Making the Transition to Common Core

Once an English teacher, always an English teacher—and the more I have gotten to know about the Common Core standards over the past few years, the more excited my teacher self has become.

The standards put a real stake in the ground about what our students need to know and do to be truly ready for college and a career, and they provide educators with fewer, clearer and more rigorous expectations to guide their instruction. It’s pretty nerdy, but when I read them, I get inspired and start making proclamations in my living room. Analyzing diction to determine tone and meaning in sixth grade! Constructing arguments and critiquing reasoning in k-12 math classes! This is what our students should be learning in our nation’s classrooms! This is the challenge our kids deserve!

That enthusiasm aside, it’s clear that the standards can feel daunting, especially from a distance. On one hand, they have a brewing image problem—from a distance, the standards can feel like a big, hairy beast. But on the other, it’s clear from the recent Scholastic poll that teachers who are familiar with the standards are excited to dive in and apply them.

That inspired my colleagues and me to wonder: How could we provide a practical, practice-oriented training experience for teachers, so they can put the standards into practice in their own classrooms (without getting derailed or distracted by the beast)? How could we draw on the lessons we’ve learned about teaching classroom management to teach teachers how to tackle the Common Core standards head-on?

Here’s how we’re doing that in Baltimore with a new literacy course we’re piloting there:

  • Budget time for collaboration. We’re bringing teachers together approximately every other week throughout the school year for three-hour sessions. This time together allows us not only articulate a shared vision of excellent instruction, but also to get into the weeds and ask questions about how to put that vision into practice—questions as specific as “How does the archaic language in this passage influence the complexity here? How might we support kids with that aspect of the text?” Our teachers leave their sessions with a deeper understanding of the thinking and planning it takes to lead great lessons aligned to the Common Core.
  • Give teachers concrete resources, including great texts, types of lessons and instructional techniques. Our shared vision gives us an end to work toward, but our teachers need to make that vision a reality through practical applications. In each session, participants read and analyze a worthwhile, complex text that they can use in their own classrooms, learn about the types of lessons they could use to help their students access that text (such as interactive read-alouds or shared reading), and explore the discrete ways a teacher can make those lessons effective, like text-dependent questions. They leave the session with specific strategies they can use in class the very next day.
  • Provide opportunities for active practice with new content to give teachers the skills and confidence to use them in their own classrooms. As with the rest of our training programs for new teachers, we invest time in hands-on practice. Using the text they’ve analyzed, participants lead sample lessons for their peers and get targeted feedback on their delivery. This off-stage work with colleagues helps close the gap between what they know they should do and their actually doing it with their students, by bolstering confidence and clarifying how to actually do the work.

Like our participants and teachers around the country, we’re still learning, but when we see our teachers selecting richer texts, asking better questions, or prompting students for evidence, the Common Core seems a lot less scary, and a lot more like the start of something challenging and fun.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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