Going for Depth, Not Breadth: Our Transition to the Common Core

Results form a poll of 114 seventh graders (September 2013)

Results form a poll of 114 seventh graders (September 2013)

My school (and school district) is in the midst of transitioning to the Common Core State Standards. One aspect that we are grabbing onto–with glee!–is the opportunity to go deep into themes and ideas, instead of madly trying to cover the endless terms and details required by our old standards.

For the past two years, we have taught some version of the ERWC (Expository Reading and Writing Coarse) module titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” If you’re unfamiliar with ERWC, it is curriculum designed in affiliation with the California Statue University system. Originally, the ERWC task force created a year-long curriculum for high school seniors with the goal of giving them the skills they would need to be successful in college. Now, the ERWC team has made units of study for all of the secondary grades, including several for seventh and eighth graders.

The ERWC module my seventh grade team teaches involves reading and summarizing Geoffrey Colvin’s article “What It Takes to Be Great,” originally published in Fortune Magazine. While Colvin’s article is interesting, the text itself is complex, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Students  not currently reading at grade level have a very tough time with it. In addition, Colvin gives a one-sided view of what it means to be “great” in this world. Not all of our students can or should be elite performers in athletics, music, or finance. We want them to think of being great as something that transcends fame or financial gain. For this reason, we’ve searched for literature that provides other viewpoints, giving alternatives like how to be an ethical person or how to have a strong, moral character.

Print Texts

  • “Are You a Loser?” by Scholastic Scope explains how most successful people–including Jeremy Lin, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and George Washington–experience failure and it is their resilience which helps them achieve.
  • “What It Takes to Be Great” by Geoffrey Colvin asserts that talent is irrelevant to success and that most elite performers need around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to be truly great.
  • In the autobiographical essay “Little Things Are Big” Jesus Colon, an African American and Puerto Rican, recounts a small incident from his life in which prejudice affects both him and the people around him. He makes the case for courtesy in all situations, even when you are unsure about how it will be received. For the nonprint version, see below.
  • In the short story “Amigo Brothers” by Piri Thomas, two Puerto Rican boys compete against each other in an amateur boxing competition. They find out that they value their friendship more than winning the bout.
  • When we read and watch “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” by Rod Serling, we study the character of Steve, observing how his “greatness” is his ability to stand up to the mob for what he he knows to be right.
  • The novel Hatchet by Gary Paulsen makes a case for the power of resilience and perseverance as the main character, Brian, has to survive in the wilderness with only a hatchet to help him.

Nonprint Texts

  • In the YouTube video “How Bad Do You Want It? (Success)” we see the training regime of football player Giovanni Ruffin. He demonstrates the concept of “deliberate practice” as described by Colvin’s article “What It Takes to Be Great.” The narration and music also help the students understand the idea of “Mindset.”

  • Rocky: We watch the training montage from the film Rocky to give students another example of deliberate practice and having the right mindset. It works well with the short story “Amigo Brothers” by Piri Thomas because they both are set in an urban area. Both characters are boxers and have a training regimen which involves running through the city in the early morning. This film clip gives students a nice visual.

  • “Little Things Are Big” Nonprint Version (spoken word and images)


If you want more results to our classroom pre-reading survey (questions by ERWC), visit my grade 7 blog: Ms. McMillan English 7 Greatness Survey

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