Monday, July 30, 2012

Does Elmo know the Common Core?

Summertime.  The word evokes so many thoughts and feelings, especially for those employed or involved in the academic realm.  For most elementary schools it means summer break!  But the reality is many educators spend their summers decompressing from the completed school and gearing up for the next one by attending summer conferences, workshops and learning online.  There are many trending topics in education this summer and arguably none seem more eminent than the relatively new Common Core State Standards.  Are standards really new anymore?  Learning standards and objectives have been at the center of education for my entire life, and the life of many veteran and retired educators.  So why do they change?  Why do administrators, teachers, parents and other educational stakeholders spend countless hours developing one set of "common standards" for every American student to demonstrate or meet?  Haven't we learned by now that all children are different and individuals like to be treated accordingly?!  Okay, let me step down from my tiny soap box of rhetorical questioning and offer a crazy idea; one that also requires every child to do something but not for the sake of meeting a standard, rather for the purpose of developing common language through all American children and families.

I propose the new American educational learning standards begin with Sesame Street.  Yes, that's right.  Those lovable (in the case of Elmo and Big Bird) or despicable (Oh, Oscar) characters are timeless and offer an incredible spectacle of real life scenarios through interpersonal, or inter-stuffed animal, relationships that teach children meaningful lessons about language skills, emotions, relationships, and everyday life.  Cable television changed the concept of literacy in a way much the same as the Internet did.  Information is delivered to us in various forms of media and it is important that we teach our children accordingly.  If every American child were exposed to episodes of Sesame Street before their first day of kindergarten, could you imagine the kinds of connections and applications that could arise for any child, in any classroom around the country?  Teachers could build off of characteristics of characters and learn how to express themselves.  Let me offer an example...

Oscar the Grouch is a notoriously grouchy character that is consistently ornery about something, often times the elation and happiness of his neighbors on the street.  By using Oscar's character disposition as the centerpiece of a primary/early childhood classroom lesson, children can work together to develop strategies about how to deal with other children that become grouchy or annoyed by things happening around them.  This lesson is greatly enhanced if every child already knows who Oscar is and the kind of behavior he regularly displays.  It helps children learn how to handle individuals in their life that act like Oscar.  I bet you can think of an Oscar-like friend or foe in your life.  (Watch a subtitled clip in the classroom and you've embedded a couple different teaching options for pre-primary and emerging readers, too.)  Alright, I've covered a simple primary lesson, but what about the intermediate grades?  Certainly Sesame Street is far too elementary for third, fourth and fifth graders.  Let's dig a little deeper.

Sesame Street is a continuous unfolding of character developments, interactions and scenarios, many possessing the traits of good writing, detailed dialogue, and meaningful story lines.  For example, look at the relationships surrounding Snuffleupagus.  Before you can begin, you need to understand who "Snuffie" is and what character traits he possesses.  Once you have profiled him as a character, you can examine his pals and their interactions.  How is it that Snuffie can be such good friends with Big Bird, but also maintain a relationship with Oscar the Grouch?  What experiences does Snuffie have with his friends that fosters learning of relationship skills?  With a little help, students will be able to connect with the emotions and interactions of many characters from the gang.  I think you can see where I'm going with this.

Beyond the characters are the human beings that actually embody the puppets.  The likes of Kevin Clash, Frank Oz and other puppeteers behind the scenes offer an opportunity to explore a level of intelligence, creativity, commitment and camaraderie that is first class in all regards.  The production of Sesame Street has become a mainstay in American homes and is now permeating other parts of the world.  There are entire productions of the show that have been developed and aired in native languages in countries like France.  Think of the possibilities for developing characters, puppets, scenes, and entire productions in an elementary, middle or high school.

I will admit there is something that seems a little different about the Core Standards than state standards launched from No Child Left Behind, however the common language that is created from standardizing learning experiences for educators in CCSS doesn't necessarily develop common language for the students we work with during the school year.  When one child changes schools over the summer, or in the middle of the year, there isn't a common experience report card that gets transferred with them notifying their new teacher of their previous classroom experiences and common school language.  But wouldn't it be interesting if there was?  (Edmodo is the only platform I've discovered that would allow anything remotely close to this kind of transition assistance.)

Common language is what connects us as educators and humans.  Different names for the same thing happen because our language and experiences are different.  Research has shown the impact of developing and focusing on common language and goals.  Take as an example the 7 Habits of Happy Kids , spawned from the 7 Habits of Healthy People by the late Stephen Covey, that have been integrated in schools across the United States.  By using common language, groups of people can more easily focus on working together and eliminate excess dialogue when developing common understandings.

Elmo knows Sesame Street.  He knows his neighborhood and has learned how to handle neighbors like Oscar.  What if Elmo moved?  Well if he moved to Rue Sesame in France he might only have to deal with the language barrier and not the behavior of his new neighbors.  But if he moves to a place where the language, people and culture are dis aggregated and don't share common language, it might be a greater challenge to fit in to his new community.  What kind of school building, district and community are you a part of?  Is there common language, experiences and expectations for students, families and educators or do you spend time discovering different names for the same things?