I got a taste of Common Core lessons in fourth-grade math and sophomore English this week. My takeaways: Kids will really benefit, the biggest changes needed to happen anyway, and I really need to brush up on similes vs. metaphors.
I attended a seminar about reporting on Common Core in Washington, D.C., on Monday, put on by the Education Writers of America. I volunteered to play student, even to be the kid who got it wrong so the teacher could demonstrate how students can figure things out and help one another.
For the record, I do know where the tens, hundreds and thousands go. But if I didn’t, the stacks of color-coded foam circles – think poker chips in Easter basket colors – made it really easy to look around and catch my mistake.
Fourth-grade teacher Stacey Porter from Louisville, Ky., said she uses hands-on exercises and has students draw out word problems. “Just being able to manipulate (pieces) really helps them when it comes to paper and pencil work,” she said. “I’ve seen great growth, and I’m excited about that.”
The switch away from worksheets has freed her to be creative in her teaching, Porter said. “Being able to use multiple strategies is really powerful. Before, we were all doing it the same way – and we’re moving on,” she said. She couldn’t slow down when kids didn’t get the basics, so she spent a lot of time reteaching them later. “This way, I get a lot more bang for my buck,” Porter said.
Kentucky started its implementation three years ago, but Porter said there still are kids coming to her without the key skills they should have learned, and she has to get everyone up to speed. She said she’s looking forward to the next few years, as kids who have been with the program since kindergarten start to arrive.
In Arkansas and several other states, Common Core is being phased in, starting with early grades and moving up to high school. California, which had no money for the move until this year, will switch all grades at once. In this area, districts are at different places in their switch. Ceres Unified started Common Core implementation three years ago. Turlock Unified started training of all its teachers with Saturday sessions this month. Modesto City Schools is roughly in the middle.
My English lesson came from two Washington, D.C., high school teacher coaches, with very different styles but the same snap-to, eyes-everywhere skills. We did what’s called a close reading, going over the same material several times.
Upfront, we were given the essay question to answer at the end of the lesson – in essence, they preloaded the homework. The teachers read the poem all the way through, the first time. The second reading was stanza by stanza, going over new words, identifying what “it” referred to, talking about metaphors. On a third reading, they asked us to list positive and negative images from the poem on a chart, which we would use in the fourth go-through to talk about abstract concepts such as good and evil in human nature.
Washington English teacher Desiree Raught said the lesson was a reading she chose for its vivid use of description from about 20 approved texts within the unit.
“I still have a lot of room to do what I want to within a lesson,” Raught said. Under the old standards, she said, she asked mostly “How does this phrase make you feel?” types of questions. Under Common Core, nearly all her questions force kids to cite passages from the text – evidence-based answers.
Raught said she also likes that the standards are national. “I have kids transfer into my class from Maryland and Virginia. Having that level playing field is pivotal. It’s huge,” she said.
Teachers nationwide are watching university research, reading national magazines and learning from one another. The new standards have pushed teacher training and teacher support to the fore. Though not every teacher may feel it, the profession appears headed for a renaissance.
Also coming with the Common Core push: computers. The switch for those of us who remember chalkboards may seem dramatic, but in truth the business world has moved to digital, and education needs to prepare kids for the workforce they will enter.
The third thing Common Core funding goes to: new textbooks. California has not funded or updated its approved list of textbooks in more than a decade in some subjects. At the last update for social studies, George W. Bush was just exploring the ideas of running for president and 9/11 had not happened.
Teacher training, technology and texbooks – three things that needed attention regardless – all get a makeover. Despite all the political hoopla surrounding Common Core, teachers who use it say it works and kids will do better.