Common Core State Standards in the Classroom
Ms. Melissa Taylor Bahrs
Ms. Melissa Taylor Bahrs teaches Advanced Placement (AP) English Language & Composition and International Baccalaureate (IB) English A1-Higher Level at Shore Regional High School in West Long Branch, NJ. She has previously taught and written the curriculum for many of the English language arts (ELA) courses at Shore Regional, including theatre arts. As faculty chair since 2010, Ms. Bahrs has worked closely with her colleagues and Bruce Preston, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Shore Regional School District in aligning the Shore Regional High School curriculum to the Common Core State Standards. She is a member of the New Jersey Teacher Advisory Panel and an active member in statewide committees discussing curriculum, professional development, and evaluation. Her committee involvement is an outgrowth of her professional development leadership at Shore Regional and her interest in using technology to support the Common Core State Standards and incorporating problem-solving and student inquiry into curriculum.
The Common Core State Standards ask teachers to include increased amounts of nonfiction in addition to literary works in the classroom. Ms. Bahrs has done this through asking students to research the culture and history associated with the literature her class is reading, which she believes makes the fiction more exciting. For example, after studying Native American legends, narratives and creation myths, students also read the explorer John Smith's writings on the Jamestown Colony and compared each to historians' accounts to discern how much of the narratives were real and what aspects were exaggerated. Similarly, when the students read The Crucible by Arthur Miller, Ms. Bahrs assigned supplemental research regarding the actual Salem witchcraft trials and the class discussed the distinction between the play and historical accounts.
Ms. Bahrs is particularly excited about the opportunities offered by the standards to incorporate technology, student collaboration, and cross-curricular work. Her AP English students recently created digital presentations that asked students to explore "Snow and Ice" through integration of poetry, music, mathematical concepts, and computer coding. The project required students to build skills related to many standards, demonstrating the rigorous level of inquiry and understanding that the Common Core State Standards require.
In her own words…
What excites you as an educator about the Common Core in your classroom?
I have always been excited about motivating students through open-ended discussion that encourages students to explore social questions and want to learn more about the themes discussed in class. The Common Core State Standards cultivate students' ability to engage in multi-layered thinking and responses, which I've always believed provides students the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for college work.
What is the biggest change you have made in your teaching style?
I have included additional in-class inquiry segments for all of the classes I teach, based on some of the speaking and listening components of the Common Core, as well as computer-based skills. Our school instituted a 1:1 Initiative this year, with each student and each teacher receiving a Chromebook. I might, for example, ask juniors in my International Baccalaureate class to do a partnered 10 minute on-line search regarding the serfs in Russia, prior to their reading Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons. Pairings might then join forces with another pair of students to further collaborate and share ideas. Similarly, in AP English Language, students may complete mini-research regarding the Vietnam War and its impact upon a generation of 18-22-year-olds in the 1960s – all from utilizing Chromebooks to quickly research for purposes of discussion and prior knowledge -- as we begin Tim O'Brien's Things Fall Apart.
What has been the impact of the Common Core on your students' learning?
As an educator works with the Common Core Standards when lesson planning, she/he finds ample opportunities for student growth and achievement in multiple ways addressing today's career, workplace, and community realities. With the new standards, math and science teachers also incorporate critical reading, writing and presentation skills into their classes, using informational texts such as academic science journals. The Common Core thus offers a well-rounded approach to all that a student may require to deepen problem-solving, develop close, analytical reading and thinking, and expand exposure to any field or profession that may be on that student's path.
How would you explain the importance of the Common Core to one of your students' parents?
Instruction based on the Common Core State Standards opens many paths and opportunities for your child. Your child will wish to work productively at meaningful work, and to be a part of a community and a society that is creative, energized, and exciting --- and reflective and productive. The Common Core supports your son or daughter in thinking, in creating, in solving problems, in individual work and in project work with others --- to offer true 21st Century thinking patterns and confidence.