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My Common-Core Classroom

Note: This week and next RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today's post is from Kathy Powers. Kathy is a reading and language arts teacher at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway, AR, and was Arkansas teacher of the year in 2011.

We have all heard Common Core bashing. Statements like the Common Core will "undermine student individuality, teacher autonomy, and mark a dangerous takeover of local control." Unlike many of the Core-bashing voices, I am a classroom teacher with actual experience teaching with Common Core, and I beg to differ.

Celebrating Student Individuality

I have been pleasantly surprised over the high level of sophistication and creativity students have shown in their writing and logical reasoning under the Common Core standards. One of the English Language Arts standards for fifth grade expects students to be able to, "Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably." After much modeling and practice, my students are feeling empowered to take a stance on a topic and defend it with evidence from multiple texts.

For example, I recently tasked my fifth grade students with answering the question, "How does imagination lead to discoveries in the real world?" Each student chose a classic toy, researched several sources with a self-selected research team, and then presented their individual answers to the question to the class in any creative way they chose. At first, students were frustrated because they thought that the answer to our research question should be stated explicitly in the text. It took deeper reading and a discussion of the definitions of "imagination" and "discovery" before the students were able to begin to form their answers. What they found most exciting was the fact that their individual student answers could be different and unique yet equally valid as long as they backed up their claims with evidence from the texts. Throughout the learning process, we had sophisticated conversations about the validity of sources, the structure of nonfiction text, and the importance of imagination not only in the creation of toys, but in many scientific and historical discoveries today. The class conversation even continued over a couple of snow days on our class Edmodo page. I was especially impressed by the group researching Play-Doh. They discovered that Play-Doh was originally invented as a wall-paper cleaner, which led them to passionate debate as to whether unintended results still counted. They concluded that imagination can often lead you to surprise discoveries!

Iron Teacher

One of the biggest advantages that I have found with the Common Core is the fact that teachers across the nation now have these standards in common. Have you ever seen one of those celebrity cooking competition shows where chefs are given an ingredient and they get to come up with an amazing dish for that ingredient? To me, the Common Core standards are like instructional protein and vegetables. We want to insure that all students across our nation get that basic nutrition, but teachers get to decide how to creatively cook it up, what side dishes and dessert to add, and how to plate and serve that meal for students.

Love Local, Teach Global

Education is one of the most local endeavors in our country. The students and their families are local, most teachers are local, and many educational decisions are made by local school boards and district administrators. That works well for the most part, and it would all be fine if all our students had to do was compete for local jobs or college positions with just their local peers. However, those of us who are parents of high school seniors know that our children are competing for college positions on a national level and jobs on an international level. Our children already experience national measures of the SAT and the ACT, so we need to make sure the curriculum has the rigor to prepare them well no matter what community they are from.

Standards Vs Standardized Tests

I do not blame my bathroom scale for the fact that I am not always completely happy with the number it shows me. I certainly do not blame my scale on day one of a new diet plan and abandon my plan before it has a chance to work. The scale is just a tool, just as a standardized test is just a tool to measure student learning. The standardized tests are not the standards themselves. I have read too many recent articles touting the problems of Common Core when the real focus of the author's frustration was not with the standards themselves, but with the testing process which will be used next year to measure students' learning of the standards. Many of my fellow teachers support the rigor of the Common Core standards. We just have issue with students being tested over their understanding of standards which are still so new to their teachers. We need a brief break from the high-stakes aspect of standardized testing in order to receive training and implement the standards properly. System change is challenging, and all of us in education need time to make the transition to the new standards. Abandoning the standards at this point is like giving up on a diet on day one. We need time and support to give the new system a chance to work.

By Teachers, For Teachers

Due to the fact that most of us now have a shared curriculum, more and more free, quality resources are being developed for teachers and by teachers. I am able to share creative ideas through national networks of dedicated professionals such as the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, NEA, and America Achieves. It was through networks such as these that I found many of the great resources listed below:

1. LearnZillion: Videos and lesson plans built by educators
2. Teaching Channel: Videos of lessons for teachers
3. Common Core Standards: The standards from the source
4. Achieve the Core: PD modules, the shifts in detail, classroom resources, and more
5. Achieve: Released test items
6. America Achieves: Videos of common core lessons in action
7. Edmodo: Free, interactive class webpage for teachers

In my district, we are already seeing a positive impact from teaching with Common Core standards. There have been increases in measures of reading, writing, and math abilities of those upcoming students who are being taught with the new standards. After an expected "implementation dip" in scores when the new tests are first introduced, I think we will see a large increase in our students' abilities. Now is a very exciting time to be in the classroom. I am so full of hope for our children!

Questions, comments? Please email Kathy.powers2011@gmail.com

--Kathy Powers

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