Nan Austin

On Campus: Hopes for, fears of Common Core running high

4-Hers such as Paul Etcheverry, 13, of Waterford, learn a lot of science, math and reading while taking part in various projects.
4-Hers such as Paul Etcheverry, 13, of Waterford, learn a lot of science, math and reading while taking part in various projects. Modesto Bee

Spending time with FFA and 4-H kids at the Stanislaus County Fair last week made me think of how much learning those kids get through raising their animals.

Responsibility, empathy and a little bit about life and loss come with raising and giving up a living creature. Asking questions, thinking through problems and collaborating on solutions are key parts of both programs. Kids learn school skills as well, without even realizing it.

What does this symptom mean? Read up on it. Space for a pen? Seed for a field? Better know the formula for area to find those. Fractions come easier if you can eyeball half a scoop of feed.

Contrast that with learning math as a series of lectures, worksheets and quizzes. In my daughter’s first-grade class years ago, the teacher taught addition with timed drills.

Each day, her 5- and 6-year-old students opened a math folder to find a fresh dittoed sheet of addition problems. Adding a 1 to 2, 5 and so on filled a page. Students who got every problem right in a timed test would be given the page of 2s problems the next day. Those who missed even one would get the same page again and again until it was perfect.

The teacher gave a math lecture each day, spending at least half the lesson admonishing the fidgeters. Long before teaching to the test or pacing calendars, this very dedicated, well-intentioned teacher made education a complete bore and utterly irrelevant to her students.

As a parent volunteer, I offered to help kids who were behind. Instead, she gave me the top performers. We measured lunch tables with rulers, counted flower buds on a plant, sloshed colored water between measuring cups – a lot of fun and my group caught on like lightning. But the kids who needed it most were sitting in rows, staring at squiggles on a page.

The stumper on those dittoed sheets: 0 plus 0. As long as numbers are just squiggles and problems are just memorized, this equation baffles kids. The problem does not take math wizardry; it takes common sense. It takes the type of thinking kids learn on the farm, not from dittoed sheets.

These two learning style extremes show the difference between the assembly-line fever I saw in too many classrooms trying to meet No Child Left Behind targets, and the hopes for hands-on, real-life Common Core lessons.

Implementation will be uneven, and much has been MacGyver-ed to make the time line, but why would anyone want to go back?

“Common Core is not about a what. It’s a how,” summed up Bryan Rogers, an Enochs High teacher serving on the National Education Association Great Public Schools Network. “The goal of (the GPS Network) is to build the largest virtual professional community,” Rogers said.

Rogers has volunteered as a resource for social science teachers who want to incorporate Common Core-style learning even in non-Common Core subjects. He posts lessons to a facilitators page, where peers offer their tips and ideas. The finished product is far better for it, he said.

“Teachers are working together to deal with Common Core,” he said.

When I hear people talking about the politics and conspiracies behind the Common Core State Standards, I have to wonder how many classrooms they have been in or excited teachers they’ve talked to recently. That said, there are also excellent, dedicated teachers who think it will be a disaster, that their kids could never keep up and the tests are way too hard. Others predict a wave of teacher retirements and resignations.

Those concerns should worry every parent. Shadowy conspiracies from 30 years ago? Not so much.

Here are some things to look for this school year with your child:

1. Reading and writing lessons using grade-level history and science texts and literature: The idea is to learn language skills by using them to get a better all-around education. Other subjects were ignored for test prep in English and math under No Child Left Behind. Fiction literature hasn’t left, it’s just sharing the stage.

2. Math homework as a few challenging word problems instead of pages of equations to solve, and there may be writing with it: Worksheet drills help kids get the basics memorized, but it’s thinking through the problems that will move them forward. Because this is a shift, watch for underlying skills your child may need, like a refresher on multiplication tables or a reminder to write out all the steps.

3. Teacher conferences are a must-attend this year: Look for individual data for your student that lines up skills needed and ask the teacher for ideas on family outings, games and hobbies that might help (not more homework). Every district is working to get tailored information laid out for every student. Take advantage of it.

4. If at all possible, volunteer in elementary classrooms and get involved with parent groups in middle or high school: This pays off in all kinds of ways, from knowing what’s up with homework to knowing your kids’ friends and not-so-friendlies to help navigate those waters.

Collaboration is the key for teachers this year. Families and community members can join in, too. Love or hate the standards, if every oar on both sides is pulling in the same direction, kids win.