By Dawn Uttel
How many of us have seen and used a new reading series, a math program, the latest phonics and spelling programs and were promised that it will solve all of your problems in the classroom? Most likely, all of us. Teachers and schools have gone through so many changes through the years. We have been told to use a variety of programs, and we’re always waiting for the next change to occur. The problem has been that these changes are neither long-lasting nor successful when dealing with our students.
Now, we have been navigating the most critical change of all: the full implementation of the Common Core standards. Many of you see commercials and ads criticizing the standards, the negativity that has been placed upon the use of these standards and the new format of testing that has come with it. The reality is, the changes in the Common Core are a shift in the philosophical nature of teaching and learning. We are no longer teaching our students to memorize the times tables or dates and facts in Social Studies. Do most of us still feel that there is an essential need for that? Absolutely. The question is not do our students need those facts, but how do we teach our students to analyze, to think critically and to generate and test out hypotheses regarding those facts. We want our students to understand why an incident in 1776 occurred and how it affected our country.
We are asking our students to discuss articles, and defend issues and themes in the text that they are reading. We want our students to think like mathematicians, to think like writers and to use “complex cognitive skills to analyze the very complex problems they face as citizens in the 21st century.”
With the full implementation of the Common Core standards now occurring in your curriculum, classrooms will begin to look different. There will be an influx of discussion among students, more focus on a skill or concept and students going deeper into that concept. This is the deeper learning that we want to see in our students.
In our district, we have integrated the use of discussion-based classrooms, where students are encouraged to “grapple” with more rigorous math tasks and complete close readings of one text over a series of class periods. Students are introduced to the use of Accountable Talk Stems where they agree and disagree with one another. They add on to what other students say, and they use the evidence in the text or math task they are working on to support their reasoning and opinion in the discussion.
This enables two things to occur in the classroom: The teacher becomes the facilitator guiding the discussion and asking probing questions throughout to support the deeper learning of the students. And it allows for substantial evidence, as well as opinions, to be added to the discussion to push it to a higher level. When I step into a classroom today, the lesson might not look very different from a year ago before Common Core, but how the teacher is teaching that lesson will be different. Teachers are now becoming facilitators and guiding students with rigorous math tasks, open-ended questions in literacy, writing opinion pieces along with debates and having students form and test hypotheses in the science classroom. They are no longer simply teaching students how to answer a multiple-choice question. They are teaching them to answer a text-based question and use evidence to support their answer. As adults, we do this every day, and now the change is that we want to see our students be able to do this as well.
As you look at the shift in the standards, you will also see the use of problem-based learning occurring. As stated earlier, we don’t just want students to memorize multiplication tables; we want them to be equipped to apply the math to solve problems inside – and outside – the classroom. We want to provide our students with a problem that is math-based or science-based, then watch them utilize critical thinking skills to solve the problem and explain the solution. The standards will allow students to analyze, think critically and apply the skills they have learned.
Are the standards more rigorous? Of course they are. Are we entering an age when teachers are changing and revisiting their practices in the classroom? Absolutely. It is up to all of us to help others understand why these standards are crucial to the success of our students. We are now incorporating problem-based learning and discussion to take our students to the deepest level possible. Just as this is a change in learning for our students, it is a change in the way that teachers teach. The standards will allow your lesson to be focused on a concept and skill and, most importantly, it will allow you to bring your students to challenge their own thinking and dig deeper into everything that they are learning.
Dawn Uttel is the Vice-Principal at School #18 in Paterson. She holds a Master’s Degree in Reading from Montclair State with a Reading Specialist certificate, a National Board Certification in Literacy Language Arts and a Supervisor’s Certificate from William Paterson. During her 18-year career, she has been a literary coordinator and taught third, fourth and fifth grade.