Design Lessons for Students Not Standards

I teach Financial Literacy as a semester-long social studies course in a CPS high school. This quarter focuses on professional skills. This week my students – who recently completed their Future Career Mock Interview – must “find living arrangements” on a fixed salary, and present their decision to the class via brief PowerPoint.

Students determine their biweekly net pay and cost of living expenses (based on their grade last quarter, e.g. “A” earn $42,000), and search for a place to live by scouring the Internet and webservers like Craigslist. They quickly realize that students who did well last grading period have an easier time finding a desirable living arrangement, while those who didn’t need to find a classmate to be a roommate. Some might even have to live in their parents’ attic, and explain why in their presentation!

This is one of the most popular lessons I do each year. They consider it inherently valuable. Students will (hopefully) be moving out of their parents’ homes in a few years, and this lesson is usually their first opportunity to navigate their possibilities for living options. This assignment requires some adult support, but relies on students’ autonomy and ingenuity. They love comparing who got the “better deal” on the “coolest” apartment.

Students apply mathematical skill-sets of adding, subtracting, multiplying and proportioning for paychecks; techno-literacy, geo-spatial mapping, and economic decision-making to determine a place to live; and communication skills in both the PowerPoint presentation and negotiations of “what’s fair” between roommates. Some students argue that since their partners/roommates might be contributing unequal amounts money, then that person’s bedroom should be the size of a walk-in closet. We all get a good laugh and move on to Real World Budgeting.

Because I’m teaching an inherently valuable lesson – how to find a place to live when you are on your own – neither the Common Core nor the College Readiness Standards have any bearing on its value. The standards are inconsequential. The activities are not derived from nor determined by standards; the lesson comes from students’ needs to master content that is relevant and valuable to their lives.

Most of the lessons I design prioritize what is relevant to the content and valuable to students and our community. But this is changing in my classroom, as it is across the profession, with pressure either to align our current curricula to the standards, or to design different activities that justify the high-stakes standardized assessments. What happens to valuable lessons like the one I’ve described? They’re relegated to “extra credit” instead of everyday learning, and teachers have to tailor learning to assessments that teachers likely did not design.

This is not an appeal for help in learning how to better implement the standards. If I want support for applying the Common Core in my classroom, I can get it. I could ask my union or my principal; both would be responsive. I could attend any number of professional development sessions, or sign on for webinars in my pajamas any night of the week. Google turns up unlimited implementation ideas I could put in place immediately, and companies are forever advertising new “solutions” for CPS to purchase. Yes, the Common Core has designed an entire market of solutions for a problem that didn’t exist five years ago. Wouldn’t it be better if all that money went directly into classrooms?

I don’t want support for Common Core. I simply believe we must actively resist it, because it does not prioritize the needs of students and teachers. Instead educators need autonomy and support to design engaging lessons for and with students.

–Adam Heenan

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