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Amazing second grade teacher talks about how her kids are responding to the new standards

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Jane Ellwood teaches second grade at Manchester’s Northwest Elementary School, where Principal Shelly Larochelle has been leading a savvy and effective rollout of the new state standards.  Here’s how Ms. Ellwood described her experience to me:

Preparing for the new standards

We started figuring out the math standards two years ago.  Shelly [Larochelle, the principal] talked about the standards at PLCs [“Professional Learning Communities,” teacher meetings to share best practices and professional knowledge].  She would share global information; just kind of a bird’s eye view of where we were going and what she thought the timeline would look like.

Then last year we really started getting deep into the math standards.  And we are using them for all our math instruction this year.

Last year all our professional development was centered around math standards.  Shelly led us through each of the standards. We met as grade level teams and really dug into them to identify what parts are actually new and what parts our students had already been exposed to. What are the gaps? What do we anticipate will be challenges for the students and for us?  It was a good way to get to know the standards.

Then we slowly began to kind of incorporate them into the teaching and try some new methods of instruction.  The new standards involve a lot of talking about math and writing about math.  The kids need to be able to tell why their answer is correct, why they approached a problem a certain way. That’s all new thinking for these kids, so you’ve got to give them time to get used to it.

Excitement in the classroom

The Common Core can be really an exciting thing to see in action in the classroom. You’re seeing 2nd graders who are learning how to persevere when they solve a problem. That’s not easy for them. They’re seven or eight years old. So it takes a lot of practice for them to learn how to do that.  But it’s amazing to watch it happen.

The basic math skills we teach under the Common Core standards are not that dissimilar from what we did before. They are entirely grade appropriate.  We’ve always taught place value; we’ve always taught addition and subtraction; we’ve always taught some geometry.  The difference is that there are fewer topics and we’re going much deeper into the knowledge.

A student would know that in the number 132, for instance, the 1 is worth 100, the 3 is worth three ten’s and the 2 is worth two one’s. But in Common Core we want to get to where they can also understand that that one hundred and three ten’s is thirteen ten’s.  That sounds obvious but it’s not obvious to them.  And being able to take that apart and put it back together that way – that requires a real depth of knowledge, really getting down to understanding what the number 132.  It requires going beyond surface knowledge and creates a greater ability to manipulate numbers.

The the new standards rely a lot on hands-on activities, lots of manipulatives.  Here at Northwest, we’re doing that kind of instruction in small groups so that you can take students based on where they’re at in that particular skill.  So the students who are challenged by the place value in the first place are going to be doing it more slowly and those who are ready to really start to dismantle 132 can dive right in.  There’s lots of small group instruction and then practice in other small groups with the same kind of skill.

What I like about the Common Core is that when I give my students a task – they all have a math journal now, where we write about our math and what we’re learning in math – if I give them a task, it can be something as simple as…well, here’s one I did last year that shows perfectly what I want to tell you.

If I say, ‘I have rolled some dice and the sum of the dice is 15. What numbers might I have rolled?’ If I’m a lower student, I’m going to assume you rolled two dice, and I’m going to show you as many ways as I can think of that I might have rolled two dice to get 15.  But my higher student is going to say, ‘Hmm, you might have rolled three dice, and in that case you might have rolled these numbers and, or you might have rolled two dice’.

That’s where it’s exciting – every student is learning something about addition and about problem solving and writing equations, but they’re doing it with the skills they have at that point. So you’re challenging students and they are challenging themselves. The ones who can, will. And the ones who aren’t ready for that yet can still get something out of their activity.  That’s what’s so great.

Math Workshops

I think the new Common Core standards are a good fit with what we call a “math workshop model,” teaching in small groups.  So if I have small groups with some struggling students, they’re getting more time with me one-on-one to really get into the material.  They may still struggle at reaching the standard for 2nd grade.  But we are approaching the problems in different ways, maybe with the manipulatives – whatever it takes.

There’s more partner work and that leads the kids to approach things different ways. You will find that kids working with a partner get more out of lessons.  Or when they get to practice it in a group, they might be with someone who gets it and can explain it.

I love it because I find that I can spend fifteen minutes with a group of six students and get a lot more teaching done than if I’m trying to manage twenty-one students for a half an hour on the same material. It’s very difficult to engage twenty-one students simultaneously in the same material because they’re all on different levels and ready for different things. It’s easier to keep them engaged now.  And, of course, the groups change depending on who’s strong or weak in each area.

The math workshop approach works well with Common Core because it enables us to give the kids direct instruction in a smaller group but at the same time practice lots of skills in a way that the Common Core emphasizes.


The standards are challenging in their depth – there’s a learning curve for teachers and students in finding the best way to teach these things and the best way to make sure that you’re getting to that depth of the knowledge.  On top of that, you’ve got to figure out how to apply those math practices that are so much a part of the new standards, so that students learn to persevere in solving a problem and learn to communicate about their work and explain their answer.

It’s no longer, “How do you know the number 832 is even? – Because I know.’” No, you have to be able to tell me with an example or a drawing or something that really proves it.

It’s no longer good enough to just memorize what the even numbers are.

Teaching isn’t harder now.  It’s always been challenging, but it’s completely different now. One difference is how we relate to the materials.

Teaching with the materials you have

For instance, we can use Everyday Math with the Common Core in lots of ways. But not in all ways. And there are many elements of Everyday Math that we’re not using any more because we’re going so much deeper than we would have tried to do before.  Everybody talks about that – it was a mile wide and an inch deep compared to what we’re doing now.

Many of the games in Everyday Math are useful because the students are practicing skills, but there are things that are covered in the Common Core that are only touched upon in Everyday Math.

For instance, one of the expectations in September for 2nd grade students is to be able to make and use a number line to solve an addition or subtraction problem. In Everyday Math, you would use number lines more as, ‘Can you count by twos? Can you count by fives? Can you fill in missing numbers on a line?’  Now we’re actually asking them to draw the number line and use it to solve a math problem. That’s a lot harder for them than it sounds – teaching them how to number the number line, keep the spaces even.  And if you’re doing subtraction you have to count backwards. That’s all a lot of different kinds of thinking.

There’s nothing in Everyday Math that’s going to support that, so that’s all teacher-created material.

Help from the summer workshop

We have guidelines for what we should get done all year because of the work that some of our colleagues did over the summer.  For each month, what are the English and math standards I should be touching on?  Which are the ones the students will be expected to master? What are the types of tasks I would ask them to do to make sure that they have mastered it?

They outlined some ideas that may work, materials in Everyday Math, websites and other resources teachers could draw on. But teachers have to be creative in doing their own lessons.

Happy to do more work

It is a lot more work but, because we started rolling it out last year, there are also many materials that I’ve developed and already have ready for my students.  And because the new standards are so much deeper and new to me as well, even though we have been unpacking them, when you practice them in the classroom, it’s a whole different matter.  It’s, there’s a lot more work

I easily put in a couple of additional hours or more each week in preparing, making games for the kids and things like that, and I know a lot of my colleagues are doing that too.  We’re spending Sunday afternoons making materials.

But that’s definitely not a complaint.  It’s exciting to get 2nd graders together and have them work on a problem and teach them how to collaborate and communicate. It’s an important life skill that these kids don’t always get it otherwise.

They’re not like my generation and yours where you came home from school, went outside and played with the neighborhood kids and if there was a problem you worked it out. These kids don’t do that.  And a lot of them don’t know how to solve a problem together. This new approach gives them more practice doing that.

I think that’s exciting, and they enjoy being engaged in their learning that way. It’s hard at the beginning of 2nd grade because they’re still so young but last year, by the end of their 2nd grade year, my class really enjoyed it when I gave them a problem and they had to work at it and think about it together. They get that sense of, “Hey, I did it” – versus. “My teacher is spoon-feeding me information and I’m going to reproduce it on a test.”

It’s a different kind of learning and they’re more engaged.

The district

But it’s not as if every school in the district is doing the same thing.  We’re really kind of doing our own.

If I have a reservation it is just that it would be better if we were all doing the same thing at every school…if we all working toward the same goal.

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