Eye on Education

Teachers turn to each other to make makeovers happen

For generations, strong teaching meant giving good lectures. Lectures that kept students interested – maybe prompting a question now and then – were a success. The gold-standard lecture gave children all the information needed for homework and test-taking.

Good lectures were what good teachers did. Until Common Core.

Common Core not only brought new standards, it revolutionized instruction. Lectures lost their luster, jeered as sage-on-the-stage delivery. Time exploring off topic became a good thing. The ubiquitous textbook, that teaching touchstone, disappeared.

Not everyone cheered the revolution, and even those who did found themselves grasping for a toehold as the landscape shifted beneath them. “Implementation chaos” is how Maria Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy describes the transition to Common Core.

Speaking at an Education Writers Association seminar in February, Ferguson said teachers identified the lack of readily available materials and the political tempest that surrounded the switch as major problems.

“There’s a sense of pots constantly being churned,” Ferguson said. It really does create some uncertainty for them.”

Moreover, as teachers packed away years of successful lectures, there were no ready substitutes to put in their place. Textbook publishers were inexplicably tardy in matching materials to the new standards, and 3 in 4 teachers found themselves developing their own lessons, Ferguson said.

To help teachers through the storm, districts have dug deep to provide training. Before the switch, consultants made the rounds giving talks about what the new era of teaching would take. But, just like their students, teachers found lectures left the in-depth understanding at the podium.

“We know that’s less-effective learning,” summed up Carolyn Viss, math project coordinator with the Stanislaus County Office of Education. What teachers called the “sit and get” or, less kindly, the “spray and pray” method, has taken a back seat to walking visits of particular lessons or teaching styles.

“What we find is when you talk about instruction, we all have a different idea of what that looks like. When we watch a lesson, we have a common language,” Viss explained after leading a demonstration math lesson March 10 at Enochs High, one of Modesto City Schools’ seven large high schools.

Viss led a first-year class in integrated math, her lesson covering rotation of an irregular shape on an x-y axis with discussion focused on how the rotation shifted the angles. Enochs math teachers watched the lesson and met afterward to talk about what worked and what didn’t, what they struggle with and what they have discovered along the way.

Loosely based on a Japanese style of in-depth teacher training known as lesson study, the demonstration allowed math teachers to stand back and critically look at teaching techniques and lesson strategies.

Every district has had to come up with ways to help its teachers make the shift to Common Core. Most have also set up teacher collaboration time by grade levels or subjects to form a support network.

At the Merced Union High School District, teacher volunteers led the switch, said Albert Gonzalez, who was on the team that started the ball rolling in 2011.

“I think the great thing was getting teachers on that early. Because it was voluntary there’s always a group of pioneers that wants to go into it, and they do it wholeheartedly,” said Gonzalez, now an associate principal at El Capitan High.

The first team, which included teachers from each of the district’s six large high schools, researched what would change with Common Core, decided to move forward early and developed lesson plans for pilot classes. The next year more teachers joined the group, talking through what worked, what flopped and what might work better.

Now in its fifth year of a gradual, teacher-led implementation, Gonzalez credits having the teachers leading the charge for a relatively smooth transition to Common Core.

“The successes are just getting teachers comfortable with it earlier on,” Gonzalez said. “Even if teachers weren’t involved with process, they were working with other teachers who were.”

At elementary schools, teachers have had slightly different hurdles to overcome as they integrated Common Core themes through a day with all subjects.

At Las Palmas Elementary in Patterson, teachers take a twice yearly Math Walk to watch colleagues in each grade teach a math lesson.

Walking down school corridors with names like Fairness Boulevard and Perseverance Place, the five teachers taking part Feb. 29 were told to look for three things: techniques that worked, who was doing the math, and something they would do differently.

In one room, a teacher’s questions drew students to the answer. In another, a teacher asked a question and when students gave the wrong answer, asked others if they had gotten that, letting her very young students slowly work through why that answer did not work.

The kids were doing more of the math in the second case, the teachers decided as they talked afterward with facilitator Jamie Garner.

“She really let them grapple,” said first-grade teacher Katie Smith.

In another class, students used two colors of snap-together blocks to display fractions.

“I would never have thought of using the cubes. But it really worked,” said Julie DuPriest, who works with special education students.

In a meeting at the close of the day, fifth-grade teacher Celeste Robertson said the walks, going on for three years, have helped with the shift and also brought the campus closer. “The positive is not only what we learn, it is that culture that has allowed us to grow, together,” Robertson said.

“I gathered things in every class I might want to do in my own class,” said second-grade teacher Adriana Jimenez.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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