Unwrapping the Common Core Learning Standards: Why, When, and How

CommonCore
In order to mine a standard’s true meaning, you typically have to unwrap it a bit. The purpose of this work is to distinguish the standard’s explicit and implicit meaning.

Implicit meaning?

Aren’t standards supposed to be articulated with precision?

Well, that’s the hope, but even the best standards require skillful interpretation. This is informed by the professional conversations that we have with others and the expertise we are all willing to share.

For instance, consider the explicit expectations of this standard:

RL.4.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, in the grades 4–5 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.

Now, think about the implicit expectations. What isn’t clearly defined? Comprehension is a pretty loaded concept, and often, questions arise relevant to what a “text complexity band” is. Also: what does it mean to read and comprehend proficiently?

Answers to questions like these need to be clearly defined and articulated. Often, this requires deeper investigations into meaning and the location of other resources and people who can guide us.

When we unwrap standards, we also distinguish content and concepts (typically articulated as nouns within the standard) from skills (which are typically articulated as verbs).

This enables us to design and align curricula with greater precision. Considering adjectives and adverbs can help us think critically about levels of rigor as well. Some teachers begin to design essential questions and big ideas during this phase of the process as well. The video below can walk you and others through the unwrapping process fairly simply if you don’t have someone facilitating it for you. Thanks to Shelly Wilcoxen from David Douglas School District for sharing her process here:

Often, we conclude this phase of our work together by asking ourselves four critical questions:

  • What do we still need to learn about these standards?
  • How and when will this learning happen?
  • Are there other standards that need to be brought to the table?
  • Whose voices and perspectives might be missing here?

Here’s an important discovery I’ve made about timing over the years:

The first time I worked with teachers to unwrap the standards, we jigsawed the document and unwrapped all of the standards at each grade level in teams. Our findings were housed online, where others could access and amend them as we learned more.

Since then, I’ve timed the unwrapping phase of the design process a bit differently. Now, I often begin by helping teachers design high quality units first. Then, we align the units back to the standards. It’s at this point in the process that we unwrapped the standards, and in doing so, units are revised along the way.

I’m finding this approach far more effective. When teachers unwrap as they design units, they consider what they are learning about a standard and immediately revise their thinking and work within the unit to reflect these deeper understandings. It seems to narrow the distance between standards and curricula and allows alignment to happen more efficiently and effectively. When we allow our passion and our interests to fuel the first phase of design, we’re typically far more satisfied with outcome too. Often, designing great learning experiences with the Common Core means designing without the Core at first.

 

Photo credit: Angela Stockman, August 2011

5 Comments

  1. Amie says:

    We did unwrapping of standards in a manner similar to the video presented here. It is fairly tedious and teachers have a hard time feeling like they are “getting something done”. I like the idea of unwrapping when looking at a unit of study, so would love to hear more about how you accomplished that.
    My math CCSS group did the unpacking as suggested in the video and are now looking at course content and sequencing. This worked well for this group. However, the ones who have struggled with the process is the E/LA people.
    Would you be willing to talk about your process with me?

    • Angela says:

      It IS fairly tedious, and I faced similar challenges in my own work with ELA folks. I find that unwrapping before unit design makes it challenging for teachers to understand the purpose or use their work in a meaningful way. I know that some people unwrap and build units inspired by the unwrapped standards. In my experience, this disconnected teachers from their original vision and the excitement they had for the sorts of units they wanted to teach (and I find this really matters)! Earlier this year, a friend and colleague of mine named Theresa Gray was sharing her perspective on unwrapping and I noticed she moved teachers through the process AFTER unit design. This seemed like an approach that would address the issues I was having, so I tried it. I am finding that this enables groups to use the standards to enrich the work that they are very invested in an passionate about. It’s aligning all of our purposes….not just attending to standards. This has worked well. I’d love to talk more… I’m angela.stockman on Skype. You can email me at stockmanangela@gmail.com too. Thanks for reaching out–would love to learn more about how you are approaching this work…..

  2. Theresa G says:

    Hey! I was just linking to this blog post when I read the comments!
    In our region we are using a modified Understanding by Design (UbD) template to build units. Teachers already have a pretty good grasp of the CCLS and the Six Instructional Shifts before they begin unit design with us so we start by having teachers identify key standards that they will pair together for their unit. We use a card sort to do this (you can find our cards and other CCLS resourcs at e2ela.wikispaces.com). We then move to unwrapping those standards so that we can begin with a deep understanding of them to desgin the enduring understandings and essential questions for the unit.

    I agree this is an incredibly tedious process but when linking them with unit design – it seems to have a better purpose for teachers. It is difficult for ELA as it is really unwrapping a process but by pairing the reading/writing/language/listening-speaking standards – they begin to see how the standards are connected as well.

  3. Hi, I’m the reading coach at my school. I found this website and wanted to view the video on the process of unwrapping the common core standards, but since we are a government school, we are limited to video access on certain things. Is there a way I can view this on my own personal email address? Thanks.

    Marty

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