Making Education Meaningful for All: Meeting Common Core English Standards

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by Yekaterina McKenney

The arrival of the Common Core standards proposal is hardly news anymore. In one form or another, it has dominated the national headlines for years. While some individuals have applauded it and embraced its values, others have questioned its genesis and bemoaned its forced implementation. Whatever the initial reaction might have been, however, one thing remains undeniable: the Common Core standards are here to stay, at least for a few more years, and it is our task as public school teachers to make sure that all of our students can meet the standards’ rigorous expectations. The question is, how are we going to accomplish that successfully?

Although it is widely understood that “[t]he proposed Common Core Standards will require high-level cognitive demand, such as asking students to demonstrate deep conceptual understanding through the application of content knowledge and skills to new situations” (Hess, Carlock, Jones, & Walkup, 2009, p. 1), there have been few suggestions as to how we can help our students accomplish such demanding goals, especially in light of the most prominent obstacle in the way of the Common Core implementation, which is our students’ educational apathy. If one were to take a stroll through any public school, he/she would very likely witness the following scene: an enthusiastic teacher presenting original texts, concise organizers, mind-boggling visuals, clarifying charts, provocative films, and eye-catching PowerPoint presentations to a number of clearly bored students who, despite the teacher’s immense efforts, are merely getting through another meaningless day at school. Certainly, one would also see a great number of motivated students in our schools, students with brightly lit eyes and engaged faces, who take in everything they see, hear, and read. Yet, there is still that large group of students who don’t even try to pretend to be engaged, who text their friends, daydream, or sleep while their teachers are going apoplectic, hoping to get their attention. What can we do to overcome this tremendous obstacle and empower all students to achieve higher cognitive standards set forth by the Common Core if the aforementioned students simply do not buy into our goals?

At least part of the answer to this question is to allow our students to make their own choices and to set their own goals when it comes to their education. Due to the excessive standardization in curricula over the course of the past decades, public schools, while meaning well, have inadvertently robbed their students of freedom to choose what education they believe they need to get, thus effecting overwhelming apathy. It should become our primary task as teachers and as administrators to return meaningful educational choices to our students.

One might counter this statement by laying out the hundreds of “choices” our students have in schools nowadays, “choices we didn’t have when we went to school”—personalized and differentiated assignments tailored to the students’ individual learning styles and all seven or more types of intelligence, use of computer and video games, alternative tests, test retakes, no-credit programs, and so on and so forth. However, all these are merely “options” designed to help students achieve their eventual graduation. What they need instead is a larger goal determined by their own choices, a goal that would enable them to become invested in their own learning.

It should become our primary task as teachers and as administrators to return meaningful educational choices to our students.

Reading Choices

Penny Kittle’s Book Love (2012) is a great example of what high schools can do to offer students meaningful choices in the literary curriculum. In her book, Kittle argues that our traditional literary curriculum is stifled, providing students with limited amounts of material—five or six antiquated novels (a.k.a. “classics”) served per year, novels that our students cannot appreciate because the texts are too hard, too old, and too irrelevant to their personal lives. According to Kittle, this is the reason why most American students don’t read any of the assigned texts and therefore do not improve as readers. She suggests getting away from such regimented choices by giving students the freedom to decide what they want to read. Kittle writes, “I believe in the rigor of independent reading. I believe in the power of guiding student choice to increase engagement, skill, and joy … Rigorous independent reading will not only build background knowledge and vocabulary but also provide a fundamental necessity: regular practice” (p. xiv). Instead of forcing a few classics down her students’ throats and then testing everyone’s reading comprehension, Kittle allows her students to make their own decisions, set their own goals, and reflect upon their individual reading in journals and conferences with their teacher.

Exposing students to high-quality texts is still Kittle’s priority. She says, “Popular fiction can entertain, but it rarely leaves students stunned by insight or transfixed by the resiliency of humanity” (p. 19). However, she also believes that, eventually, all students will start to challenge themselves. She states, “I believe no one wants to live on candy all the time, even teenagers. I’ve seen a hunger develop in so many students who seemed content with popular romances when they entered my classroom. When they finally made the leap to choosing literature, they could feel the difference for themselves. They wanted more” (p. 24). According to her, “When students are surrounded by peers who are chasing challenges, it starts to infect them. Monique [one of her reluctant readers] picked up The Kite Runner because she noticed what other advanced kids were reading and partly because she was finally ready to challenge herself” (p. 128).

To further justify the aforementioned approach to teaching literature, Kittle asked a few college professors about what reading skills they thought were necessary for incoming freshmen. In response, “all [college professors] stressed volume. I got a wide range of answers, but 200–600 pages a week was common” (p. 20). In order to make sure that all her students can eventually meet the goal of reading 600 pages a week, Kittle encourages her students to set personal reading goals designed to increase the volume, the complexity, and the range of their reading.

It seems clear that Kittle’s reading program would benefit all students. It would increase students’ engagement with reading, immerse them in literature, and help them set goals, which is one of the “key learning skills for college and career readiness,” according to Conley (2012, p. 2). It is definitely a major step in the right direction. However, this approach alone will not be sufficient for our students to achieve the high standards set by the Common Core proposal.

One of the troubles with relying exclusively on the independent reading program in the classroom is that it minimizes students’ opportunities for class discussions, since everybody is reading a different book. The Common Core standards clearly state the expectation that students will “[i]nitiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners” (SL.9-10.1 and SL.11-12.1 from ). Kittle herself admits that “[d]iscussions that lead students to wrestle with meaning and think differently are powerful in the hands of a vibrant, thoughtful teacher and in the hands of students who have read and thought about their reading, grappling with meaning as a teacher stands aside to listen” (p. 24). Thus, to meet this particular Common Core expectation, all students must also participate in some sorts of shared reading experiences.

More importantly, however, the independent reading approach alone cannot guarantee that all students will “read and comprehend increasingly complex texts in order to reach the level of complexity required for success in college courses and the workplace” (Rothman, 2012, p. 2). Coleman, Pimentel, and Zimba (2012) insist that “[t]o become prepared for career and college, students must wrestle with a wide variety of high quality texts from across diverse genres, cultures, and eras … [S]tudents must be able to answer a range of questions using evidence and inferences drawn from the text itself” (p. 2). Although Kittle’s approach assumes that all students will progress from romances and Goosebumps thrillers to Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities, it seems fairly obvious that while some will evolve, others never will, potentially graduating without ever having experienced any complex reading.

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To compensate for the above oversights, Kittle and her supporters suggest supplementing the independent reading program with one or two common texts (texts that everyone will read as a whole class), as well as a variety of shorter model texts (brief exemplars of great fiction and nonfiction). Unfortunately, these suggestions seem to undermine Kittle’s earlier premise that most students will not read classics because they are too complex and too irrelevant to their lives. Since not all of the students will have the stamina to read these common texts, some of them will eventually revert precisely to what Kittle advocates against: they will turn to SparkNotes and miss their opportunity to examine great literature once again. According to the Common Core expectations, our students must be able to “[d]etermine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful” (RL.11-12.4). If our goal is to teach our students how to appreciate the beauty of the language and the writer’s craft, then merely being familiar with an abridged version of the story is definitely not good enough. Kittle insists that as well: “[Knowing] the gist is not going to lead students to deeper reading and empathy for people in our world or prepare them for independent reading in college or the workplace” (p. 4).

Exclusive use of model texts seems to present some difficulties as well. Although, in this case, we will succeed at integrating some of the beauty of the language and will be able to model how to analyze the author’s craft and how to look for textual evidence, Kittle admits that short passages will not help students build up their stamina for reading long complex texts. She says, “abbreviated bits of reading are not the real thing. Passages lack wholeness and feel like work without purpose. When we then give students books, thinking they can transfer their practice or that they’ll even want to, we’re surprised they don’t have the interest or the stamina for it” (pp. 17–18). She is absolutely correct; it is similar to showing a child how to play three arpeggios from Moonlight Sonata and expecting him to be able to play the whole piece after he graduates from high school. The Common Core standards also state that a student must be able to “[d]etermine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account” (RL.11-12.2), as well as “[a]nalyze how complex characters … develop over the course of a text” (RL.9-10.3). If a student has not read the whole text, how can she or he succeed in the above?

Finally, it seems idealistic to presume that merely reading 600 pages a week will build up our students’ stamina for college-level reading. Kittle quotes a college dean, who says, “The students who come to us are reading for the sake of reading, not using the venue of reading or the skill of literacy to learn how to learn” (p. 98). This is why in Book Love, Kittle offers a number of effective techniques by which a teacher can encourage a student to practice “reading to learn.” However, Kittle also mentions Kristen, one of her former students, who has transformed from a reluctant reader into an avid reader, thanks to Kittle’s program, and who has enrolled in college but who, despite such a transformation, “has struggled with college … writing all those papers she finds useless and frustrating. She has no trouble keeping reading in that mix. The only hurdle is finding the right books” (p. 135). It seems that merely being a voluminous reader is not sufficient for success in college after all. Although Kristen loves to read and reads a lot, she is willing to read only the books of her choice, not having developed the stamina for college-level reading.

Thus, although Penny Kittle’s program definitely empowers students and promotes their independent learning, we need to provide all of our students with additional choices that enable them to experience great literature at their own pace and at their own level and that will prepare them for college by allowing them to develop stamina and higher-level reading skills.

Leveled Classes

To be able to do so effectively, first of all we need to abandon the idea of leveled classrooms always being a detriment. Global Best Practices: An Internationally Benchmarked Self-Assessment Tool for Secondary Learning (New England Secondary School Consortium, 2014a) explicitly states that a school with a “complex hierarchy of tiered tracks” is performing poorly in terms of its pursuit of equity, recommending that such schools should try to “[e]nroll all students in untracked, heterogeneously grouped classes, and train all teachers in differentiated instruction and the use of formative assessment to identify and meet individual learning needs” p. 7). According to the Global Best Practices: Research Summary (New England Secondary School Consortium, 2014b), however, “[t]o date, the research has not arrived at a definite conclusion on the practice [of ability grouping], most likely due to the fact that ‘tracking’ is not only defined and implemented differently from school to school, but it intersects with such complicating factors as instructional quality, student choice, socioeconomic status, and race” (p. 25). It seems, then, that saying all heterogeneous grouping is beneficial to all students is just as erroneous as saying all ability grouping is bad.

To begin with, suggesting that all leveled classes are homogeneous is a fallacy; no two children are the same in terms of their opinions, experiences, and interests. In fact, “because students have different types of intelligence, learning styles, paces, and starting points, all students have special learning needs,” write Christensen, Horn, and Johnson (2011, p. 34). Thus, all students will always exhibit different sets of skills within each class; what is important, however, is that the range of their differences will be more manageable if they were in “leveled” classes.

Leveling classes enables the teacher to select common texts that are most appropriate for each group, texts that would challenge students without creating frustration. “Many students who hate reading have given up believing they can improve, partly because they are always in competition with stronger readers in the room, all using the same text, and partly because there is little teaching of reading strategies in high school,” writes Kittle (p. 125). It is only within leveled classes that we can provide some of our students with the necessary instruction in reading strategies and a slower reading pace without discouraging them, while providing other, more competent readers with an environment where they can practice more advanced reading skills and progress at a faster pace without being made to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. Christensen et al. (2011)remind us, “There is mounting evidence that students’ learning is maximized when content is delivered ‘just above’ their current capabilities—not too much of a stretch, and not too easy” (p. 175). The authors also quote Harvard professor Paul Peterson, who says, “Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham provides an explanation for the power of customized learning. Working on problems that are of the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant” (p. 181).

Enrolling in leveled English classes, then, will be beneficial to all students as well. The caveat would be to ensure that not a single student is stuck in any particular level for the whole high-school experience. No one must be “tracked.” All students must be able to choose their own levels of study and move from one level to another at their own discretion, not based upon their teachers’ and their parents’ preferences, although with due consideration of those. We must allow for flexibility, which should not be a problem if all English classes become skill oriented as opposed to content centered. We must allow students to determine for themselves at what pace to learn and how much support to receive in any given course. This choice is going to be much more meaningful to them than the available options as to whether they can use PowerPoint, Prezi, Animoto, or a blogging site to show off their current knowledge.

Having leveled classes should not mean that the instruction and the texts must get “watered down” as levels get lower, either. In fact, “watering down” typically tends to happen in a heterogeneous classroom as the teacher strives not to leave slower readers behind. To use levels effectively, in all levels of classes all students should be allowed free reading choices as well as shared experiences with a few complex texts. It is the number of those common complex texts and the reading pace that are going to make a difference. If we teach the same skills at different paces and take away the need to “cover” a certain amount of literature, no student would be left behind and all would be able to choose their own path based upon their needs and desires.

Effective, flexible leveling has been experimented with by a number of independent educational programs, such as Success for All, described in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (Christensen et al., 2011): “Success for All is an example of a ‘batch processing’ system that has tried to customize. It is a reading program that groups kids by ability. It has a tight feedback loop where it frequently assesses and regroups its students as it attempts to teach students at their level” (p. 42). It is precisely such customization that Christensen et al. believe will be the face of the future of the public education, and we should take heed.

A Variety of Course Offerings

Another detrimental effect of excessive standardization in public schools is the reduction of English course offerings, where a plethora of courses—such as Fiction of the Future, Literature of Adventure, Madness in Literature, Shakespeare, Poetry, Expository Writing, Creative Writing, and Journalism—has been whittled down to the four required grade-level courses—Freshman English, Sophomore English, Junior English, and Senior English—plus a few electives (e.g., Creative Writing, Journalism, and Public Speaking). Perhaps it is the neglect of the aforementioned courses tailored to the students’ interests that is another factor responsible for the growing apathy. We must give our students choices of what to study in order to give them a reason to care. “[A]s with most things that involve education, kids and teachers exceed our expectations when we let them loose to lead” (Kittle, 2012, p. 153). Allowing students to choose Fiction of the Future instead of Madness in Literature, Creative Writing instead of American Literature, and Poetry instead of World Literature will motivate them to come to the classroom prepared to learn. None of the Common Core skills will be overlooked if we make sure to practice those skills within each of the courses mentioned above. There is absolutely no reason why creative writing could not be integrated into a Fiction of the Future course along with some analytical writing, just as there is no reason why a Creative Writing class could not be analyzing complex fiction pieces and producing expository reports about famous writers and their craft. Adventure Literature can have persuasive and personal writing incorporated along with the expository. All classes could read both fiction and nonfiction, selected from the prominent American and World Literature cannons, both contemporary and old.

It is well known that even people with ADD/ADHD can focus well if they pursue their own interests:

 While you’re probably aware that people with ADD/ADHD have trouble focusing on tasks      that aren’t interesting to them, you may not know that there’s another side: a tendency to  become absorbed in tasks that are stimulating and rewarding. This paradoxical symptom    is called hyperfocus … It can be so strong that you become oblivious to everything going      on around you. For example, you may be so engrossed in a book, a TV show, or your              computer that you completely lose track of time and neglect the things you’re supposed     to be doing. Hyperfocus can be an asset when channeled into productive activities …

Smith & Segal, 2015, n.p.

Richard A. Friedman (2014), a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, recently published an article entitled “A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.,” in which he states that while there is a growing number of children diagnosed with ADHD (a 41 percent increase since 2003), the “prevalence of adult A.D.H.D. is only … a fraction of what it is in young people” (para. 21), which leads the author to speculate that such a decrease might be due to the fact that “adults have far more freedom to choose the environment in which they live and the kind of work they do so it better matches their cognitive style and reward preferences” (para. 22). It seems reasonable to presume, then, that if we can provide our students with choices for the kinds of courses they wish to take, they will also be able to hyperfocus, feel inclined to do the work, and improve as readers and writers, accepting the “ownership of their learning” (Conley, 2012, p. 2) and rising to the high demands of the Common Core standards.

We could give our students a reason to learn by making learning their choice and turning them from passive receptors of our decisions into active learners and goal setters.

Curriculum Materials

Finally, to provide meaningful choices to our students, we need to empower our teachers as well. A lot of public high schools tend to have set curricula for each offered course. In some, every freshman is expected to read The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Great Expectations; in others, all sophomores are required to peruse The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, etc. To customize our students’ education, we teachers also need to have the freedom to choose books we find appropriate for each individual group we deal with. Each teacher must be able to determine how many titles she or he finds appropriate to use in each course, selecting those texts from a preapproved list of complex literature instead of trying to “cover” all the books on that list. The teacher will make choices based upon the level and the readiness of each individual class. Yes, it might mean that not every freshman will read The Odyssey during freshman year, but everyone would read in depth at least one of the following complex texts: The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Great Expectations, etc. It is the quality of reading that should count—how deep the students can go—and not the quantity—how many books they pretend to read in a year. If you give students reading choices on top of the common texts, you will have both the quantity and the quality of reading taken care of.


Of course, it is necessary to add that to be able to accomplish all of the goals above, it is essential that all English classes should be longer than 45 minutes. Short classes cannot provide an adequate amount of time for all students to read independently, to examine common complex texts, to have meaningful discussions about them, and to practice writing. We simply must have more time.

Anticipated Outcomes

Our society offers high school students few reasons for external motivation; our colleges are too expensive (a factor that minimizes some of the students’ desire to do well in school and go on to college), our economy is lousy, our students’ future jobs are not guaranteed unless they have nepotistic connections, and our communities do not always see any practical value in their children’s education. We cannot change these factors, but instead of moping about the impossibility of the task, public schools could try to stimulate their students’ internal motivation. We could give our students a reason to learn by making learning their choice and turning them from passive receptors of our decisions into active learners and goal setters. It is our responsibility to provide all students with multiple opportunities to read complex texts, but we must be ready to allow them to do so according to their own preferences of books, levels, and courses (themes). We must be willing to deal with messy scheduling and flexible levels, however inconvenient that might be to us. We must allow our students to fail and support them as they are trying to adjust their goals and set new ones, instead of setting our own goals for them and pushing them through the system. Only then can we successfully integrate the Common Core standards into our English curriculum and motivate our students to actually care about those standards, allowing them to become lifelong learners.

Yekaterina McKenney is an English teacher in grades 9–12 at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, NH.


Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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Conley, D. T. (2012). A complete definition of college and career readiness. The Educational Policy Improvement Center. Retrieved from

Friedman, R. A. (2014, October 31). A natural fix for A.D.H.D. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hess, K. K., Carlock, D., Jones, B., & Walkup, J. R. (2009). What exactly do “fewer, clearer, and higher standards” really look like in the classroom? Using a cognitive matrix to analyze curriculum, plan lessons, and implement assessments. Retrieved from

Kittle, P. (2012). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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New England Secondary School Consortium. (2014b). Global best practices: Research summary. Retrieved from

Rothman, R. (2012). Nine ways the common core will change classroom practice. Harvard Education Letter, 28(4). Retrieved from

Smith, M., & Segal, R. (2015, February). Adult ADD/ADHD: Signs, symptoms, effects, and treatment. HelpGuide.Org. Retrieved from