March 14, 2014

Some of the best professional development I’ve ever had was also some of the toughest. I learned that plunging deeply into the Common Core State Standards and writing lessons with other teachers is a terrific way to really understand what’s required for students.

When we began this work, under a grant to the Jefferson County, Ala., teachers’ union from the AFT Innovation Fund, we were pretty confident. After all, we’d had some district-level training in the standards, and we thought we understood the shifts. But as our unit development team tackled writing 9th and 10th grade English language arts lessons, we quickly learned how much we didn’t really know. It was incredibly difficult to write lessons that really matched the standards’ demands. We had to question, and abandon, a lot of common practices in the process.

We thought we had some good units after a couple months’ work, but our reviewer at the AFT thought otherwise. Darion Griffin, a senior associate director in the Educational Issues department, sent us pages and pages of thoughtful critique. She reminded us of how deeply the shifts should affect our instruction, questioned our traditional way of thinking, and encouraged us to let go and make sure the students were doing challenging, grade-level work. Just as our students learn from revising their work, we teachers developed a much deeper understanding of the Common Core and increased our knowledge of strategies to help our students improve.

In the end, it took us about a year and a half to get our two units into final shape, but the struggle and frustration was well worth the effort. Now, I look at lesson planning completely differently. I don’t look at the standards when I build the unit and then leave them behind. They are in front of me as I design each activity and assessment. If I’m creating a rubric, I’m drawing from the standards.

My advice is, don’t stop at Common Core “training.” Write your own curriculum, share it with other teachers, and seek feedback from the experts. Continue to grow in your understanding of the standards, and your students will benefit. And make sure to check out our units on Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar on

Jennifer Allinder is the project director for For Teachers, By Teachers, an initiative of the Jefferson County-AFT supported by the AFT Innovation Fund.