More Than One Way To Skin a Cat

shutterstock_240744010My mom always used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

I’d never really thought about that disgusting idiom until I used it in class one day and the kids were rightly horrified. It’s awful, but it addresses a core principle of good teaching and learning: there is more than one way to do something well.

For the past seven years or so, our English department at Novi High School has been on a journey through that principle. As we have attempted to align to the Common Core State Standards, we have moved toward an aligned curriculum with shared texts and common assessments.

This has prompted a debate about the difference between common experiences and common assignments. Must we be lock step, or can we skin cats however we choose? Okay, that’s gross. I’ll stop.

This year, my professional learning community has finally hit its stride and figured out how to preserve teacher autonomy while still providing a CCSS-aligned curriculum for all 500+ tenth graders at Novi High School. How’d we do it? Skills based, aligned common assessments.  

As we head into summer and start thinking about changes for next year, perhaps our model can give you some ideas for how you can better align with your colleagues but still maintain your autonomy.

Before A Unit Begins

This is a key to success. Prior to starting the unit, everyone needs to know where you’re going so you can get there however you’d like. We look at our district curriculum in Atlasand we revisit the five to six very specific learning goals for the unit. Then we make sure our assessments are measuring the students’ abilities with those skills.

For example, in the third unit for the year, we worked on five learning goals:

  1. reading info texts critically
  2. analyzing dramatic structure
  3. maintaining argumentative claims
  4. presenting effectively
  5. using varied syntax

Our PLC talked about what proficiency in each of those standards looks like, and started imagining how students could show us that proficiency. For each standard, we decided on one common skill-based assessment that we’d give to our students. We made samples of what the proficient work would look like, and agreed to use formative assessments with each standard to help students monitor their learning. That’s it. We all agreed on the end point and then went our separate ways.

During the Unit

This is where the freedom came in.

Some of us started with informational reading, while others jumped right into the unit’s anchor text (a play). We shared things informally as we moved through the unit, but the pressure to do the same things and move in lock step was off completely. At our PLC meetings, we shared what was going well, where we were struggling, and worked together to come up with solutions.

After the Unit

shutterstock_410136730This was the most important part, I think. After the unit, we shared our different approaches and what had gone well.

The language standard, for example, was a bit of a mess. Some of us had tried to give students formative assessments in a writers’ workshop with writers’ notebook checks, and quickly found ourselves overwhelmed. Other people had done one-on-one conferences and liked them, but struggled to squeeze all the kids in.

One teacher, on the other hand, had developed a short-answer written formative assessment that had worked well for her and seemed very manageable. For the next unit, we all decided to use her method.

Wait, you’re thinking. I thought this post was about more than one way to do something well!

It is! I promise. Good teaching is about experimenting and testing and figuring things out. That’s what this new structure has allowed us to do. We all tried different ways to teach the language standard and, after that experimentation, we found a way that works best. Had we not had that freedom to experiment, though, we might have never landed on the best way at all.

With some of the other standards, we found that we all did things very differently, we were all happy with with what we’d done, and our kids performed the same on the common assessment. The key is that this structure has given us a way to stay aligned to what’s important–clearly defined standards and assessments–without shackling us to agreed upon daily lessons.

As you go into the summer and think about everything you’d like to change next year, I’d encourage you to consider where you and your colleagues can make agreements about being the same, and where can you leave yourself a little room for creativity. I think you will find that agreeing to give each other a little space to experiment will ultimately help you see that there are many ways to…um..do things well.

Hattie profileHattie Maguire is an English teacher and Content Area Leader at Novi High School. She is spending her fifteenth year in the classroom teaching AP English Language and Composition and English 10. She is a National Board Certified Teacher who earned her BS in English and MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Michigan State University.

Notes from the Classroom

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