Reprioritizing Standards for Middle and High School Students
After a challenging year, focusing on social and emotional learning and vital standards may be the way forward.
We keep hearing about “the new normal.” But that term, to me, still longingly looks backward. I would argue that we need to rethink our word choice to embrace, more joyously, the abnormal. This will take front-loading because it will be a slow boil this summer to prepare teachers to launch the year, not with normal in mind, but with new.
The next school year will not be off and running the way normalcy allows. We’ve learned too much. Those first couple of weeks will be about building community in the school and building community in the district. Those first couple of weeks will be about ensuring that students know the social and emotional resources that have been developed during this time: how to find the wellness center, how to make an appointment with a counselor, and how to set up a peer-to-peer meeting. This is the time to begin learning the students’ strengths, their interests, and their Covid stories. It’s the time to administer a quick academic or skills-based assessment, not for a grade, but to learn about each student’s growth area and about the leaps they may have made during this time.
But it isn’t going to end after two weeks.
This touching base will be ongoing because grief and sadness come in waves. And many of us will be reentering life in August still grieving the loss of a school year.
New Pathways to Academic Achievement
Throughout the year, we’ll be meeting students where they are. Throughout the year, we will be building social and emotional learning into our lessons and units. There may be more assemblies to stimulate the school community in a deeper way, additional lunchtime activities, and increased trips to the counselors’ offices.
All of this takes time—necessary time—out of our school day. But research shows that comfort in the learning environment and comfort with the people in the school positively impacts academic achievement. It’s worth the investment. After all, we can’t deny that there is a trade-off, a worthy one, but one that takes intentional planning.
We talked about prioritizing standards during distance learning, but this is our new normal. The need to prioritize and cull our standards has not ended. We can no longer go page by page through the textbook or the pacing guides that were designed in 2019. We need to examine what standards and skills are most vital and trim without remorse. This may also take focusing on more student choice and more skills-based assignments. It may mean more cross-curricular opportunities with other teachers to teach more efficiently and share the burden.
As an educator who promotes project-based learning, I have always talked about the need to prioritize standards. After all, not every single standard is worth the invested time of a single lesson when one can integrate it more organically into a project. For instance, if students are solving the problem of local home insecurity by designing micro homes for their city’s homeless population (10th grade), those students will most likely be applying the distributive property organically and daily without a worksheet or full day’s review. If a student is writing a new law to lower the voting age (eighth grade), they will most likely learn how to use subheadings simply by reading models of laws to help prepare their own argument. No need to set aside a day to do so.
Educator and National Geographic Fellow and Explorer Jim Bentley asks, “What are the ‘billboard standards’ that students will pass en route to the more foundational, ‘destination’ standards?” The billboard standards can certainly be called out explicitly, but time doesn’t need to be set aside for that level of learning. Think about what are the standards you simply can learn along the journey.
Key Questions for Setting Priorities
When I think about prioritizing standards, I think about three tips I learned from PBLWorks. These can help you decide on a focus for a project, sure, but I think they can also help you prioritize your quarter or semester as well.
1. Is the standard a foundational one? Is it one from which others are built?
2. Does the standard require deep thinking? Or is it merely Google-able?
3. Is it a cross-cutting skill that needs to be taught in other subjects as well? Does it need to be reinforced in order to highlight transference between subject areas?
I once learned a little trick from brilliant curriculum designer and coach Alicia Peletz to determine importance: “Close your eyes. Picture the next two months. Only the next two months. Now think about what skill or content topic you most need students to know during this time. That first thought is most likely your first priority standard.”
Sit with a team, walk through the protocol, and see if you all open your eyes with a similar answer. Create your list of priorities together. Only then do you look at the list and see what was never mentioned. Only then do you reflect on the remaining standards left behind. Think critically and without remorse. What can you all walk away from knowing that a student won’t be damaged by not learning it at this time?
We know that our pacing guides and drive to get through the standards prior to Covid was a fast-moving train that never allowed for the depth of learning we wanted to convey. Think of this time as an evolution in education, a forced deepening of the material to help us do what the textbooks won’t. And then don’t look back. If we deepen the exposure to the foundational content, to the content that needs teachers to coach them through understanding, and to the cross-cutting skills, we can’t mourn the loss of the rest.
We say we are prioritizing the standards now, but really, by prioritizing the standards, we are prioritizing the students. All the rest may not have been that important in the first place.