Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Productive Struggle in My Classroom

By Jodi Alligood, American Federation of Teachers member and middle school science teacher and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) coordinator at New Smyrna Beach Middle School in Volusia County, FL

Productive struggle. These are the two words that come to mind when thinking of my experiences with the Common Core in my classroom. And I am not just thinking of the students. If you are anything like me, your desks are straightened between periods, your stapler and tape dispenser have a home (and they are lined -up) and your students know that you don’t “do chaos.”  So, for me learning to let go of the reins and embrace the organized chaos that accompanies inquiry-based and problem-solving type learning was a struggle. Seeing what happened when I let the students inquire, speak to each other and bounce ideas around, and “steal” from other groups, I realized that my productive struggle had been worth it.

As far as the students go, their version of productive struggle was much different than mine. After all, if being social and chaotic was the goal for middle schoolers, my job would be much easier.  The students’ struggle came from the assignment of rigorous tasks and complex readings; and in understanding how to transfer what they learned in a given lesson to other tasks and even assessments. I can remember spending almost a full period on one short paragraph while reading about endothermic and exothermic reactions in science class. We spent time highlighting, underlining, making connections to things we already knew, asking questions in the margins, defining words and more. The room might as well have smelled of smoke— these kids were thinking, brains-on-fire style! They were struggling…PRODUCTIVELY! I was hooked, and unbelievably, so were they. I heard several kids exclaim, “Ohhhhhhh, I get it.”

Another science lesson that stands out was when I was teaching about tides and how they are a result of the pull of gravity by the sun and the moon. I first gave my students an informational passage and asked them to make connections to prior knowledge, define terms, ask questions, highlight key ideas and basically dig beyond the surface of the text. Next, I asked the students to get in small groups and share what they had done, building on each other’s insights and connections.  We had a short class discussion giving the students one more opportunity to share their take-aways, connections and questions about the piece. It also gave me the chance to ask them about connections they hadn’t raised.

Finally, I gave my students data representing the average high and low tides for a coastal city in the United States. The students had to graph the real-life data then use the information from the text to interpret the graph. Answering questions like: “On what range of days were there neap tides in this month?” students used conceptual vocabulary defined in the text and cited evidence from the text and the graph to demonstrate how they knew they were correct. This whole lesson made my students struggle, but they ultimately felt really excited when they were able to graph real-life data and figure out which type of tides happened at a certain time of the month. I made sure to read a few responses out loud to the class and give major accolades, saying things like, “Now this is how you write like a scientist!” They feel so accomplished and rightfully proud when they can see that the work they produced sounds and looks academically amazing.

The struggle doesn’t end with a successful lesson though. Later, when giving the Open Boat Mini-Assessment I realized that there was a real disconnect between what I was teaching them and how they were using the skills on their own. When taking the assessment the students were marking the text, but their answers showed they still didn’t comprehend what they were reading at a deeper level. After giving the assessment to the students individually, we went back over it as a class. I showed them that summarizing in the margins is great, but that they needed to take it a step further and use their notes to their advantage when answering questions. I demonstrated how helpful it can be to write questions about what you are reading. Working together, we walked though how to make connections between concepts in the passage, as well as to personal experiences, and how to comment on a character’s attitude or demeanor.

When asked to compare this assessment to previous assessments, my students pointed out that with past assessments they usually could read a text and answer the questions without referring back to the text; however, with this type of assessment, they had to work, flipping back-and-forth searching for evidence and justification for their answers. They realized why I’d been asking them to write notes in the margins all that time!

Before trying this style of teaching, had someone told me, ‘you have to spend a whole period on one paragraph,’ I would have laughed or consulted a fellow teacher to confirm how ridiculous that strategy sounded. Now, my colleagues and I have conversations that sound more like competitions as to who made their students productively struggle the most! Watching our students dig deeper, sweat a little, and then sigh that breath of relief at the end is so rewarding.

As a teacher, there is nothing more frustrating and, dare I say, defeating than reading about or watching lessons that seem to be perfect but somehow out of reach for your class. I have heard it and even thought it many times, “This person doesn’t have the type of kids I have,” or “My students would go crazy if I let them work in groups.” Ground work has to be laid, expectations set and most importantly, I have to be a present facilitator to the lesson. If you tell your students the directions, pass out the paper and hunker down behind your computer, then yes, it will be crazy and unproductive. If you struggle alongside them, your students will see that they will get better at the work and that their successes will be all the more sweet for being hard-won. Please notice the phrase “get better.” Trust me there are still times when I have to intervene to say, “Really, please explain how Johnny text messaging Susan is related to chemical reactions?” It is not perfect and I don’t know that it will be, but it can definitely be a productive and even addicting style of teaching and learning.

This post originally appeared on the AFT's Voices from the Classroom blog.

Public domain image by Sarah Klockarsclauser, via publicdomainpictures.net

Based on this quote from the

Based on this quote from the post: "So, for me learning to let go of the reins and embrace the organized chaos that accompanies inquiry-based and problem-solving type learning was a struggle. Seeing what happened when I let the students inquire, speak to each other and bounce ideas around, and “steal” from other groups, I realized that my productive struggle had been worth it."

Common Core has NOTHING to do with chaos or 'inquiry based' anything. It is a 'common curriculum' designed to align with specific textbooks and specific learning goals (that often ignore the specific issues involved with the 'age' groups being taught).

My guess is that you are either unaware of what Common Core is OR you are lying to us or yourself.

Your post was an advertisement not informative.

I noticed this, after reading

I noticed this, after reading the document: Creating Questions for Close Analytic Reading Exemplars: A Brief Guide

1. Think about what you think is the most important learning to be drawn from the text. Note this as raw material for the culminating assignment and the focus point for other activities to build toward.

One of the problems with Common Core is the presumption that the teacher 'knows' the important learning and that there is NO other learning to be had.

One of the joys of teaching occurred when my students found information or learning in a text that I did not notice and did so by using the techniques I taught them not a list I forced them to memorize.

Young students need concrete learning while older students need to begin finding reasons for learning.

Common Core suggests that learning is nothing more complicated than making ice cream and that imagination is nothing more than finding new and interesting things to add to the basic ice cream mixture and that chocolate cake is blasphemy since it is NOT ice cream.

Timothy, Thank you for your

Thank you for your recent comments on our site. You clearly have very strong views on the Common Core State Standards (as evident here), as well as other educational issues (as evident in comments that you have made on other posts).
As regards the Common Core, there are issues with the standards, their implementation and their assessment that reasonable people can disagree on, and there are certainly concerns with them that deserve further discussion. I will point out that (as I am sure you know) standards are not the same as curriculum – and under the Common Core districts retain the responsibility of developing (or selecting) curriculum for their students that meets the needs of their community as well as prepares students to succeed in the future.
Two things concern me about this particular comment. One is that, rather than open the door to additional dialogue about the issue, it is seems more of a rant against the Common Core. Two, and more seriously, it is disrespectful to the author of the post.
Again, there are issues and concerns about the standards that deserve discussion, and you may not have found the information in the piece useful (though we did, or we would not have posted it), but we at the Learning First Alliance want to create a respectful space in which dialogue can occur. So while we encourage those with differing views to share them in the comments section, we also ask that they operate under the assumption that, regardless of personal views on an issue, the others participating in the dialogue have good intentions – and that we all want is best for children.

Greetings: My comment is

My comment is based on this (by Cheryl Williams ) :

"Two things concern me about this particular comment. One is that, rather than open the door to additional dialogue about the issue, it is seems more of a rant against the Common Core. Two, and more seriously, it is disrespectful to the author of the post."

I re-read my posts looking for signs of 'disrespect'. I might have been ranting (usually when someone disagrees it is called a 'rant', when someone agrees it's called 'preaching') but I had no intent at being disrespectful.

Jodi Alligood makes an odd series of comments that, based upon my knowledge od Common Core, based on both original sources as well as second hand ones, do not match the topic of her post. Assuming Ms. Alligood is accurate in how she describes her teaching style (I have worked with teachers like her - usually that sort of 'attention' to detail is found in your determined Special Ed Teacher where if you can't control the students you CAN control their environment) then she has an incorrect view of Common Core.

I, on the other hand, educate in conditions that have, quite literally, caused Assistant Principals to immediately turn around and leave my classroom. If you ever found my tape dispensers lined up call 9-1-1.

As to Common Core (which I both abhor, distrust and, like an alcoholic who knows the evil of alcohol, completely understand. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking at there exists such a thing as a sixth grader and that it is distinctly different than a fourth grader in the amount of information pouring into heads. Children are not students and not all students are the same or 'Common'. How Common Core would grade Ms. Alligood's aligned tape dispensors and my stryofoam trays of rotting meat is beyond both me and anything like Common Core.

There is nothing, for instance, in this video (BUILDING THE MACHINE - The Common Core Documentary http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjxBClx01jc) that suggests that Common Core is opened ended or 'chaotic'; that it would even recognize a tape dispenser, aligned or not.

Either she is mistaken in her interpretation, application, information concerning Common Core OR she is willfully misrepresenting the facts OR is being defiantly hopeful (another common failing of even good teachers).

It would appear that Ms. Alligood is trying to put a shine on the Apple of Common Core. My guess is, assuming she is not willfully misrepresenting the case, she is trying to MAKE Common Core match the new 'guidelines'.

She is trying to make the new tape dispenser fit beside the older ones.

I, as most veteran teachers, are veterans of 'new standards', often plopped down like heavy bags of garbage during pupil free days or, in one memorable case, shown to new teachers who were then threatened with being fired if they used it.

We are often forced to make do with what we have, pretend we are doing what we most certainly are not and can not, nod our heads enthusiastically in support of disasters that are NOT of our making and secretly teach students despite the often misquided, politically motivated, grossly underfunded, educationally inappropriate guidelines set down by higher ups who haven't been in anything like a classroom in decades.

I am not sure where Ms. Alligood fits on this scale. I hope my comments might smoke her out into the open or at least make it clear that not everyone is faking sincerity. Being unable to fake sincerity is ONE of the reasons I am no longer a public school teacher.

So, I am being disrespectful ONLY if Ms. Alligood is willfully misrepresenting Common Core for political purposes. If she is then you are darn tooting I am being grossly disrespectful. I have heard too much insincere aggrandizement of a system of curriculum which, like so many 'new maths' and 'whole language approaches' is a failure before the ink is dry on the thesis statement.

If it is any consolation; I am no longer a public school teacher PRECISELY because I could not and, in fact, refused to intellectually molest my students to make superintendents and principals look good.

It looks like Ms. Alligood is trying her best in a bad situation and the sorts of 'curricula' she mentions are exactly the sort I would use if I were trying to pretend I was following Common Core.

Of course, I would never get away with pretending to support Common Core while I taught my students despite it. Nothing has ended my educational career at a school faster than students and parents marching into the principal's office, without my knowledge, and demanding to know why certain other teachers are not as good as Mr. Roesch.
I am hoping Ms. Alligood is NOT one of those 'other' teachers and is, in fact, as her post describes her.

As much as it is always

As much as it is always thrilling for me to read about classrooms where kids are thinking, inquiring, and analyzing, I would hesitate to give Common Core credit for this (I have seen it discussed as I scrolled to bottom to comment, but I have not read any other comments about Common Core and or this article. This is purely my opinion based on the article alone.) Inquiry based learning is not something created by Common Core. It may have taken switching to CC for this teacher to try it, but it isn't new. The science field has been using it for years. The same is true for reading. Asking students to annotate, question, and go back to the text for evidence is not a new concept. English teachers have been doing it for decades.

What has happened since the beginning of the reform movement ("A Nation at Risk", NCLB, RttT, etc.) is that we have spent years and years throwing standardized test after standardized test at students trying, in vain, to make them "proficient." Sadly, we now have a generation of kids who are not adept at the deeper thinking that is needed for thorough analysis of texts and serious inquiry into scientific concepts. They are adept at choosing A,B,C, or D.

The teacher in the article does not state how long she's been teaching, but my guess would be a decade or less. Why? because one who has taught for 20+ years knows the days before standardized testing ran amok and remembers when students were capable of doing these "new" things.

My final thought concerns this statement from the article: "Before trying this style of teaching, had someone told me, ‘you have to spend a whole period on one paragraph,’ I would have laughed or consulted a fellow teacher to confirm how ridiculous that strategy sounded." I have serious issues with this idea which does seem to be related to CC. Unless someone has stepped into my room and taken the time to get to know my students, he or she isn't qualified to tell me how much time I need to spend on any given text or topic. Kids do not fit into convenient molds. What my first block gets in 45 minutes might take my 4th block 90 minutes. The determination of how long one should spend on a topic should be made based on formal and informal assessment done by the teacher to determine who gets it and who does not. Adjustment happens from there.

I am a professional associate

I am a professional associate of the author, Mr. Roesch. I work at a different school; but have worked and spoken with Mrs. Alligood on many occasions. In spite of your fascinating ability to so boldly and ignorantly make claims on her character and professional integrity, Mrs. Alligood is actually a teacher that is not only fully dedicated to her craft and her students, but she, unlike you, is brave enough to stand, face, and honestly engage in the complex challenges that define our profession today. I find it interesting that you, Mr. Roesch, are able to so boldly and verbosely expose your admitted ignorance of whom the author is, as well as her intentions, while at the same time being so cavalier at wielding uninformed judgements.

It appears, sir, that you have an ax to grind with your own decision to run from the challenge that is being a public school teacher. Also, by the way you attempt to make yourself sound like a saint for quitting, I can deduce that your ax has nothing to do with the author or the content of the article. From my perspective, you saw the term "Common Core" in an article and decided that this was the right place to stand on your personal internet soapbox. Hint: If you feel so strongly about being "right" and that you should be heard, try political action and or discourse with actual decision makers, not classroom teachers that offer their experiences in an attempt to help other educators.

While I have probably already spent too much time confronting your lack of professional dialogue skills; I would like to quote from you and offer my feedback:

From your post above:

"I am not sure where Ms. Alligood fits on this scale."
- You should have stopped yourself at this point to realize that everything you "assumed" and typed after that would come from a place of ignorance and disregard for the actual truth about someone.

"I hope my comments might smoke her out into the open or at least make it clear that not everyone is faking sincerity."
-My questions: Who do you think you are? Why do you believe that you are speaking from a position of moral authority? Is it your responsibility to "smoke her out" as though she has something to hide and you are here to show everyone how great you are as someone that has "never" faked sincerity. This line, more than any other, exposed you as a commenter with a grossly elevated sense of self.

"Being unable to fake sincerity is ONE of the reasons I am no longer a public school teacher."
- While its obvious from the tone of each of your posts, that you believe you have it all figured out and were just a misunderstood martyr by leaving the field, the truth is that REALLY good educators don't have to "fake sincerity". They actually stand and face difficult challenges simply because they care about children and preparing them for the future. By the way, the way you capitalized the word "ONE" is a cop-out. Based on what you chose to post, the more clear interpretation is that you could not handle all of the demands that came with your former job. I say this because your quote above is classic "REACTIVE" language. Proactive people don't take the time to come up with a long list of self-justified reasons to quit.

Lastly, I'd like to encourage Mrs. Alligood and all those people not sitting on the sidelines throwing stones to keep striving, keep struggling through, keep keeping your students and their growth at the center of all your professional endeavors.

Good luck in whatever your profession is now, Mr. Roesch. I hope whatever you are up to now brings you more profesional and intellectual fulfillment.

Thank you for your comment

Thank you for your comment Mr. Fincher. If it makes you feel better your comments are not ones I have not heard before. I can not think of any reply that does not make me sound like a martyr. I was often told to 'go quietly'.

One of the many mistakes I made as a public school teacher was my 'professional' silence. I presumed (as a martyr most likely) that, in the end, the truth would rise to the surface, that I would be vindicated in my actions.

What I learned was that my silence was seen as submission. If I could go back and change things I would have been louder in my denunciations of a system more attune to protecting its political plums than concern over students. I spent my career being told both to keep my head down so I can serve students and being asked why I wasn't more obvious in my defense of my students. Thank you for your assumption of incompetence as a teacher.

That being said you are correct: I was probably a bit harsh on Ms Alligood but it has been my experience with Common Core that it is a lie wrapped up in the same tinsel and frippery most 'new new' curricula come wrapped in and either she is a cheerleader for it or attempting to play the game which was something I was unable to do.

From your post: "In spite of your fascinating ability to so boldly and ignorantly make claims on her character and professional integrity, Mrs. Alligood is actually a teacher that is not only fully dedicated to her craft and her students, but she, unlike you, is brave enough to stand, face, and honestly engage in the complex challenges that define our profession today."

I did not make 'claims'. I made accusations.
I, too, was brave enough to stand, face and engage the 'complex' challenges that SHOULD NOT define our profession. Educating students should define our profession.
Everything else, at best, is gingerbread and distraction.

One principal, thinking to he helpful, once told me that my problem was that I spent too much time with my students and that I should come to the teacher lounge where they have a great salad.

Maybe if I had accepted the invitation for a 'great salad' I would still be bravely facing the challenges of our profession: like Common Core.

If I have been unfairly blunt with Ms. Alligood I do not apologize. If my assertions are off target she will easily survive them. If they are not then she deserves them. If they come close to the truth she will stand up, dust herself off and, hopefully take whatever positive opportunities for growth my assertional barrage provides.

Hubris? Maybe. But I am, after all, a martyr and what else does a martyr have while they burn other than faith and hubris?

If I may make an

If I may make an accusation

Tim you sound like like a Tea Party member trying to get certain things said. You probably attend weekly meetings to sound like you have your own thoughts, but you really don't. These are getting old. It’s obvious that you don’t understand the functions of standards. What harm can having common standards to build off of be? Have you really read them? They are not going to impact classroom’s in a negative way. What will is a teacher who doesn’t reflect on how to get better day after day. Those of us that are willing to stay in the profession will figure things out. That is simply what Mrs. Alligood is trying to do and was asked to share her experience. Her students are lucky to have such a reflective teacher that is willing to take risks to improve herself. I really could dissect all of your comments but I am not persistent because I was not really taught how to analyze long rants and develop a well formed argument in writing. This is not my strength. I wasn’t taught this in school back then but I can see that it is an essential skill now. I will close with a thought from John Dewey- If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, then we rob them of tomorrow. (1897) Did you catch the date?

Greetings: Giving my response


Giving my response to Ms. Alligood's post some thought I have come to the conclusion that there was too much rant in it. I admit to feeling good by getting certain things off my chest. So, I will try to be blunt and brief here:

As a teacher who taught in private, public and institutional schools as well as having taught homeschoolers and assisted with 'teams' in academic based competitions (LegoFirst for example) I have seen my share of 'standards' come down the pike. At first I thought this was a great thing until I noticed some common failings and demands.

Given that quick resume, Ms. Alligood fits into one of these three categories. She, of course, can fit into more than one or a category I have not included but I am being 'general':

1. Sheep - Ms. Alligood is a good/great teacher who is trying hard to make whatever standard is given her work in her classroom. She will do whatever it takes to make it work. Such a teacher's adage is 'go along to get along'. I have seen and worked with such teachers. They are often desperate to make things work and will sigh and gird their loins, again, when the new new standards show up and she has to throw everything away (except the stuff she likes and works) and pretend to be a fan of the new new standards.

2. Sheep Dog - Ms. Alligood is pretending to follow the new new standards but will do whatever it takes to protect her students from the effects of the changes. Special Ed Teachers often do this as they try to maintain a semblance of continuity in a system that seems compelled to leap at whatever new things comes. Pretending, though, involves lying and if she is not good at it she knows she will be held up as a heretic and sacrificed at the next teacher meeting.
This was me.

3. Cheerleader - This brand of teacher is often very eager to visibly and vigorously support whatever is served up to her by those in charge. Nothing is more sad than this sort of teacher. Even sadder is when their cheerleading exceeds the 'due date' of the curriculum she has espoused undying support for.

I am unsure, based on the Ms. Alligood's post which one she is.

As to Common Core and the 'Tea Party'. One does not need to be a member of a Tea Party to know exactly what Common Core is. Common Core Standards are, at best, rehashes of what has worked in the past (a common core tactic of new new new standards that are the same as the old new new standards but packaged in a new box) and, at worst, copyrighted attempts to create something that no competent teacher can accept: that there exist common standards that ALL students can and will pass regardless of their intellectual ability and career goals.

I have read many Common Core Standards, spoken to teachers asked to apply them, listened to teachers talk about them, listened to those involved, early, in the creation of Common Core and, as a resident of MA, watch as Common Core begins to replace the MCAS standards.

Your attempt, Jeremy, to denigrate and ignore my comments based on an accusation of Tea Party membership are both amusing and pathetic.

Common Core, to work, demands something to be true that fundamentally is not. Anyone who has tried to teach colors and shapes in a kindergarten classroom or AP Biology to eleventh and twelfth graders knows something that Common Core disregards: teachers teach students who come to class with different attitudes, talents, interests and abilities. To assume one could forcefully apply standards to all students all over this country and demand a common response is to completely misunderstand the entire subject of human education.

What does Common Core do with the talented fourteen year old who wants to be carpenter? What does Common Core do with the gifted piano prodigy who speaks ten languages by age seven? What is common about the curriculum to be found on a Navajo (Dineh) Indian reservation or in a locked classroom in a pediatric psychiatric facility? A five year old who has spent almost their entire life in a hospital cancer ward is common to a five year old snuck across the border and plopped down in an inner city classroom with NO English or Native Language skills how? What standards apply?

The mere idea that there are easily created and testable 'standards' that can be applied to a classroom of seventh graders in Hawai'i, an online classroom for isolated students spread across Alaska, above the artic circle and a girl paralyzed from the neck down and on a respirator is not merely ludicrous but dangerous. It suggests that fantasy has taken the place of reality.

Ms. Alligood's classroom, with its carefully aligned tape dispensers and my classroom where students drop objects out of a third story window to test the acceleration due to gravity equation could both exist and educate students HOW under a system that sees both of our classrooms as anomalies to be corrected not opportunities to be pursued?

Ms. Alligood is either lying to herself, to her students or to me in her post if she thinks Common Core can be applied to a delightfully 'uncommon' classroom like hers.

And I say that BEFORE I even remind you who is paying for this and why.

Spend your time showing me where I am wrong not accusing me of being a member of the Tea Party so you can pretend the bad man doesn't exist like you seem to pretend that there is something common at the core of all children that can be educated then sent out into the world to ... what? Go to college like every other good, common core child?

I mean, you do realize that not every child needs to go to college, right?

Just so everyone knows

Just so everyone knows this:

I attended a meeting of curriculum and textbook sales professionals.
I asked about common core. The silence that fell upon the room was both intense and long lasting.

The silence ended when one of the 'board members' accused me of being a 'Tea Party' member sent to disrupt the meeting.

Privately, individual sales persons complemented me on mentioning the thousand pound gorilla in the room. In general most textbook and curricula sales persons haven't a clue what is going to happen when Common Core is really applied because no one knows, even those who make a living keeping up with changes in curriculum, how common core will change what is done in the classroom.

Many school districts are simply not buying new textbooks or curriculum while they wait to see what they will be required to do.

While others investigate Tea

While others investigate Tea Party memberships and exchange pithy comments about bravery I, as a teacher look at this and imagine what I might do if I found such a gem in my classroom and would I be able, past the paperwork and test prep, to even recognize such a student?


Would you, oh Common Core besotted, standard bearing teacher even recognize this student? What would Common Core do for this uncommon young man that could not be done any other way?

Does this young man 'need' college? Is college the only option available? What will forcing him to be 'college ready' do to his gift or is that gift so common as to be worthless?

Excellent, gifted teachers do not pray to the God or Goddess of Standards upon the altar of Rubric. We teach students however, whenever, whatever is necessary and worry not about mere standards.

Our one true standard is the personal excellence of a student not a number on a piece of paper...

We at the Learning First

We at the Learning First Alliance appreciate the engagement of the community in the comments sections of our posts. In this instance, however, we are concerned that aspects of the discussion have gotten sidetracked from a healthy debate over issues related to the Common Core and denigrated into personal attacks that violate the safe space that we want to provide for our authors and commenters. We have closed comments on this post while we discuss specific comments and revisit our organization’s community guidelines.

We want to express our appreciation to Mrs. Alligood for sharing her wisdom with us. In posting on social media, we make ourselves vulnerable to personal attacks of varying levels, but it is hard to see them come.

As the moderators of this blog, it is difficult to know at what point a line is crossed and when a comment or section of a comment should be deleted. We may have failed in this instance, and we may yet delete aspects of this discussion that we deem do not meet our community standards. If that happens, we will contact the affected parties to explain our rationale.