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Composing a new tune to the Common Core learning standards: An example for technical subjects

As part of the $700 million grant through the federal Race to the Top (RttT) initiative, New York State was required to develop and implement an evaluation and accountability system for measuring the level of teacher effectiveness in direct relation to student outcomes. An essential element of this system included the development of Student Learning Objectives (SLOs) for teachers where, “there is no State assessment that can be used for a State-provided growth or value-added measure” ( For many, these are teachers considered to be teachers of “technical subjects” who, as outlined by the New York State Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS), are obligated to incorporate the standards for literacy within their specific subject areas with the goal of having students engage regularly in complex reading and writing activities beyond their English language arts (ELA) classrooms, developing their informational/technical writing skills, using textual evidence to support critical analysis and evidence based claims, focusing on subject -specific vocabulary, etc. According to The Common Core State Standards Initiative organization, “technical subjects” are defined as courses “devoted to a practical study, such as engineering, technology, design, business, or other workforce-related subject; a technical aspect of a wider field of study, such as art or music."

The practice of integrating literacy across the content areas is one that is strongly supported in the literature. Despite the positive influences of this practice on student outcomes, however, teachers are often not taught how to effectively integrate literacy in their subject areas. With this in mind, how then can “technical subject” teachers effectively integrate literacy within their subject areas while addressing their own content, maintaining creativity, individuality, and student engagement during instruction? I believe the following example which can be completed over several days (Common Core module) can help to shed light on exactly how this can occur.

All educators may be well aware of the positive impact that music and the arts in general have on students’ academic performance. Using songs not only provides a vehicle for teaching poetry to students but also helps to get students’ creative juices flowing. The following example uses the song, “The Change” by Garth Brooks to integrate mathematics, science, history/social studies, media, critical thinking, and varied forms of writing to address the more complex and rigorous CCLS.

A teacher can begin by playing the song, “The Change” to students while they listen to it. The teacher can specify that students need to pay particular attention to the lyrics while jotting down notes. After the first playing, the teacher can provide students with the lyrics to the song and students can be instructed to annotate (i.e. highlight, underline, and make notes in the margins). Annotating text is a critical component of close reading and there are many ways of annotating text. As a result, teachers will need to ensure they are providing explicit teaching of these skills to student. It should not be assumed that students automatically know how to annotate text. In addition, annotations help to provide the teacher with “evidence” of student thinking.

The teacher can then pose the following questions to students and require them to provide written responses.

  1. What does the song, “The Change” mean to you?
  2. Which verse/lines (text-based support) in the song helped you its interpretation?
  3. How does this song related to your own life?

Although the CCLS is focused less on personal connections, I believe it is important for students to first learn how learning connects to their own lives before they can effectively connect ideas to each other or make connections across disciplines, topics, and to other texts.

The teacher can then ask students whether or not they know the history behind the song. More than likely students will not know the history of it, so the teacher can require students to research it. Research is a most critical component of the CCLS that cannot and should not be ignored. In fact, if we want students to be truly engaged in learning, we must provide them ample and varied opportunities to conduct research. When they conduct the research, students will learn that this song was written as a musical tribute to the firefighters, police officers, and other emergency responders who risked their own lives to help victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Subsequently, students can be asked to respond to the following:

  1. How does knowing the history of this song change its interpretation?
  2. What do you believe is the message in this song?
  3. What were the causes/influences that may have contributed to this tragic event?
  4. Based on what you have learned about these events, develop a central/controlling idea.

Application of “The Change”
Students can be assigned a research project of the Oklahoma City bombings. Since the CCLS require students not only to acquire knowledge but to also apply and demonstrate their knowledge, they can be required to include the following:

Determine the central ideas of a primary or secondary source; Provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions; Use several sources to build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of the central ideas; and Cite specific textual evidence when offering an oral or written interpretation of a piece of writing of their choice.

The second college/career readiness anchor standard within the Reading strand of the CCLS (R.CCR.2) for ELA reads as follows: Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas Students can explore central themes or ideas related to the message in the song. Possible central themes include: resilience; terrorism; costs of violence; importance of community, etc. Students can certainly be encouraged to come up with more possibilities and select one or more to address in their writing.

Application to “Technical” Subjects
Because the CCLS were written from a philosophical belief that effective instruction incorporate all disciplines to enable students to make connections more easily, students can be assigned the following task to be completed in groups:

  1. If we were to reconstruct the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, How would we go about doing it?
  2. How would we calculate dimensions? What information do we need to have to reconstruct it?
  3. Estimate the amount of supplies/materials necessary to reconstruct.
  4. What are the costs involved? How do you know?
  5. What steps would we need to take?
  6. Which step would not be a possible first step?

This type of task requires students to work collaboratively with one another. After all, the sixth college/career readiness anchor standard within the Writing strand of the CCLS (W.CCR.6) states that students will need to, “Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.” However, it is important to keep in mind that, “Simply putting kids around a table and telling them to work together does not teach them collaboration skills." He further asserts that assigning group work without prior instruction and thoughtful monitoring is lazy teaching. As a result, teachers need to ensure that student expectations for group work are clearly established and understood. Equally important, students must also fully understand the accountability measures the teacher will use to assess their level of participation and work completion. Expectations and choices can be offered by the teacher for group presentations, or the students can be given some independence and have each group make the decision concerning their preferred choice. Student groups may opt for varied formats for presenting their information. Some may opt to create a documentary, while others may create a webinar, podcast, or an oral report. When students conduct oral presentations of their research, they can be taught how to present findings, information, and supporting evidence so that the audience can follow their line of reasoning.

An added benefit of a task, such as the above, is the necessary collaboration between and among teachers from various disciplines/departments. The social studies teacher will need to work with the math teacher in making appropriate calculations for the reconstruction of the building. Additionally, the technology teacher becomes a wonderful resource to all the other teachers as the students may reconstruct the Federal Building in digital format or may opt to create a webinar, podcast, or other form of media communication.

Linking Literary & Informational
The shift in the CCLS of 50% literary and 50% information for elementary students requires that teachers are effective in connecting informational with literary text. Depending upon the grade level of the students, the following are three examples of texts that can be used with the theme(s) identified earlier that coincide with “The Change.”

  • The Little Chapel That Stood written by A. B. Curtiss
  • September 12th We Knew Everything Would Be All Right written and illustrated by first grade students of H. Byron Masterson Elementary School
  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

As previously stated in this article, using song is an engaging way of introducing/reinforcing the teaching poetry. Appendix B provides a poem titled, “Depth of Despair.” The poem includes figurative language (often very difficult for students) and, again, reinforces the central themes previously discussed. 

It is critically important that teacher understand that Close Reading of a poem is not simply a description of a poem from beginning to end but rather it is a view on a poem that sees it as a whole and has an opinion about it. Close Reading of poetry needs to be completed as poetry requires students’ understanding of the “formal” features (the “form” of a poem) which include the poem’s shape on the page, language used, rhythm, sound, tone, and/or voice. This type of activity should be thought of in terms of the analysis, synthesis, and interpretation of the poem’s formal features rather than a narrow interpretation of the poem. As such, readings will require “deep” dialogue in the classroom and in order for deep dialogue to take place effectively, teachers must build their own fluency and familiarity with a text before diving into it with students.

Writing & the CCLS
The CCLS demand that students engage in disciplinary specific writing tasks. This requires that students learn various skills in order to be successful in addressing each type of writing. For example, argumentative writing, a cornerstone of the CCLS requires students to use relevant textual evidence when supporting their own points (this is also recommended in speaking). At the same time, they need to make their reasoning clear to the reader (or listener) and then constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence. When teachers ask students to consider two or more viewpoints on a subject or matter, students must think critically and deeply, evaluate the legitimacy of their own thinking, and expect counterclaims in opposition to their own claims. This is an important skill for students to acquire as exploring opposing viewpoints (i.e. counter claims) is a strong thread throughout the CCLS and other academic standards. Students can use findings from their research of the events surrounding the Oklahoma City Bombings to compose arguments and counter-arguments. This can lead to two teams (or individuals) of students engaging in debates which can provide formal structures of argumentation. The two opposing individuals or teams can defend or confront a given proposal using evidence from their research.

Although students are expected to engage more in argumentative writing as they move through the grades, younger children will need to master the skills of narrative writing in order to compose persuasive writing and, ultimately, argumentative writing. The chart below provides an overview of the writing shifts (, as delineated by the CCLS.

Level Argument Explain/Inform Narrative

Elementary 30% 35% 35%

Middle School 35% 35% 30%

High School 40% 40% 20%


Wafa Deeb-Westervelt is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Port Washington Union Free School District