Democracy Dies in Darkness

# How three teachers are dealing with Common Core in class

Love them or hate them, the Common Core State Standards in math and English/Language Arts are being implemented in classrooms in most of the country — in some places better than others. A nonpartisan organization called Young Education Professionals asked a few teachers how they are dealing with the new standards, and their reports are below. The teachers work in Maryland and Washington and D.C.; Virginia is one of the few states that did not adopt the Common Core. This appeared on the organization’s website.

Compare 1/4 and 5/6. This seemingly simple problem is a no-brainer for adults. We know right away that 5/6 is greater than 1/4. But where do you begin with a student who has no conceptual understanding of what a fraction is?

One of the most defining features of the Common Core is how it introduces concepts to students through different modes of comprehension. By the end of a six-week Common Core unit on fractions, my students were talking about, writing about, drawing, and playing with fractions. When they encountered the above problem on a quiz, some students drew a picture, while others found common denominators. A few used a strategy called common numerators, which requires a deep understanding of the denominator of a fraction. One student drew the fractions on a number line. The takeaway: The students in my class were able to compare these fractions in no fewer than five different ways.

The Common Core implementation is not without its challenges. Many standards are vague, and there are only small bits of information coming from the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness in College and Career (PARCC) on how they are to be tested. The inconsistency with which the standards have been implemented result in the need for highly differentiated classrooms. For example, some of my students came into fourth grade with a solid conceptual understanding of fractions, while others from other schools had no idea what a fraction meant.

However, my school has prioritized Common Core implementation and tackled its challenges with consistent professional development, regular refinement of unit plans, daily lessons and assessments, and an intense focus on the Standards for Mathematical Practice. As a result, my students are thinking critically about numbers every day, and they are becoming accustomed to attacking problems with multiple strategies and assessing the validity of those strategies. The Common Core standards choose depth over breadth, and with appropriate teacher development and support, this leads to much more critical thinking and analysis in the classroom.

As a first-year teacher in a high-need elementary school in the District of Columbia, working with the Common Core has some real challenges. All of the students in my second grade classroom receive free or reduced-price lunch. My school is listed in the bottom 40 performing schools within DC’s traditional public education system. My students often complain of the work being “too hard” and resent having homework that they find difficult and whose parents are often not able to help.

In addition to the students’ difficulty accessing the content of the Common Core curriculum, for teachers it demands extremely precise lesson planning, leaving little room for teacher creativity. Every lesson has to be standard-driven and objective-driven. And while I agree that lessons should be focused with clear objectives, working with such a young group of students often has me questioning if what we are doing is too rigorous.

But the children are resilient. They remember the content of our material even if they don’t remember the exact strategy we used to grapple with the text. They are encouraging each other and offering to help if a peer is having a hard time. My students are meeting these higher expectations, engaging with the tougher work, and reading texts that are often two or three grades above their grade level, even if they struggle through it.

While I am new to the Common Core in the classroom (I have had no other experience teaching anything else), I think it is here to stay. My biggest responsibility now is to make sure my children are ready and to give them the tools to navigate the challenges that might be thrown at them—whether it’s Common Core or some alternative. However, I do believe that the capacity of Common Core to take some of the joy out of learning is a real threat, and I would encourage administrators to consider the long-term implications of pushing such a strict curriculum on our younger students.

Clare Berke, ninth-grade and AP prep teacher

As a literacy teacher, I have found the process of teaching with the Common Core State Standards a worthy endeavor. I think my students are supported as they are challenged through the Common Core, and they are exposed to a process for dissecting complex texts that will be useful as they enter college and the adult world.

Two summers ago, after my third year of teaching high school English in DC, I participated in a three-day professional development that introduced me to the process of writing close reading modules using complex texts. With a partner, I selected a text, designed a culminating question, and developed writing and speaking tasks to support the formation of an answer to the culminating question. Although I’m not sure I fully realized it at the time, this was the Common Core in action!

The following fall, I was supported by colleagues in writing and implementing more close reading modules. Soon, I was teaching with complex texts that I never before would have thought to try with my 10th-graders. One of the most memorable texts was an excerpt from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, which contains the famous lines: “No man is an island,” and “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” My students were completely befuddled by the 17th century prose, but we worked at it slowly. It wasn’t perfect for me or for them, but the flaws were chiefly my own; among other mistakes, I struggled with differentiating and giving the students enough discussion time. But in the end, the students were able to make a supported claim about the author’s message.

When I implement a Common Core lesson, I am reminded that I am a key part of my students’ future, and that I am offering a bridge in times when they might otherwise feel left alone on an academic island.