Terrill L. Nickerson: The Paradox of the Common Core

rockies2 Terrill Nickerson commented on the previous post on this blog, 6 Reasons Why the Common Core is Not Progressive Ideology.  I thought his comments were important to share as a separate post.  Terrill Nickerson has written an interesting article on how he approaches the Common Core and high-stakes testing in his context of teaching, which is in communities serving marginalized and underrepresented families.

He writes:

In my twenty-six years teaching in schools with large numbers of marginalized, and underrepresented families, I do not agree with the assertion that high-stakes testing and Common Core State Standards (CCSS) sprang out of progressive ideology.  Most of my colleagues that work with these populations tend to believe the exact opposite.  The common feeling is that the high-stakes testing tends to be biased against the children that come from culturally different, marginalized, or economically poor families. Likewise, my colleagues would accuse the CCSS of failing to take into account the realities of the worldview and paradigms experienced by the these groups.

Realistically, I know these biases and shortcomings exist.  I have seen them firsthand, especially with regard to the high-stakes testing.  However, my paradox arises with the arguments, pro and con about the Common Core Standards.  I began my professional career as a scientist, not a science teacher.  After a decade of working in the professional science ranks, I decided to become a teacher.  I also continued to learn and progress, as I completed my M.S. Ed. in Science Curriculum and Instruction, while teaching.  I was working in a Native American school system and community.  So my professional growth and learning was applied to this community.

However, the communities, in which I taught realized that getting a mainstream education was the only way that their communities could survive into the future.  I was encouraged to challenge my students and present them with the highest level of education that I could.  I was also challenged to learn, and use the cultural strengths to carry out this task.  I did not find a contradiction in these expectations.

As a scholar and scientist, I see the value in creating a more consistent set of academic expectations.  Knowing what I know about what the science professions and the universities expect, I do not see the Common Core as a threat to our children.   The problem does not lie with the Standards themselves, but rather with the interpretation of how they should be implemented. I always insisted that if you teach sound scientific procedures and problem solving skills, students will do well on the high-stakes tests.

Teaching solid practices, regardless of your choice of content material, still builds a solid foundation.  This foundation teaches students solid test-taking skills by teaching them to be critical thinkers and to recognize inconsistencies and errors in logic through elimination.  My students were successful, and still are, even though the present educational setting insists that I follow the Standards more closely than before.

The Common Core doesn’t tell us how to teach.  Instead, it provides teachers with a guideline for what type of knowledge and information is both topical and cutting edge in keeping up with advances in our discipline.   Despite the emphasis upon the Standards teaching, I still find time to diverge and create projects for my students that are hands-on, project-based, and steeped in engineering and science methodologies, and still do justice to the Standards.

As I’ve always said, “I teach my high school students at a college level, with an understanding that the outcomes will reflect a high school level of sophistication and development, and grade accordingly  Do not tell them you are doing this, just expect it of them, and work with them in tandem to achieve it. They will rise to the occasion and expectations, and begin to accept them as the normal level at which they should be working.’  I have very few failures.

About Terrill Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Students Choose What to Learn: Freedom to Learn in the Science Classroom by Terrill L Nickerson

Guest Post: Terrill L. Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  
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Terrill L. Nickerson commented on a recent blog post, Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn.

I contacted Terrill to ask permission to use his comments for a post on this blog, as well as a bio.  His bio is amazing, and his experiences shed light on how great teachers work.  This is a teacher who not only has degrees in science and education, but worked professionally in various fields of science.  His teaching experiences in Native American and migrant family communities supports the notion that good teaching is experiential and problem based.

Terrill explains that students in his classes thrived in an environment where they were given the freedom to learn and to choose what they wanted to learn.

As you read Terrell’s “letter” think of the ways your own experience as a teacher resonate with his.

I am sorry to come to your post so late. I am a high school science teacher with 26 years in the classroom. I am also a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Education working on my dissertation. Your humanistic approach sounds like an extension of John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education (this comment is not a judgement, just an observation).

Most of my teaching career has been involved with marginalized or underrepresented populations and cultures. I began teaching science prior to NCLB and Race to the Top. As such I started my career at a time that experienced a trend recognizing that the schools were failing to address the needs of the highest ability students. Teachers addressed large class sizes and mixed ability classes by teaching to the middle.

Teaching at a Native American School

Fortunately, I chose to begin my science teaching career by moving to a Native American reservation in central Arizona. Becoming immersed in another culture (literally, I was 90 miles from the nearest main stream population), I had to adapt an anthropological/humanistic approach to my teaching. It was imperative that I respect and honor the culture and inherent knowledge of my students, while still teaching main stream science. I am told that I was very successful in this capacity, so much so that I was recruited to teach at one of the best known and respected Native American schools in the U.S., the Santa Fe Indian School [SFIS], in Santa FE, NM. I spent the next 12 years teaching there.

All Students are Gifted

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website
Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Now to my point about your article. Because of the venue I found myself immersed, I was asked to coordinate the SFIS Gifted and Talented program. At the time that I took over the program, the school was operating under a unique paradigm about the definition of Gifted and Talented. My predecessor, had just completed her Master’s on the meaning of giftedness in the Keres Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.

According to her research, the Keres language lacked any words pertaining to the word “gifted”. In the Keres language cultures, “all students are gifted”, it’s just a matter of finding their personal area of strength, competence, or interest. This meant that some children are gifted drummers, some are gifted singers, some are leaders, some are artists, etc. That is to say, everybody had a natural talent or giftedness. Therefore, the gifted program sought to recognize as many students as possible, recognize their talents and include them in the program.

Of coarse, this philosophy did not sit well with the state and federal authorities, who saw it as a way to milk Special Education funding (Gifted and Talented) into the school. The policy at that time was that no more than 5% to 10% of a population should fall into the category of giftedness. We succeeded in identifying and servicing about 30% of our students (7-12) as having some form of giftedness. Needless to say, this created a case load of about 120 students for myself and my colleague to service. We were subject to all the paperwork and requirements that accompanying any Special Education program.

Democratic Curriculum

The way that I found to address this was to create a special program, generically called the Gifted and Talented seminar. The class was team taught by my colleague and myself. Given the ranges of talents, abilities, and interests represented, my colleague and I decided to design the class on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences philosophies (just coming into vogue then). Similar to your “Learn cloud Map”, my students democratically selected subjects they were interested in learning about, and then voted on which topic to pursue. My colleague and I then went out and gathered lessons, content and activities representing all of Gardner’s intelligences to form the curriculum. Everybody was given the opportunity to be an expert at some point in the unit. The “buy-in” was complete because they helped design the curriculum. It was very much like what you described in your article as “humanistic education”. Unfortunately, state and federal guidelines eventually forced SFIS to fall into line and alter their humanistic philosophy about Gifted programs.

I enjoyed your article and found a substantial amount for which I can relate. NCLB and Race to the Top has made my previous experience difficult to duplicate.

Terrill’s documents one way to give students the freedom to learn.  What are some ways that you have worked with students to “design the curriculum and in so doing the freedom to learn?