By Vicki Phillips
If you watch William Anderson teach, or listen to him talk, two things become readily clear: William sets high expectations for students and he connects with students through assignments that are relevant to them.
In his 7th year in education, William is a teacher and the Social Studies department chair at the Martin Luther King Early College High School in Denver, CO. He teaches two upper grade classes in ethnic studies and spends the rest of his time working with teachers, including observing, coaching and co-planning with them.
Denver was one of the first districts in Colorado to actively adopt the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). And, when asked about the CCSS, William doesn’t pull any punches: “We need to think about them in terms of curriculum, practice, units, and lessons. They get framed as accountability but they are really instructional tools. They are about instruction. We need to move the conversation from ‘here are the standards and here’s the evaluation’ to ‘let’s look at these standards and think about the lessons we are designing.’”
William continues, “In my classroom, I incorporate the Common Core into the curriculum and content I think is important. We do a lot of critical reading and critical writing. And it works. Any teacher can do it. The Common Core is really about pointing toward best practice.”
For example, William recently engaged students in reading Jeff Duncan-Andrade’s Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete published in the Harvard Educational Review. He asked students to apply and build upon Duncan-Andrade’s frame of hope through additional readings and their own experiences. The assignment culminated in students writing a 3-5 page paper.
“We spend a lot of time evaluating texts, thinking critically about what they are saying. We keep going back to a particular text, looking at it from different angles. We tear it a part until students have a concrete understanding of it,” explains William. “We then build the writing layer by layer. Students reference one text and then another text in their work. They move from identifying important information to comparing, synthesizing and making it their own. Once they have a great draft, they think they’re done. They’re mad when they find out they have to go back and do it all over again until it’s quality. My kids write a paper four times before they have a final draft.”
Students in William’s courses vary greatly in their abilities—from special needs to advanced to emerging. He uses various activities to develop students’ skills as they work on their reading and writing assignments, providing time and supports to students who need it. For higher-level students, William requires them to read additional texts and to work on making their writing more concise and polished. He also structures his classroom so that advanced students serve as group leaders, helping to facilitate student conversations that move the whole class toward deeply understanding the readings.
William emphasizes the importance of being responsive to students. “We need to understand our students and their reality and connect where kids are coming from—academically, ethnically, geographically, socio-economically. We need to self-reflect. When we teach, we need to understand our selves and what our biases are. We all have them. I need to recognize my understanding of who I am, as well as who my students are, so that I’m responsive to them.”
William describes the students’ final products on Note to Educators as “phenomenal.” “Students just owned it. They were even questioning and carrying the conversation into other classes they had,” says William.