Category Archives: Common Core

Exposing Students to the Common Core

By Earl Jones April 15th, 2014 1:15 PM

Common Core is easy enough for adults to understand, right? Okay, that’s partially untrue. But what would happen if we explicitly exposed younger students to the Common Core State Standards. Would they get them? Would they be invested? I introduced them to one student, and to my surprise, the answer to both questions was yes.

“Mr. Jones, what’s the Common Core?” A nine-year-old student of mine asked. My immediate thought was that he must have overheard me mention it to someone else. Simple curiosity.

“It’s the set of standards that let teachers know what students should be able to do by the end of the school year.” Simple enough explanation for a kid, right? Conversation done.

“Standards?” he said with a very confused face. I gave a quick response.

“Yeah. Like skills, things that readers and mathematicians actually do in each grade.” Conversation really done, now.

“What’s everything we need to do in fourth grade?” I paused for a second. It dawned on me that this is one of my students who loves order, structure, plans, agendas, etc. He thrives when things are consistent, predictable, and systematic. Of course he would be interested in knowing all the specific grade-level expectations for the end of the year.

So, I decided to show him my Common Core guidebook. Yes, I actually sat with a fourth grader and we dug into the standards together. I put them all into kid-friendly terms. We gave examples to each other of what each reading and math standard (for third and fourth grades) would actually look like in practice. I even mentioned the vertical progression of skills from grade to grade. It was mid-year and he started placing tiny check marks next to the ones we had covered so far in class that year.

Afterward, I noticed a change in this student. He seemed to focus more on meeting each daily objective because he knew that they led to mastery of the standard. His overall performance increased because he had the end goal in mind.

Then, many “what ifs” popped into my head. What if I did this for all of my students? What if at the beginning of the year I told students what the fourth grade standards are? What if we put them in kid-friendly terms together? Would kids want to track it and check them off as we moved through the school year?

Now, I’ve given myself a challenge. Next school year, I will do this. I will create activities at the beginning of the year to introduce standards to students. Each student will get a personal checklist to track themselves as we move through each standard.  After all, younger students should have a full understanding of the goals and expectations for the end of the year. We will also share a class tracker to increase accountability for everyone.

I encourage other teachers to try this as well. Give it a shot. Be sure to tweet me @Mathophile_DC and let me know how it turns out!


Why I Believe in the Common Core

By Clare Berke February 4th, 2014 3:00 PM

This week, I searched the New York Times for articles related to the Common Core State Standards, and I found roughly 6,780 results.  As an English teacher, I train my students to pay attention to word choice for clues about the author’s purpose and message.  Skimming my New York Times search results, I noticed telling phrases such as: “rocky”, “critics pounce”, and “unlikely to adopt”, interspersed with numerous questions: “Will Common Core Improve Schools?”, “Teachers, What are Your Thoughts on the Common Core Standards?”, and “The Common Core – Who’s Minding the Schools?”

In the email I receive daily with headlines from the Washington Post, more often than not, I encounter the Common Core.  Last Wednesday, the headline du jour read: “The coming Common Core meltdown.”

It doesn’t take a genius, or an English teacher, to notice how contentious the adoption of the standards by 45 states and the District of Columbia has been.  But I’ve also realized that the controversy rarely stems from the standards themselves, but instead from the money spent to implement them, the lack of educator input during their development, and the ubiquitous high stakes testing associated with the standards movement.

Today, I won’t be writing about these worthy arguments.  Not because I don’t think they’re important, or because I think teachers aren’t interested (in fact, teachers are and should be involved in making education policy decisions), but because I want to spend my time focused on why I believe the Common Core State Standards help prepare my students for the future.

The Common Core State Standards are based around two simple, but profound principles.  Although I am an English teacher, I believe the principles apply to all subjects.  First, teachers should guide students through tackling complex texts and tasks so that students develop the skills and confidence to think critically about the subjects on their own.  Second, teachers should encourage students to seek multiple “right” answers and to explain the thought processes that helped them arrive at their results.  For many teachers, this is already the norm.  For other teachers, implementing these principles represents an opportunity for growth.

I’ll never forget my high school geography class.  Day in, day out, we copied notes from the overhead projector and attempted to spew them back to the teacher during weekly quizzes.  With bona fides adoption of the Common Core, this disappointing classroom scenario cannot be repeated.  Instead, teachers will guide students through the nuances of their subjects, rather than focus only on the reiteration of basic facts.

When I entered college, I was a strong reader and writer, and I had a decent understanding of chemistry and biology.  But I had never annotated a text for imagery or author’s purpose.  I had also never been forced to think through mathematical principles in a way that made sense to me.  I found myself crying in my Calculus teacher’s office and earning my first-ever Bs and Cs in a course called the Civil Rights Revolution.  I had expected that college might be more difficult that high school, but I was amazed to meet peers who could quickly fill me in on the purpose of derivatives, and who would cite specific words and pose interesting questions about Mrs. Dalloway.

It was my first experience being on the losing end–as Orwell put it–of “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

I persevered and graduated with honors (just barely!), but it was a rough road.  So when I think about the Common Core State Standards, I try not to worry too much about how many teachers actually wrote them or fret about the never-ending tests — I focus on the positive.  With the adoption of the Common Core, I have become a better teacher.  Because I had to shift my thinking and adopt methods to support my diverse learners through the analysis of complex text, and the writing and discussing of poignant ideas and questions without answers, I fully realized what I had been missing when I entered the post-high school world — the skill-set to develop claims and adequately  support my ideas, and the confidence to pose a deeper question or offer an alternative answer.  The Common Core has challenged and encouraged me to help my students develop the competence and self-assurance to be successful in college courses and future careers.

The 6,780 articles found on the New York Times about the Common Core are evidence of their authors’ critical thinking skills and abilities to present arguments.  With the successful implementation of the Common Core State Standards, all of our students will be able to take part in the continuing debates over their education.

Clare Berke is an English teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School.

The Common Core for our Uncommon Learners

By Jennifer Krystopowicz January 29th, 2014 1:45 PM

As a special education teacher in DCPS for the past seven years, I have learned to accommodate and modify almost everything the general education curriculum has to offer so that students with disabilities, particularly my students with autism and intellectual disabilities, can access the material.

With the common core at the forefront of our instruction, special education teachers like myself are faced with the new challenge of making the standards accessible to all learners.  Difficult? Yes! Impossible? No!

The following are three tips that led me to success in ensuring that all learners have exposure to the common core.

1.  Simplify the standard into ONE task:

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) in Tampa, Florida.  LDC is committed to equipping elementary school students with the literacy skills they need to succeed in middle and high school by providing a collection of templates that are fill-in-the-blank “shells” that allow teachers to insert text to be read, writing to be produced, and content to be addressed.

To get a better understanding of this approach, let’s look at the common core standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3: Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

The LDC task template for general education may ask: After reading_____________________, choose a character and describe their traits.  Use at least 3 examples from the text to show how their actions play a role in the events of the story.

It’s essential to simplify this task because some students with disabilities find it difficult to complete multitask questions and may get overwhelmed or discouraged during this activity. By asking students to complete only one task, teachers can eliminate that stress while still allowing students to reach their full potential and access the common core.

This is how I would simplify the question into one taskAfter reading_____________________, choose a character and describe the character by including at least 3 traits described in the text. 

Of course, teachers can modify this task template further by providing pictures, larger print, or bullets, depending on the needs of their students.  Just remember that sticking to one task is essential!

2.  Manipulatives glue the pieces together:

Every common core lesson should be supplemented with a manipulative when teaching our most difficult learners. Many teachers find this counterintuitive, thinking that manipulatives have to be fancy and complex or fearing that they cause students to get distracted.  However, manipulatives can be as simple as using a graphic organizer to generate ideas, or even using a highlighter to follow along while reading!  Manipulatives are imperative for our students with special needs to access the general education material because they give students a visual model that allows them to piece together the areas of learning that they are struggling with.

Here is an example of easy to make manipulative for workstations:

Counting money workstation

Counting money workstation 

3.  Open mindset creates open learners: 

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”  At the end of every experiment is a result, and if you don’t like the result you can always make a change.  As a special education teacher, I encourage you to experiment when you are teaching students with special needs.  Don’t be afraid to try something new to help your students access the common core.  Keeping an open mind will expose your students to new ways of learning, and one of those ways might be the answer to helping your student understand a concept that he or she had not been able to previously master.

Learning how to incorporate the common core into the curriculum of our most challenging learners takes time.  With the release of the common core only three years ago, this process is still ongoing.  However, through experimentation, I have found that these tips are a great starting point to drive student achievement.  I look forward to future discoveries about what works best for my students!

Jennifer Krystopowicz is a special education teacher at Tyler Elementary School.