An enlightening story from American RadioWorks, titled Teachers Embrace the Common Core, introduces us to Reno teacher Linnea Wolters and takes us through the long and bumpy courtship that preceded that embrace. Fair to say that, when the relationship started back in 2010, it was not love at first sight.
According to the ARW story, Wolters had this “gut reaction” to the new standards (spoiler alert: it may sound vaguely familiar): “National standards, national curriculum, national nightmare, oh my God!”
It’s worth reading the entire story (and watching the accompanying videos) for the details of the Core trials and tribulations in this Nevada district, but here’s the CliffsNotes version.
Wolters’ take on the previous Nevada standards:
Wolters was a 5th grade teacher at a low-income school in the Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nevada. Nevada already had state standards, and she thought they were terrible. “I considered the standards to be like shackles,” she says.
Her take on how those standards were taught:
(She) was fed up with leveled instruction and “skills and strategies.” In her opinion, it didn’t add up to a good education. “Our students traditionally at risk get more and more of the worst kind of instruction,” says Wolters.
District professional development leaders coax Wolters into coming to a session, featuring a video of a speech by Common Core contributing author David Coleman that detailed the philosophy behind the new standards:
“Oh, I’ll go,” she says she thought to herself when she got the invitation to the training session. “Because I believe you should know your enemy.” After the session, she isn’t sold, but, “I didn’t hate it.”
The teachers who attended the session agree to road-test a sample lesson based on the standards. Wolters has a lesson on the sonnet, “The New Colossus.” She’s skeptical:
“It’s hard!” says Wolters. She assumed the sonnet would be much too difficult for her fifth-graders.
Then, the spark:
“All of a sudden I’ve got kids popping off with, ‘She’s in a harbor!’ And, ‘There’s two cities!’” says Wolters. “They’re giving me all this information and we’re highlighting and everybody’s updating their notes.”
Wolters was amazed. She’d rarely seen her kids so excited about learning. And she had no idea they could succeed with such a challenging text. She couldn’t wait to tell her colleagues about what had happened.
And then it catches on:
Word spread through the school system. Teachers would email each other, mention the Core Task Project in the hallways. Even many teachers typically resistant to change have been open to the Common Core in Washoe County, says Torrey Palmer. She thinks it has a lot to do with the fact that the Core Task Project has been teacher led. “It gives teachers a voice,” says Palmer. “This is not something that’s being done to them. They want to do this.”
What Wolters thought would be her worst nightmare ended up being a liberating and hopeful classroom transformation for her and her colleagues:
For many teachers in Washoe County, Common Core has been liberating. They are free from the way textbooks, and tests, had come to define education. Wolters’ hope is that the new tests will be better than the old ones, and that an education system organized around teaching to that test will be a system she can believe in.
“My hope is that when the test matches great teaching, and the teaching produces great thinking, that it will all work itself out,” she says.