As Arizona’s Teacher of the Year, I am often asked about the Common Core standards, or as we say in Arizona, the College and Career Ready standards. I think people ask a lot because they rarely hear much from actual, practicing educators who are using the standards in their classrooms daily. So I’m going to share my thoughts on my experience in my fifth grade classroom. I’ve been a classroom teacher for fourteen years. I have used the standards for three years and experienced some excellent professional development on the standards through my district, the Arizona K12 Center, the Arizona Department of Education, online, and in professional literature, blogs, and a variety of other ways and places.
First of all, we must remove politics from the discussion. The education of our country’s youth should be a priority, not a divisive political tool used by people with no educational experience to get or stay in public office.
One of my favorite parts of teaching fifth grade is social studies. We cover the course of American history from the early explorers to Reconstruction after the Civil War. Especially dear to me is the Civil War. The Arizona state standard I would be held to teach in the past was something like, “Name major battles in the Civil War.” The old state standards would focus on basic, rote memorization of facts. But teaching has changed along with technological advances. Why do our students need to memorize dates when Siri or Google can pull up the dates for them in seconds? Memorization of isolated facts is no longer necessary to our society and that needs to be recognized by our school system.
I’m more interested in my students understanding the context and the underlying causes of the Civil War, and for them to be able to articulate an opinion based on evidence. I’m interested in my students deeply understanding the reasons behind facts. I have found this expectation to be much more engaging for my students. They are capable of diving much more in depth with their knowledge and understanding.
In a fundamental way, what I want for my students has not changed with the implementation of the standards. I want them to be thinkers, doers, creative problem solvers, and collaborators. I find myself having more freedom and opportunity to provide learning experiences to enhance what I want for my students by implementing the standards.
One thing I love about the standards is that writing is emphasized just as much as reading. In my district we used to be held to a 90 minute block of reading that did not include writing. I understand that this seems insane, but it could not include writing. We were supposed to follow a scripted, canned reading curriculum regardless of the needs of the students in front of us. Many of us realized that this is not good practice and modified the curriculum as we saw fit.
There are many studies that show students learn best when they are fully immersed into a topic and are able to read, write, think, and talk about it. Using this research to back me up, I was eventually given permission to incorporate writing, science, technology, and social studies into reading. Now I can teach my students about the Civil War by designing simulated experiences recreating parts of the war. My students take on the role of people who could have lived during the war. We research ways of life, clothing, names, employment, technology, homes, and food. We read primary and secondary accounts of the war. We view photographs, paintings, and artifacts. We invent pasts and families of our characters and write bio-poems describing our character traits. We write in journals as our characters, allowing us to experiment with point of view. During the simulations, we express our thoughts as people on different sides of the war and debate the various and complicated issues. My students end up with passionate feelings and feel like they’ve lived through it themselves. Many former students tell me they’ve saved their journals because they have such strong emotions tied to them. Research shows that learning will enter long-term memory when it is identified with powerful feelings. (Educators, I run a fun professional development on utilizing simulations and games in the classroom to increase engagement -suitable for 3rd grade through high school teachers. Contact me for more info.)
An important thing to remember is that the standards are not curriculum. They give us guidelines on what students should be able to do at different grade levels, but not how to get them there. Curriculum choices are still locally based from elected school boards, district administrators, and ultimately, teachers.
Of course, not everyone is a fan of the standards and some have valid reasons to support their opinions. There are issues that need improvement related to the application of the standards, such as rushed implementation around the state of Arizona and in many other parts of the country. I despise the almost total lack of funding for teacher education, resources, and appropriate curriculum. I am quite concerned about inappropriate assessments that seem to be following the standards. Many “powers that be” seem to be rushing to assess our students instead of giving us adequate time for implementation of such an incredible change in our schools. I don’t take my new hiking boots on a twenty mile hike without first breaking them in on many short hikes first. Educators and students need time to break in the standards before we are tested on them, especially if teacher pay and evaluation are being tied to the assessments.
I also have concerns with play being de-emphasized in the kindergarten standards, but I am hopeful that the incredible early childhood educators will have their voices heard on that issue. The standards may need to be revised to be more developmentally appropriate to meet the needs of our youngest students. As the parent of a kindergartener I’m amazed at how deeply my daughter is learning number sense and reading skills. I just also want to ensure that all five year olds are given the same excitement and love of learning that she is receiving from a talented and experienced early childhood educator.
I’ve heard of some concerns from parents who have heard that the standards are too hard. My response to them is that struggle is ok. Productive struggle leads to learning. It is how learning occurs. If your child is exhibiting continued, unproductive struggle, that is different. Talk to your teacher. Your child may need more differentiated learning and re-teaching. Your student may have gaps in his/her knowledge that need to be addressed.
Ultimately I believe that the standards put emphasis back on depth of knowledge and quality teaching practices. Change is always hard, but difficult paths often lead to exceptional progress. Educators need time and resources for meaningful, thoughtful implementation.