Common Core and Clarity

The Massachusetts Common Core Curriculum implementation starts this coming school year.  As a District Team, we’ve looked at how the standards are expressed with increased attention to Focus, Coherence, Clarity and Rigor.  In Lowell, we began our look at the new standards by defining exactly what these four terms mean. One idea that has stuck with me as we work on preparing materials for our colleagues is that  the standards are not “intended to be new names for old ways of doing business. They are a call to take the next step….”

Where this becomes apparent is in looking at clarity as applied to the Common Core. I’ve been taking these standards apart since early June now, and each time it amazes me at how clearly each grade levels’ responsibilities for student learning is spelled out.

As a Third Grade example, our former Frameworks (2000, 2004) 3.N.10 asks students to “Add and subtract (up to four-digit numbers) and multiply (up to t2o-digit numbers by a one-digit number) accurately and efficiently”.  This standard corresponds to the Common Core 3.NBT.2, “Fluently add and subtract within 1,000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.”

For me the new standard is truly packed with specifics. Fluently add should mean that no matter what the strategy, students can perform the operation without hesitation.

Using strategies and algorithms based on place value does not mean the standard algorithm — in fact the standard algorithm does not become specified until later grade levels (Grades 4 & 5).  What this standards tells us – clearly – is that all students need to be able to perform addition and subtraction within the thousands place using relationships – such as friendly number strategies – or using a process reliant on place value (decomposing and then adding partial sums for instance).

While we may have students who are ready to record these problems using a standard algorithm, unless the student thoroughly understands and can explain the use of the standard algorithm – thereby demonstrating that the student is ready to use a standard algorithm – the student should use some other process for computation. Blindly applying a process without the knowledge of the what and why is no longer accepted.

To me, this is refreshing – a recognition that understanding and comprehending a mathematical topic with depth, and rigor is of importance.  The wording itself of the standard is clear and direct.

As we explore the Common Core, we discover that there is much more clarity about the level, or depth of thinking, to which we need to bring our students. And that is a good thing.

D5 and Barometer Kids

One of the most powerful and admirable things about Gail and Joan – the Sisters – is how they openly share their teaching life.  They don’t preach that they have all the answers, and anyone who has spent more than a nanosecond in a classroom knows that absolutely no one can have all the answers. Teaching is organic; it changes from day to day and sometimes from minute to minute. It changes from year to year as well as the culture of the classroom is fluid and dependent on the humans that make up the class.

According to The Sisters, one of their most frequent troubleshooting queries is about children who don’t seem to develop the stamina required during independent work periods.  Fake reading, avoidance tactics (bathroom visits, taking FOREVER in the bathroom), whatever you call these behaviors, the kids aren’t reading and are often sucking away valuable teaching and learning time.

Joan and Gail call these kids “barometer” kids — depending on which way they are going directly impacts the entire atmosphere in the classroom.Last year I think I had quite a few kids who could make or break the learning in the day. Some of this distraction was a cry for attention and some was something deeper. Whatever the cause – attention or organic — the impact on all of us in the room was immense.  Here’s a link to what they have to say about one of their students who had difficulty building stamina.

The Daily Five structure demands that children learn to own some of the responsibility for their own learning — and that includes building the stamina it will take so that I, the teacher, will not always need to be the ring-master.

It will take a bit of trust for me to let go, to trust that my students are capable of learning how to do just that — to be trusted to make good learning choices without me getting in the middle of things.

We will all be learning new things this school year.

Daily Five and Neuro Brain Function

Today, I had the privilege of attending The Sisters Daily Five presentation here in Massachusetts – and if you get the chance, it is well worth your time…. and money. Some of the most intriguing parts of the presentation involved the research on brain function.

When I try to apply a something new and exciting to my own teaching, the temptation is to just rip of the bandage and dig in. Maybe that’s not the best way to do it though.  Having lived in older home for most of my adult life, I know that when I first move in, I want to spend all my capital on the things that are seen, the obvious things like a new coat of paint or new furnishings. Fixing structural pieces (the chimney, the roof) aren’t going to be as obvious.

No one walks into your (new) home and says “Wow, that’s quite a nice chimney job. Love the new cap!” But these kinds of fixes are the structure and although there’s more of a wow factor in repainting or re-papering, the structure must be dealt with first. So how does this thinking  relate to the Daily Five?

According to the Sisters, Kenneth Wesson’s work on neuro brain function, informs the structure they advocate for Literacy: a small focused hit of instruction with the whole group followed by a period of 10-15 (primary grade) or 20 (intermediates) of independent work. Wesson further states that the amount of time allotted to the whole group lesson is directly proportional to the average age of the students in the class. Joan – one of the sisters – taped her class to prove this was wrong when she first heard it and ended up becoming a believer. She shares this video clip during the Daily Five presentation.

Think on that for a moment. At the beginning of the school year my students are 7 or 8 and by the end they are 8 or 9.  My third graders only sustain focus on what is being taught for an average of 8 minutes! And if I have a “young” class — teachers know what I mean by this — the time is even less.

The impact on teaching is that time spent on the actual lesson must be focused and succinct. Thank goodness I am not forced to use a basal; if I had to do all the ramping up to the actual point of the lesson, my kids would either learn little or we would both be frustrated by constant re-teaching.

But what I do need to attend to next year is boring right down to the essential learning more quickly. It may mean timing my mini lessons until I get the feel for just how long 8 minutes is.

It is a model we’ve used both in Reader’s Workshop and in Mathematics (Launch-Explore-Summary), but the model stopped short of explaining why it is so important to have a short burst of focused whole group instruction. As I start to plan for the coming school year, the one structural piece I am determined to attend to is this one. Those mini-lesson times, whether in literacy or mathematics, need to correlate to the amount of time my students can function.

And maybe then we’ll be able to move on to dressing things up.

Three Things My Students’ Test Scores Won’t Tell You

Every day there appears a new idea for making teachers accountable for student achievement. Yesterday I noticed a pip of an idea in a twitter post: Phys. Ed. teachers should be evaluated based on their students’ fitness level.  This preposterous idea, that the fitness level of a student who has maybe 40 minutes contact time with the physical education teacher, should be the basis for that teacher’s effectiveness is exactly what discourages me. Isn’t there an “outside” influence on such success? Of course there is — the home, the importance a parent places on physical activity  follow-through, not to mention nutrition choices!

And then I began thinking about how our own state testing is going to impact how I am perceived. Here are three things that you won’t see from picking apart my students’ MCAS scores:

Being in class matters: The students who did not regularly attend school had the worst SRI growth — I’m waiting to see what the MCAS data officially looks like, but I won’t be surprised if these same students’ results are not very good.  Their growth from beginning to end of year using the Fountas & Pinnell benchmark (although that’s somewhat subjective) also reflected limited growth. It would appear that something must be taking place in class that would cause students who do come to school to learn. Hmmm, wonder what that could be?

Supportive families matter: Even when students come from some pretty unbelievable socio-economic circumstances (homelessness, poverty, violence), the end-of-year results of students where the parent was a collaborator were positive. What does that say? Could it be that learning in a vacuum without home involvement is rare?

Timing is everything: One of my biggest — notice I said “one of” — is the timing of the state English Language Arts exams.  It happens in March which is, let me count, 7 months into the school year. Please explain how 7 months of learning makes a complete year (10 months). It follows on the heels of ELL testing, the MEPA in Massachusetts. the poor 8- and 9-year old kiddos who have to do all of this get exhausted.

If I’m accountable for learning for an entire third grade year, shouldn’t I get the whole year? This year was a special challenge; students coming from one of the classrooms had a long-term substitute for much of second grade. The regular classroom teacher is a strong, conscientious teacher but the substitute was definitely not up to the task. For these students I spent a LOT of time trying to bridge gaps from second grade. I really could have used more than 7 months for this work.

Isn’t this what bothers educators about state testing tied to evaluations? It is the unknown, random, living-breathing fabric of teaching. We work with humans. Stuff happens. Outside influences impact the final “product”.  There is more to growth (an lack thereof) than testing.


Fasten Your Seatbelts…..

It’s going to be a bumpy night.” I love this quote from “All About Eve”; and coming straight from Bette Davis’ mouth – well you can imagine the delivery.

The more thinking is done about the implementation of the new mathematics curriculum frameworks – the Common Core – the more it becomes apparent that this is going to be a major, that is MAJOR, implementation.

Looking at it from a third grade teacher perspective – students will come to third grade with near mastery, if not mastery, of place value AND mastery (that is spelled out) of addition and subtraction facts — all of them.  Historically, that has not been the case; students coming to third grade often have a shaky grasp of place value and most definitely we spend lots of the beginning of the year on addition & subtraction facts. Honestly, there are some children who do not leave THIRD grade having memorized/mastered these facts.  That’s a post for another day though.

What this means to me is that, for the next year – or possibly two – we will straddle two grade levels of work. It is clear what the expectations of students leaving third grade and going to fourth are. (Click here to download the PDF or Word version); but there will also be some catching up to do for second graders coming in to third this September.  I’m sure other teachers at grade levels above and below my own grade level will feel the same.

And to add to the pressure, by 2014 the Spring testing will have completely transitioned to the new Common Core standards. Here’s a link to DESE’s plan to transition test items.  In other words, transition quickly and get working on mastery of the new standards.

Will we be ready – I sure hope so. Because not only will there be new standards to be responsible for, the test results will be linked to my own evaluation as a teacher.

I have a feeling that fastening my seatbelt isn’t going to be much help here.

The Uncommon Common Core

Our District has a committee is working on unpacking the Common Core for Pre-K to 8 this summer. I volunteered – begged really – to do this and, lucky for me, I am part of the committee.

Even with all of the expertise on this committee, there are struggles as we dig through seemingly simple standards only to discover that it’s more complicated than it appears from the surface.  What will be important at one grade level may not be emphasized (notice I didn’t say it wouldn’t be important) at the next — I have to say that the way these standards are built shows much thoughtfulness into the process of becoming mathematically literate.

Here are some of the pieces that I think are strong:

  • The standards are very specific. It is quite clear what skills and concepts each grade level will be responsible for.
  • There is a place for fluency with computation and it is spelled out explicitly.
  • Topics are explored in depth and students are expected to demonstrate understanding. Rote processes are not going to be enough; if a student is using the standard algorithm (for example), then that students needs to be able to explain how and why that algorithm works.
It is gratifying to see this committee complete the shift begun almost 10 years ago – the shift to thinking in terms of “standards” and not what page of a text is covered.  Finally a curriculum guide that recognizes the expertise of the teacher in choosing the appropriate materials to use when teaching — which doesn’t mean nothing is provided for those who want that support; but it is freeing for those of us who have felt hindered by a particular program or product being used district-wide.
It is going to be a massive undertaking to update guides, update assessments, and provide support for teachers who haven’t had the opportunity to look at these standards in depth.  It is an uncommon opportunity.