the development of academic vocabulary in our work with students. Academic vocabulary refers to words such as compare, contrast, synthesize, analyze—the words which we expect students to know but don’t often spend time defining for them. As arts educators, we have a wonderful opportunity to make these academic words come alive in our classrooms. By being purposeful in defining them and then using them in an artistic context, we will help students build their confidence and knowledge of these words—the gatekeepers to success in secondary and post-secondary education.
And I leave you with the second rule for hitchhiking around the galaxy, and/or thinking about the Common Core—and that’s: ALWAYS bring a towel. Why a towel? Because, as you work through your relationship as an arts educator with the Common Core standards, there will be moments when I suggest you throw a towel over the Common Core standards, and ignore them. Your work as an arts educator, as a teaching artist, as a cultural organization, is to teach the creative and artistic processes to your students. At times, that means you will not be engaging in Common Core work. And that’s OK.
Focus on your students’ artmaking, and incorporate appropriate connections to the Common Core when those connections make sense. Be purposeful in your use of vocabulary—whether artistic or academic; be mindful of deeply “reading” works of art; but continue to engage in the creation and performance/presentation of the arts—this is our purpose in the galaxy, isn’t it?