These first weeks of school, I have been seeking out Common Core lessons to watch and get a feel for what has changed. Here are some notes that never made it into the stories:
• Classrooms seem louder as teachers call for responses and ask kids to discuss points. Enthusiasm and energy echo off the walls on elementary campuses. The older kids, used to straight note-taking, have not all embraced having to talk about the lessons. At both age levels, kids seem to be paying more attention. Time will tell if that lasts through May.
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• The premise that kids can direct the learning sounded like so much edu-speak, but after watching it in action, it makes sense. Kids can pick a topic – how fast race cars go, or how many miles to Paris. If the object is learning to multiply, either one works. With standards more focused on the big stuff, teachers have more leeway for how to set up assignments.
• Smart strategies make use of the students to multiply teacher time. In “pair-share,” kids either paraphrase what the teacher just said (seen in Ceres schools) or discuss key points to come up with an answer (seen in Turlock schools). The practice gives English learners dedicated speaking time many times every day, keeps kids on task and gives the teacher time to evaluate if they are getting it.
Kids helping one another with mechanical tasks not only gives them responsibility, it lowers the number of times the one teacher has to get around to dozens of desks. Group discussions, kids coming up with their own arguments and other self-run activities also give teachers time to move around the room – time they did not have when lecturing.
• The focus on writing tasks in every subject still feels new. Covering a fifth-grade science lesson, I learned the subject officially falls within the third English Language Arts period of the day under their Common Core plan. The first session has spelling, grammar and other essentials. The second covers literature. The third teaches research and nonfiction, using science and social studies materials.
• Clever ways to pair up kids deserve a mention. At Walnut Elementary in Turlock, Dave Sutton’s class has groups of desks with clear pairs. But to mix it up, he sometimes has kids form an inner and an outer circle, facing each other, that rotate in opposite directions.
In an Enochs High class, Janeen Zambo has a square on each desk with either A or B, a group color and an individual number. The A and B pair teens, allowing her to have the A’s speak first, or the B’s do a task. To call on individuals, Zambo pulls Popsicle sticks labeled with numbers from a cup – no need for six sets of sticks with each period’s names.
• In one lesson I watched, special-education students made up half the class. They mixed in seamlessly and the teacher noted the group was on par with other classes. There has been much discussion about how well kids with special needs would do when asked to take greater part in class discussions. In that one case, the focus on real-life scenarios worked well.