By Amber Villa-Zang, Rubicon International 

In his book Hacking the Common Core, Mike Fisher debunks some of the common misinterpretations of the Common Core Standards. He does this by clarifying what the standards actually ask students to know, understand and do (SPOILER ALERT—it’s mostly just common sense!). He also shares easy-to-use strategies that enable teachers to upgrade their curriculum by doing what’s best for kids and ensuring that “we teach the student—not the standard.” Click here to read a comprehensive review and outline of the book, and dive into our discussion with Mike below! 

Why Hack the Common Core?

It’s been 6 years since the Common Core Standards were adopted by states across the nation, yet many teachers and administrators still aren’t quite sure how to address them. By understanding the key shifts of the CCSS and looking at what the standards really say, teachers can focus on the content, skills and instructional practices that lead to learning that is meaningful, fun, and effective.

Mike was kind enough to lead a Spark Webinar for us to talk in detail about two commonly misunderstood elements of the Common Core: close reading and rigor. What do these terms really mean? Let’s find out!

The Problem with Close Reading

While the Common Core correctly addresses the fact that close reading is an important element for building literacy and critical thinking, Mike believes it has been widely over-emphasized. Mike asks us to take a moment to focus on what the standard actually says:

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Mike explains that close reading is a lens through which we look at the explicit skills (highlighted in purple above) involved in reading. Reading is a dynamic process; at its heart, this standard is asking students to accurately comprehend a text and think deeply about what they read. This requires students to experience a text in a variety of ways.

The problem with over-emphasizing close reading is the risk of de-emphasizing the actual skills identified in the standard. In some cases, teachers are replacing tried and true methodologies that encourage critical thinking and engagement with vendor products that “promote daily practice with overused and non-variant methodologies, and present assessments that measure what’s easy but not what matters.” Mike voices what most teachers know instinctively: “Focusing on one skill, such as close reading, pretty much guarantees that students will hate reading.”

The solution? Resist the urge to closely read! Don’t closely read every text and instead ask yourself: How can I help my students be better readers and writers?  

So, what should teachers do?
  • Analyze your curriculum – where are opportunities to address topics that are high-interest for students? Focus on those. Mike reminds us, “If you don’t have engagement, you don’t have learning.”
  • Make close/analytical reading an occasional activity – Close reading is a strategy that leads to skills that include determining meaning, making logical inferences, and using textual evidence to support conclusions. There are other ways to support the development and use of these skills. Focus on helping students determine main ideas, create summaries, ask and answer questions, and use evidence to support thinking. Mike reminds us, “Literacy should never be only about comprehension.” There must be balance.
  • Continuously have students explain their thinking – Students should constantly, both in writing and orally, explain their thinking. This includes defending their ideas, debating, rationalizing, and questioning each other. Doing this in an authentic way is not linear, nor is it formulaic, which is often the case in vendor products.

Mike suggests that magic and innovation happen when teachers align standards through the context of:

  • high interest topics
  • practices that you actually want to try
  • tools or resources that you think are worth exploring
  • learning opportunities that are enriching and invite opportunities for student inquiry

Overcoming Pushback:

What about when school or districts require curriculum products to be used with fidelity?

Mike reminds us that “students need a range of classroom experiences to become proficient readers.” Because close reading has been over-emphasized, there is a likelihood that other important skills have been under-emphasized. Mike encourages administrators and teachers to review their data.

The Problem with Rigor

In education, rigor is a big buzz word, and to address it many schools have turned to vendor products that make “rigor” their prime selling point. However, Mike points out that there’s a big difference between more work and better work. He reminds us that “vendors, who don’t know your population of kids personally should never be directing traffic in your classroom.” As teachers, we need to trust our professional judgement, and often that means going off script.

The solution? Shift the focus from rigor to vigor.

Mike explains, “when I think about the word rigor I think about rigor mortise and I think about stiffness and severity and I don’t want to associate those words with good teaching.” As teachers, we need to identify where there are opportunities to engage our students with invigorating practices to make learning fun and lasting.

So, what should teachers do?
  • “If it’s boring, ditch it.” Get rid of dull content!
  • Remember: Engagement is different than entertainment. Look for ways to get your kids activated, not just passively enjoying something you’ve arranged.
  • Appraise this week’s curriculum: Review what you plan to do with your kids by asking, “Where does engagement live?” Identify what’s invigorating and what’s monotonous. Ask yourself what the potentially-monotonous work achieves. If you can’t answer, modify it to something a bit more active. 
  • Collaborate and share: Talk with your colleagues, share your intentions with an activity, and help each other find opportunities for vigorous practices.
  • Practice engagement habits: Ask yourself two questions:
    • How often am I creating engaging opportunities for my students?
    • In what ways am I creating engaging opportunities for my students?
  • Talk to your students: Listening to our students is an important element of effective teaching! Mike referenced a teacher who shares the standards and learning objectives with his students and has them brainstorm ways that they might demonstrate their learning. If they have good ideas, he writes them into his plans.

Overcoming Pushback:

You’re going to encounter naysayers while shifting the focus from rigor to vigor. So, how do you respond?  Read these real comments from real schools, and how Mike Fisher responds to them!

“We don’t have time for fun”—“If you don’t have engagement, you don’t have learning.” Kids are hardwired for fun, and fun is a sure way to get engagement. We don’t want our students to be passive learners; we want active participants! We want to move away from “covering” the curriculum and test prep, and move instead to finding invitations to learn.

“We have to teach our resources with fidelity”—“The vendor should never be driving your decisions”. Mike reminds us that teachers are the professionals and experts. Once you get to know your students, you need to determine what in the curriculum needs to be cut, kept, and created in order to make sure your students learn. Vendor products are resources. They are important tools in our toolbox to allow us to help build understanding for our students. Ultimately, however, teachers need to orchestrate understanding, not products.

“But our student are nowhere near grade level”—Mike suggests that we as teachers need to determine if students’ under-performance is due to an interest issue or a learning issue. If it’s an interest issue, engagement may need re-visiting. If it’s a learning issue, then “we need to use engagement strategies to scaffold learning.”

An hour with Mike is never enough, especially to cover all the strategies he lays out in his book. To read in more depth, pick up Mike’s book Hacking the Common Core. You can also read Mike’s blog about Hacking Standardized Test Results. If you’d like to contact Mike, his Twitter handle is @fisher1000, and his website is Finally, check out the video recording of the Spark Webinar below!

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