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Here’s how a Manchester fourth grade teacher has made the new standards work for her

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singing class outsideDebbie Villiard, a fourth grade teacher passionately dedicated to the kids at Manchester’s Northwest Elementary School, has had great success with the new standards in her classroom.

Here’s what she told me a couple of weeks ago:

How big a change are the new standards?

Common Core standards don’t limit what I do in the classroom – they open doors.  I can use interesting topics from articles or chapter books and dig deeper into literature with the students.  I can teach them to look at the text, see who the source is and see if they believe it. That’s what the standard says.

What I’m teaching hasn’t changed drastically.  But we go deeper and spend more time on skills.  We don’t just teach something and move on.  In math, for instance, we do lots of different activities having to do with place value.  I try to make sure that not only can they do a paper and pencil task but, maybe, a task with place value blocks or a word problem or game that involves, say, adding five ten-thousandths to this number.  I try to make sure they really, really own those skills.

In English, we spend a lot more time looking closely at the text and answering real questions.  There’s no more, “How did you feel when you read that?”  Now it’s, “How did the character feel or why did the character do this?”

We do have teachers’ guides that help with questions on such things as identifying the themes, the skills and the vocabulary.  It’s all right there for the teacher.  But I don’t use those worksheets.

I’m looking for, “What are the things in the new standards that I need to use from that teachers’ guide?” – like identifying the theme, for example.  Say the theme in a given book is “friendship.”  I might draw from the questions in the teacher guide that deal with friendship but leave out the questions that say, “Describe a time when you had a friend”

We just have to pick the parts of existing materials resources that best fit the standards so we don’t have to start from scratch.

Teaching to the test

I took the sample Smarter Balanced test and it was scary.  There were real-world problems.  You needed the skills to be able to get there to figure them out.  The reading test was very specific: “Look at these two paragraphs and find the two sentences that both mean ‘this’.”

Very specific.  But it was definitely within the kids’ reach.

After that, when I went back to teaching, I took a copy of whatever book we were reading and circled, highlighted and wrote questions in the margin.  If I found a passage that I knew would be tricky for them, that’s what I’d focus in on.

These kids are ten and eleven so sometimes it’s a little too much for them.  But they would rise to the challenge – especially if you make it, “Okay, you need to find three things. Who’s going to find it first?” And then they’re all diving in and finding it and I would say, “Okay, jot it down on a piece of paper. Let me see what the three things are.”

Really, you could say I was teaching to the test…but in the best way.

And we haven’t formally implemented the Common Core for English, yet. I’m just doing this from what I’ve learned looking at the standards so far.  And that’s led me to go deeper with my questioning.

So I love it. It’s exciting, it’s…it’s rich. The kids love it, too, because they get to talk about it and explain their thinking, and it’s challenging.

Has it been hard to make the change?

One of the biggest concerns many teachers have is that change happens too often.  But this is different. It’s a new set of skills rather than just a new curriculum.  The skills that are set up like a ladder – what Kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th grades are supposed to do. It’s all about key ideas and details.  It builds.  It’s not a curriculum saying, “Use this book.” It’s, “Use any book and make sure they can do this – rising to this level.”

Like any change, there’s a lot of preparation at first  – but then you have it for the next year.

A lot of teachers have been exposed to scripted programs like Everyday Math, so this is definitely a lot more work for them.  And when you’re teaching you don’t have time to do a lot of planning.

But teachers just have to live through it.  We’ve asked every teacher to keep track of what worked and what didn’t.  And we’ll collaborate.  We don’t need a company coming in and saying, “Okay, we have this full program that covers all the standards.”  We’re doing it ourselves.

Too much informational text?

We do use more informational text now but it doesn’t need to be a separate unit on informational literature.  We may decide to teach that in guided reading.  It’s going to be in both places, but you get to go deeper in guided reading.

We used to read maybe 60 or 70% literature but I think that if we do go to 50% informational text, that’s fine.  It makes sense.  You’re not going to be reading Mark Twain at work.

Anyway, am I going to take the time to measure?  Absolutely not!  I’m going to make sure my students can read and interpret both.  They like non-fiction so much because they like that content and the facts.  They watch National Geographic shows and come in with a lot of that knowledge.  So you might need to spend less time because they already have the skills to read those things.

But you need to move beyond reading the facts in non-fiction to interpreting the facts.  So if you read this many facts, what does that tell you about salamanders?  What does that tell you about what we need to do to protect wetlands?  Those bigger questions that need to be put out there for the kids.

I may be doing more literature in guided reading but in the afternoons we’re doing science and social studies, so I’m going to teach the same reading skills in the science and social studies textbook that I use in guided reading. Absolutely.

Literature is a fun part – reading a book and digging it apart. Most teachers I talk to are excited about it – just maybe a little concerned about being able to put it all together.

The district decision

I hope things go well at the district.  Teachers are concerned.  We’re putting all this effort into a very important improvement. We’re excited about making our students ready for the workforce. We don’t want our hard work to be for naught.

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