Why I am excited about the Common Core.

It is an exciting time!

I am welcoming the change coming down the line with Common Core and here’s why.

1. The script is changing!

I am no longer chained to the teacher manual. I get to deviate from the plan. I get to create! I come from a district where everyone must teach the same page at the same time in the same way.  it is such a relief to see the beginning of the end of the robotic lock step I have had to teach in for the last 10 years.

2. It makes sense!

The flow of ideas from one grade to the next, especially in the math standards, make so much more sense than trying to cover everything every year with no mastery. Mastery is now a possibility. That makes sense.  As does the focus on learning from content based text.  Being able to decipher facts and bias are key skills in this day and age of pulling the wool over our eyes and spinning things to be what they really aren’t.

3. It’s Deeper!

I look at the breadth, depth and speed of what we have to get taught in a single school year and I get the image of a large very shallow lake or puddle, spread out in many directions. There is no time to really cover the entire thing and there is not enough to really go deep. If you are thirsting for knowledge, there is not enough to drink only drips and dribbles. With the Common Core it is more streamlined. More focused, deeper,  more a stream.  One you can dive into and get a good drink of.  I will be able to get students to think deeper. And more exciting,  students will be able to articulate their ideas and what caused them in the first place.

I’m looking forward to it. Now how will get assessed? That may evoke an entirely different emotion.

First try with the students

Well planned and ready to teach, in fact eager to teach, I had a challenging day today.  On my mission to teach kids to think I discovered how much kids don’t really know how to think.  2 sections of my day were dedicated to practicing new teaching techniques incorporating Formative Assessment and deeper questioning to prepare my students for the upcoming Common Core, and of course to become better thinkers.  Both lessons today were Comprehension lessons.  To give a little background I teach fourth grade and I have 35 students in a Title 1 school district.

Lesson 1.

Target: I can visualize and summarize what I read in order to explain the headings the author used and give examples form the text that support the heading.

We read and I asked my well thought out questions.  My advanced and proficient students caught on very quickly and were giving me page numbers and citations from the page to connecting the heading to the text.  The lesson went fairly well.

3 good things that happened.

1. We finished reading all intended information for the day ( often we fall behind by discussing everything instead of focusing in on one specific task)

2.Students were able to give page numbers and sentences from the text that support the heading.

3. Students are excited to learn about the subject matter. ( probably because I showed a video first to get them interested.)

3 areas that can be improved.

1. Less active students are still not very active.

2. I neglected to have students explain the headings, they gave support but didn’t think further than that

3. The students struggled to follow directions and had to be encouraged to look at the page or sentence being offered by another student as evidence.  In other words they didn’t appear interested in what their classmates were sharing.  They were interested in me but not each other.  How do I build the collaborative environment???

I ended this lesson with the ticket out the door strategy asking students to make a connection to the video I showed to introduce the story and the parts of the story we read today.  This turned out to be more difficult of a task for them then I had thought. Many simply wrote something they had learned not actually making a connection to the video.  Of 31 students 4 used the words ‘connect to’ .  We are going to have to work on this.

Lesson 2.

Cold read comprehension.  We have been doing this kind of activity all year.  This is the lesson in which I had planned out an entire trajectory of learning targets for the week each building on the last with the main objective to understand a piece of writing and be able to tell the main idea and organization of the piece. Although familiar this is still challenging for them.  The goals were to identify key words in a paragraph,  see how paragraphs relate to each other, find the author’s purpose including the main idea and text structure.  Today I modeled finding the key concepts in a paragraph then asking students to work in groups of 3 to find the key concepts in a different piece of writing.  This strategy is one I have been teaching for a while.  It didn’t work very well.

3 things that went well

1. most of the students worked well in their groups contributing and listening

2.I observed students actually reading and rereading the text to find key concepts.

3. . . . I can’t think of a third 😦

3 things we need to work on

1. Students were asked to write 2-3 key words but I was getting sentences

2. many groups completely missed the point of the paragraphs and were struggling to find key words

3. Only 1 group successfully duplicated what I had modeled

To culminate this activity I asked the groups to write one thing that was hard for them and one thing that was easy for them.  I got responses like “the beginning was easy and the end was hard” and “finding words was easy and the hard part was finding words” and “the hard part was finding words it was easy using context clues”  This tells me that they really didn’t get what they were doing. Their meta-cognition is lacking. Tomorrow we are going to try the “Keep it/Junk it” strategy.  I wrote out all the keywords the students found in their groups.  Tomorrow they will decide if they should keep each individual word or junk it while providing reasons for their decisions. We’ll see how that goes.

Not a great start, but a start.

First hurdle knocked down!

Freed! Getting started already taught me several lessons. I didn’t jump the hurdle I knocked it down. This is the process of trial and error. I have erred. My errors were biting off too much to chew and not having a clear plan of attack. I now have a new goal (and a clear plan of attack) .

Jumping into the middle of a curriculum unit and trying to find the goal and teach to the goal is not helpful in trying to identify a specific learning intention, or target, for your students. It effectively truncates the trajectory you are trying to map out for your students.  Mapping this trajectory is a huge task to undertake and is definitely not the goal of a weekly lesson plan. The better way to approach this, I think, is to start with the Standard as your main goal and map out the skills it will take to reach that goal adding the sub-goals to your main goal as you go along, backward mapping. In other words, scaffolding the learning to hit the bigger target. Doing this allows you to break that big goal into lesson sized chunks thereby providing your day-to-day lesson goals. This doesn’t happen in the middle of a unit. And it doesn’t happen with the weekly assessment as the goal which is what tried to do at first. It is a long-term plan. Not a short-term plan. I bit off too much at once. Not only that, I tried to bite the apple core bypassing the peel all together. No wonder it was so hard!

I needed clearer plan of attack so I could get started now not later. And I found one. I sat in on a staff meeting yesterday introducing us to the concept of “Close Reading” an element of the Common core. It miraculously provided me with a clearer plan. Creating my long-term goals, as I mentioned earlier, needs to happen and will happen, but at the beginning of a unit not in the middle. I am not beginning a unit so that is not my current plan of attack. Instead I need a short-term goal so I can get my feet wet, try a few things, and see what works. I have already decided to focus on comprhension. So I have created a smaller trajectory with the goal of simply understanding a reading passage.  I have a  a clear plan of attack

This is my new goal, clearly understand a reading passage.  I have a plan with bite sized lesson goals all aiming to help a student understand a reading passage. Smaller trajectory, smaller goals, clearer focus, still Formative Assessment. Pressure for CST testing is coming. This goal will help students be more successful on CST tests, become better readers, become better thinkers, and allow me to experiment with the Formative Assessment techniques that I have learned. These images show my idea of the trajectory and how it breaks down. This is the plan I will use for the next couple of weeks. I will keep you posted.

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The journey starts here

I have been an elementary teacher for 11 years.  I have struggled with my teaching potential clashing with my district’s mandates on how , when, and what I am supposed to teach each day.  I have been jaded and dispassionate about my work. I remember during one of my many professional development days in which we were being introduced to a new district adopted ( mandated)  curriculum, remarking that  I felt like I was being forced to take a drink from an open fire-hydrant.  So much information, direction, philosophy  research, rules, scripts, just too much to master and relate to my students.  7 years later, I teach my curriculum with rigor and fidelity, on the same day and the same page as everyone else.  Yet, my students average scores aren’t budging.  They are mediocre at best.  Yet I am a strong teacher and I know my students have grander potential.

I come up with new ideas to relate information but they are usually shot down because they are not in the scripted program.  I must follow the script and keep up with the pacing guide. Small adjustments okay as long as I am doing what some researcher decided is best for me to do.  Students didn’t get it?- “Sorry- use your intervention time accordingly.” Intervention time- 40 minutes 3 times a week.  Not enough.  Not good enough.

But I see a light at the end of the tunnel.  Change is coming.  Common Core is coming and a district move towards Formative Assessment techniques is coming.  Finally, I can see relief.  So I started researching   I have read several resources on how to better teach Comprehension and Formative Assessment techniques some of which directly borrowed from my principal.  But when I went in to check on these new expectations, I was told I must use the same curriculum and still do so with rigor and fidelity.   Tension returns.

But I have found a new passion and urge to teach within the research   I want to  use these new theories and make my students not better test takers, but better thinkers.  I teach multiple subjects with scripted curriculum   But I am determined to tweak them (within bounds) not to get higher test scores, but to teach my student to be better thinkers.

My intention is to record my travails and success here.  It seems a big muddy mess marrying scripted curriculum with formative assessment. My principal says it can and will be done.  I fear it will be done half-assed and unsuccessfully, unless someone takes the initiative to do a little trial and error, share what works, and find the biggest obstacles rather than just waiting to be told what to do and how.  So here I go.  On a mission to teach my students how to think. Wish me luck!