#BalancingManyCaps Teaching the Common Core

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In a recent article on KQED’s Mindshift blog, teacher and blogger Shawn McCusker argues that the 21st century teacher’s role has evolved adapting to the “new economy of abundance.” In a learning environment where every student is wired 24/7 to an electronic device, the teacher cannot just be a distributor of information through lectures. The teacher’s new role is to be a “validity coach” helping students evaluate sources during research, and a “chief analyzer” assessing students’ original content. McCusker elaborates, “Today’s teacher will have to make sense of information that he may not be able to predict (because it is student generated), and yet still ensure that the daily learning objective is met. This is done by highlighting and celebrating successes, building skills, and honing the ability to evaluate information.”

Reading McCusker’s depiction of the 21st century teacher makes me feel like the peddler in Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps For Sale. Like the peddler balancing a teetering stack of caps on his head, I have to wear many “caps” helping my students meet the Common Core English Literacy Standards   I use direct instruction to model the standards, I serve as a validity coach evaluating my students’ comprehension of informative texts to supplement our primary reading, and I judge as a chief analyzer assessing their original content on summative assignments.

Recently, I wore all three of my “caps” in my 10th grade Core English classes. The Common Core Reading Standards asks students to “determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text…” In a pre-assessment, my students struggled determining a central theme in short stories. My PLC decided to focus on tracking a central theme as our yearlong goal to assess student growth. In our unit studying Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we had our students focus on the themes of the Prometheus Myth and the Doppelganger throughout the novel. We created common summative assessments to track all of our students’ progress. We also agreed that we would instruct annotation as a note-taking reading strategy and allow our students to use their annotations on the final exam. The idea being, how well the students annotated would, hopefully, be a precursor to how well they performed on the summative assessments.

In my classes, I decided to scaffold the annotations in three phases: At the beginning of the novel, I used direct instruction to model how to annotate. In the middle of the novel, I had them annotate in groups assigning each student an annotation role. Finally, I asked them to annotate on their own to prep for our two Socratic seminars.

In an effort to connect Frankenstein to modern day science, and to incorporate “informative texts” to our discussion, I planned two Socratic seminars tied to both Prometheus and the Doppelganger. To ground our discussion on Prometheus, I used a profile in Time about Dr. Michael Kamrava, the fertility doctor behind the “Octomom.” The day before the seminar I told the students we would be having a discussion comparing/contrasting how Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Kamrava were both Promethean figures. I told them they would need to use the annotation strategy we used in class for homework on the article, and then connect it to Frankenstein.

The day of the seminar, I felt like the peddler waking up after his long nap, bewildered how his caps had disappeared. I was unsure what would happen. To my pleasant surprise, my students were extremely effective citing quotes from Frankenstein demonstrating Victor’s Promethean quest to create his Creature and connecting that to evidence from the Time article about Dr. Kamrava. I was further encouraged that this trend was consistent throughout all three of my 10th grade English classes.

Still, there were moments when I felt like the peddler throwing down his cap on the ground in exasperation. One student asked me after the seminar if “we were supposed to use quotes to connect to Prometheus?” Another student wondered “How Frankenstein and Dr. Kamrava had anything to do with fire?”

But, like the peddler who had to learn to adapt to the monkeys who stole his caps, my students taught me that I had to model the standards in ways that they could comprehend. They impressed me when I let them annotate themselves and effectively connected the Prometheus theme between two texts. But, I must remember some students need repeated practice before they are able to meet the standards. Later in the unit, they will be producing an Infographic describing the progression of the Prometheus or Doppelganger themes. How well will they perform on this assessment? Then, for their final assessment they will be asked multiple-choice questions tied to literary devices, many of them centered on theme. Will the annotations help them be successful? Based upon the data from the mid-point comprehension quiz, the average score was 60%. Clearly, there is more work to do.

At the end of Caps For Sale, the peddler returns to the same town he failed selling his caps at the beginning of the book. Even though he may fail again, he proudly brandishes a smile on his face, confidently balancing his caps, barking “Caps, caps for sale. Fifty cents a cap.” I admire the peddler’s optimism. Let’s hope, the second time’s a charm.

Written by Nathan Sun-Kleinberger

Nathan Sun-Kleinberger

I teach English/Language Arts in the Lake Washington School District. I am a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), have hosted webinars, and have been an AP Reader and presenter. I am passionate about instructing rhetoric, engendering divergent thinking, and shaping students to be mindful, compassionate 21st century learners.


  1. Kelly Pruitt says:

    How about The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss?! :)

    • Nathan Sun-Kleinberger says:

      Kelly, crossed my mind, but my 6 year old suggested “Caps For Sale.” How could I argue with a 6 year old?

  2. Chris Gustafson says:

    Love the caps motif! You have given me a new aspiration – I want to be a validity coach. May your next efforts move those statistics well above 60%.

    • Nathan Sun-Kleinberger says:

      Chris, I hope my students can improve their scores as well. (I will be writing about that in my next blog post – stay tuned). Thanks for the good mojo.

  3. Nathan Sun-Kleinberger says:

    Tom, I completely agree you, you need to keep a sense of humor in this profession. Humor I have found can be a great motivator to connect to your students.

  4. Tom White says:

    You’re right, Nathan; this job gets more and more complicated every year, but it sounds like you’re able to keep a sense of humor about it. Take the job seriously, but not yourself!

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