By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Rebecca White, Samantha Leung
Collaboration. Communication. Creativity.
All of these things are visible in the classrooms of CTA members who have geared their teaching style to the new Common Core State Standards.
While the new standards are not scheduled for full implementation until 2014-15, some CTA members started early in pilot programs. Implementation has been challenging, exciting, and, like the standards themselves, based on collaboration and communication.
The CCSS aren’t just about changing what students must learn. They’re about transforming pedagogy, and sometimes changing the role of teacher to facilitator, so students are responsible for their own learning. It is, as they say, quite a shift.
Lincoln High School in San Jose
Students are told they have 20 minutes to write a group essay describing “social customs” and “societal norms” of the Roaring ’20s.
Using words like “immoral,” “arrogant” and “decadent” in excited conversations, groups of students compare The Great Gatsby, a novel of 1920s materialism and greed, with “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” an essay describing the flapper generation’s descent into madness, violence and poverty after the stock market crash. Both works are by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Each group has a “scribe” entering the essay dictated by the group into a laptop. Meanwhile, English teacher Ryan Alpers monitors each group’s progress on his own computer via a shared drive on Google Docs, inserting suggestions into their essays to help them along.
Welcome to the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), almost ready for prime time at Lincoln High School in San Jose.
Under current standards, Alpers would have led students in a class discussion about the novel alone and assigned individual essays so students could opine about its meaning. Today’s lesson emphasizes the “shift” to nonfiction, the incorporation of technology, and students’ backing up arguments with “evidence” derived from research — with emphasis on collaboration and on speaking and listening skills.
Teachers and instructional coaches in grades 6-12 throughout San Jose Unified School District worked with researchers from WestEd last summer to create instructional units based on the new standards in English and math, which teachers began piloting this year in the classroom.
San Jose Teachers Association members engaged in powerful discussions about what students should know at each grade level and best practices, says math teacher Samantha Leung. While English teachers focused solely on the new standards, math teachers compared the old standards with the new ones. Both math and English teachers ranked the new standards as “essential” or “nonessential” and began building assessments for key ones.
Assessments were created before lesson plans were created, which Leung calls “backwards planning.” It’s best to set a destination and then build a road to get there, she says.
Under the new math standards, students must demonstrate knowledge instead of just answering multiple-choice questions. So “performance based assessments” were created, allowing students to demonstrate what they know.
In Leung’s classroom, students answer word problems not just with an answer, but with an explanation of why they arrived at an answer.
“Writing answers with words or equations to show how they arrived at a decision is not something students are used to doing,” she says. “Many don’t know how to verbally explain something.”
Textbooks linked to CCSS are not yet available, so San Jose teachers are improvising. English teachers photocopy news articles and historical documents; math instructors create their own word problems and assessments for students.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” say Leung. “But don’t be afraid. Work with those around you. Share ideas. And be prepared to work hard.”
Pioneer High School in Whittier
The teacher doesn’t stand at the board and lecture. Students don’t sit quietly at their desks. The freshman algebra class is abuzz as groups of students solve math problems together — verbally and on whiteboards.
Algebra is definitely different since Pioneer High School began CCSS implementation.
Today’s lesson is on multiplying and dividing rational expressions. Teacher Jennifer De Baca Sandoval circulates among groups.
Students demonstrate BCRs (Brief Constructed Responses), a CCSS assessment tool where students provide brief answers to questions to show their knowledge, rather than just regurgitating correct answers.
“I have adjusted instruction to allow students more time to work together to process and critique the reasoning of others,” says Sandoval, who says the shift has been helpful with English learners.
Students enjoy working with — and learning from — one another.
“Sometimes the teacher goes too fast, and when we talk to each other, we can go slower,” explains Felipa Moreno. “If you don’t pay attention, you let down your team and your friends.”
English classes have incorporated scientific, nonfiction and historical documents in keeping with the CCSS, says teacher Jae Shin. In her classroom, for example, students write essays about the danger of student concussions in football based on scientific research. That wouldn’t have happened under the current standards.
While new content standards have not yet been released for science and social studies, teachers in those subjects incorporate CCSS literary and writing standards into curriculum, which means using more primary sources such as historical and scientific documents, asking students to “reflect” on reading materials, and replacing multiple-choice assessments with BCRs.
“We are using the same skill set that’s being used in English classes,” explains biology teacher Ken Guidry. “We’re focusing more on reading comprehension and collaboration. I have students write reflections on what they understand from outside articles. I believe these things will make students more successful after graduation.”
Whittier Secondary Education Association members began tackling CCSS in summer 2011. English and math BCRs for different grade levels were created, along with a grading rubric. The next summer, they stepped it up. The district continues to provide release time for collaboration. Teachers also communicate online districtwide, sharing lesson plans via Moodle or Dropbox.
“Other districts hired consultants, but we work together,” says Dan Esquerra, math teacher and CCSS support coach. “It may not be perfect, but teachers have buy-in, and if it doesn’t work, we fix it.”
Teachers were surprised when district officials told them not to worry about scores on California Standardized Tests (CST) this year, even though the district is in Program Improvement. Staff were asked instead to focus on the new standards in the belief it will pay off in the long run.
Lessons learned? Begin immediately and don’t wait until the last minute to dive in, say WSEA members. Divide teachers by grade levels and subject matter to tackle a chunk at a time; communicate and collaborate; and go slow to avoid becoming overwhelmed. It’s not just a matter of tweaking the new standards to the old standards because the two are totally different, so expect changes in pedagogy, they advise.
“It’s not an option of whether or not you want to change,” says English teacher Jennifer Medina, who has been instrumental in the school’s switchover. “You have to change, and working together as a team makes it much easier.”
Mark West Union School District
“I’m going to read a story to you,” Melissa Anderson tells first-graders at Mark West Elementary School. “Think carefully about the words and events that happen that you do not understand. Afterwards, use the four L’s (Look, Lean, Listen, Low Voice) to discuss what you want to clarify about the story with your pair-share partner.”
She reads an African folktale about animals that twitch, itch and fidget. Many students are unfamiliar with certain words, but sit quietly and listen. When she finishes, they turn to their “pair-share” partner to figure out what they don’t know.
Elijah Flores demonstrates “fidgeting” to Kenia Martinez, moving jerkily, to make his point.
Under the old standards, Anderson would write unfamiliar words on the board and explain their meaning before reading the book, which she calls “front-loading” information. Now, using “close read” strategies associated with Common Core, she tells students to listen to the “gist” of the story first. Later, with prompting and support from each other and Anderson, students fill in the missing pieces and take ownership of the material.
“It’s wonderful to see them engaged in active learning,” she says.
Students use “sentence frames” to share academic language with partners and the class. It’s part of the CCSS emphasis on speaking and listening skills, which students are often lacking in the technology age. A sentence frame, for example, might be “I didn’t understand what ______ means,” and students fill in the blank.
Helping Anderson with the Common Core conversion is student teacher Lisa Toly, a recent graduate of Sonoma State University, whose training has revolved around only the new standards. One of the strategies Toly used that her mentor found helpful was asking students who didn’t know the right answer when called upon to repeat the right answer after another student answered correctly.
“I feel very useful,” says Toly. “Melissa and I collaborated on a CCSS unit on gardening, where students worked collaboratively planting seeds in containers, measuring their growth, and writing in journals. It was a hands-on unit combining science, math, literacy and writing skills. Our students were excited about it.”
Mark West Union School District is small, with just three elementary schools and one junior high school. But the district, located in Sonoma County, has made more strides than many large urban districts when it comes to preparation for converting to the new standards.
It started two years ago, when one member from each grade level at each school site began collaborating with members of the Sonoma County Office of Education — and literacy experts Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey from San Diego State University, both members of the California Faculty Association.
Mark West Faculty Association (MARFAC) members took what they had learned from these meetings back to their school sites, piloting new lessons based on the Common Core. Other teachers observed them. Eventually, all instructors were asked to develop a few lessons in the CCSS and implement them before the end of the school year.
“There is a lot of support for each other,” says Susan Gonyo, association president and fourth-grade teacher at John B. Riebli School.
For her CCSS lesson, students were divided into groups and asked to take on the role of being a travel agent in the 1800s and create a brochure encouraging travelers to visit the Gold Rush in California. Students used books, magazines and computers to create brochures that included sections on lodging, shopping, dining, recreation, transportation and maps from that era.
“It’s very fun, learning about the Gold Rush together, instead of just getting information from the teacher,” says student Kenadie Geernaert. “I like it a lot.”
Gonyo finds teaching to the Common Core reminiscent of thematic instruction that was popular before NCLB, when teachers could be more creative. Because there are fewer standards, she can go into more depth on certain topics if she likes.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a difficult transition,” she says. “Our staff is innovative, and most people are very positive about it.”
Gonyo and Anderson advise others to start with “baby steps” by first becoming educated about what the CCSS are all about. Gonyo carries the CCSS Overview book with her at all times. Anderson has a free app called CORE on her phone for quick reference and planning. It is also important to educate parents about the switchover, they say, warning there may be a slump in test scores during the transition.
“The art of good teaching is using good teaching sense,” says Anderson. “We are not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather, we will use what we know works, add new teaching strategies as we see fit to meet the needs of our students and comply with the new Common Core State Standards. I think the new standards will allow us to be the teacher again. I am excited to be part of this process.”