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Common Coring the River

Common Coring the River

By Robi Alstrom


Between softball tournaments, changing jobs, and house shopping, little time remained for family vacation this past summer. We had planned to do a little camping, canoeing and climbing, but rather than spending our limited amount of time driving to Colorado or Missouri, we decided to stay in Kansas, canoe the Smoky Hill River, climb Coronado Heights, and camp by a pond. Unfortunately, due to recent flooding, we knew that logjams and snags would present obstacles, but we were determined to conquer the river.


Our goal was to canoe from the Old Mill to the Wells Fargo bridge, but we were prepared to go farther if we were making good time. Breta prefers kayaking to canoeing, and looking back, the lighter boat was the way to go as the banks were very muddy after nearly two weeks of rain. Sometimes Breta would lead and other times Tom and I would take the advance. Sometimes we would travel in the channel where the going is easier, and sometimes we would follow separate paths. For a while, the float was progressing smoothly.


Then we came upon the mother of all logjams and stopped to discuss our options. When our first strategy, attempting to go over the logjam, failed epically, we regrouped, literally explored our options, and decided to take Breta’s route: portaging up a rather steep, muddy bank, through a stubble field, back through the trees, down another muddy cliff and into the water--a trip we had to make twice since we had two boats. Since the entire process took about an hour, we were behind our anticipated schedule.


Fortunately, we were able to navigate the other two logjams without climbing any cliffs, but getting our canoe out of the river at the bridge presented its own challenges. This was another steep embankment of knee-deep mud. But in the end we conquered the river; actually, we Common Cored the river.


The same characteristics describe both our trip down the river and the Common Core classroom.


1.    Common Core classrooms are active.

When my family vacations, there’s no sitting by the pool and relaxing. It’s a power vacation. In the same way, Common Core classrooms are full of activity. Students build, create, engage in discussions, and get their hands dirty. Common Core classrooms are full of movement and conversations.


2.    Common Core classrooms embrace rigor.

We knew the river would be challenging, but that’s part of what made the trip worthwhile. In the same way, Common Core demands high expectations and bumps up the level of rigor, demanding a little academic sweat from students.


3.    Common Core classrooms encourage student initiative.

Breta developed the vacation agenda and led the way down the river in the same way that students should play a role in designing their own learning. Sometimes, teachers need to step back and let students take the lead and determine the direction of study.


4.    Common Core classrooms are collaborative.

Without teamwork and relying on individual strengths, we would not have made it past the logjam and to our destination. While teachers want to avoid that much mud, collaboration allows students to use their strengths, develop interpersonal skills and consider multiple perspectives. Cooperation is a Common Core staple.


5.    Common Core classrooms solve relevant problems.

The minute we saw the logjam we knew we were facing a major problem: one we had to solve or . . . we would still be there now. Students use the same process of brainstorming, exploring various options, determining the best solution, and then testing their hypotheses for real-world problems.


6.    Common Core classrooms embrace failure.

Okay, I’m going to admit we didn’t exactly celebrate failure in our first attempt over the logjam. But nobody cussed, cried, blamed, or gave up. Teachers in Common Core classrooms view failure as a learning tool rather than a measure of student achievement. Accepting failure as a natural part of the learning process allows students to take responsible risks, evaluate outcomes and try again, thus promoting perseverance.


7.    Common Core classrooms dive deeply into content.

We were about as deep in the mud as we could get and still get out. In the same way, teachers provide students with opportunities to dig deeply into content and use higher order thinking skills.


8.    Common Core classrooms differentiate.

While our goal was to reach the bridge, we used different vehicles, different pacing and different paths to get there. Even though students may all have the same learning objective, allowing them different means of getting and demonstrating knowledge impacts achievement.


9.    Common Core classrooms are flexible.

On our canoe trip, we had a goal but were ready to extend it. When our schedule went awry early in the trip, we didn’t just stop when the time was up and move on to our next activity. Likewise, Common Core teachers put student engagement ahead of the schedule and are willing to make adjustments when learning takes a detour or the depth of study requires more time.


10.Common Core classrooms build relationships.

Family vacations are time spent investing in relationships. The same is true for Common Core classrooms.


When I think of our trip down the river, I think Rigor, Relevance and Relationships. I think Common Core.



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