While plenty of ink has been spilled arguing about whether the Common Core standards are a good idea, much less attention has been paid to how to apply the new standards in classrooms. The transition from what is currently being done requires more gradual and thoughtful implementation.
I’m lucky; my district, Revere Public Schools, just outside Boston, gave teachers three years to make the full shift from our old state standards to the new national ones. We started in the 2011-12 school year and are now in our second year of full-on Common Core in every classroom.
In the beginning, we focused on where Common Core intersected with Massachusetts’ previous state standards. As time went on, we revised our curriculum to align more closely with the new standards.
Getting On Board
To get here, we—math teachers—met every week to plan with a coach to provide support for our team and facilitate professional development among ourselves. We had plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with Common Core, and that time came during the regular school day, which showed that district leaders cared enough to make sure we did it right.
After absorbing the standards to see where the old frameworks intersected with them, I was able to pinpoint areas that needed to change in my instruction.
We also had time to review the curricular materials we used with the previous standards and look for new resources. My colleagues and I built a library on creating curriculum and planning lessons. With so many textbook publishers simply tweaking their materials and stamping them “Common-Core aligned,” having that time to review our old materials and evaluate new resources helped make the shift seem less like I was reinventing the wheel.
As we worked through Common Core year by year, I more fully understood how the standards progressed, not just through the grade level I teach, but also from one grade to the next. That helped me plan lessons either to build on prior learning or to lay the foundation for the next concepts my students would need to succeed in math.
Working with other teachers, rather than being told what to do by administrators, made me feel more comfortable to take the position of a “learner” while implementing the new standards and inspired a growth mindset that has to this day encouraged me to continue deepening my content knowledge.
Making New Connections
As a teacher, I use my knowledge of the progression of each standard to carefully craft lessons, discussion and activities that will get students to understand the why behind what they are doing, which often leads them to discover the how.
I always tell my students to ask questions.
Why does the decimal go there in the product? Why do decimals have to be lined up when you are adding and subtracting? Why, when I divide a whole number by a fraction, do I get a bigger number—aren’t you supposed to get a smaller number when you divide?
Then I guide and encourage them to find the answers to their questions.
Students need different levels of scaffolding and time to reach full conceptual understanding. It is my job to use my knowledge of Common Core to challenge them appropriately. My increased knowledge of the standards has really helped me go deeper with students who struggle in math. Sometimes this requires me going back a grade, other times it means re-emphasizing the material.
In the four years that we have been using the Common Core, I have become a better teacher because I am able to plan lessons that target specific concepts to get students to discover ways to do math. I neither give them a problem and have them guess how to multiply nor do I allow students to travel down a learning path that isn’t based in accurate mathematical thinking. My hope is that they figure out mathematical procedures organically, their own way. My classroom is filled with conversations about patterns they are noticing or connections they are making.
But I wouldn’t have been able to do all this if we hadn’t had enough lead time, strong coaching and collegial support to make such a big change.