Sue Hannan, a 25 year teacher, taught in a great special reading program until it was lost to the budget cut. Now she teaches 6th and 7th grades at Manchester’s Hillside Middle School.
What’s the status of the Common Core in Manchester classrooms?
“..we did not reject Common Core. It’s still part of what we do. We’re just going to build on it.”
What got you started down the Common Core road?
“Manchester School District principals essentially were told, “Roll out Common Core at your own school.” So our principal, luckily for us, jumped on it and brought lots of training in.”
Do the new standards raise expectations?
“In the past, schools let it slide when a parent said, ‘My student can do this or can’t do that.’ The educational community became fearful of raising expectations. But that’s where we’ve been failing. We need to set that higher standard. The Common Core does that.
Each teacher provides a different educational experience but achieves the same standard
“…under the Common Core I retain my autonomy.”
“Our teaching became illogical with the advent of No Child Left Behind because we were so concerned with adequate yearly progress. It became a data circus – became useless, really….Now it’s clear what students should know and be able to do by the end of the year. We can move through the year in a logical way.”
What about algebra in the 8th grade?
“…once students have learned multiplication and division, they can put a variable in and make basic algebraic equations….. When they want to do algebra or pre-algebra in the 8th grade, they understand the principles and can do it.”
Now all teachers are English teachers:
“Students are starting to see that their English skills need to be used in every part of their lives, not just language arts class.”
Students are responding to the challenge:
“Ms. Hannan, I don’t want to leave your class. It’s fun and I like what we’re doing.”
Even learning vocabulary is more engaging now:
“I’ve started giving them ten minutes at the beginning of class to sit with another student and study vocabulary together. They have to show what they know and don’t want to be embarrassed….Many more students passed most of vocabulary tests with flying colors.”
We read closely and drive deeper into the text:
“…they have to do close reading of the text, read it again and sometimes find a deeper meaning. But it’s no longer only a matter of writing. They’ve got to be able to discuss it.”
The kids learn to write for the real world:
“You can’t write a letter to your boss and say, ‘I need a raise. The end.’”
Teach to the standards, not the test:
“You can’t teach to these tests anyway…..But we’re teaching all year long to the standards. By the time the test comes along in April or May, we should have accomplished those standards and the students will be prepared for the test.”
Parents should be thinking….
“My child needs to be challenged more. My child needs to work harder and do better.” Isn’t it every parent’s goal for their child does better than they did? And if we’re providing something that’s going to help them be better, why oppose it?
Sue Hannan’s background
I’ve been teaching for 25 years, everything from pre-K right through 8th grade. I started in 1986 at Merrimack Valley Middle School for 11 years. I took 8 years off when my daughter was born but worked even then in preschools and Kindergarten. I came to Hillside Middle School in 2005 and now teach two 6th and two 7th grade classes.
When I first came back, I taught “Read 180”, an interventional program for students who are reading two to three levels below grade level. One of our 6th graders might be reading at a 3rd grade level. In a really good year, I could get that 3rd grade reader’s comprehension up to a 5th grade level. We’d try to move them up at least a grade level and a half because in our regular reading programs we don’t have any way to give them all the extra time that would take.
The program had 10 teachers and was originally Title I and grant funded. Then the district took it over and during our big budget cut, we lost the program. So we have no way to do that kind of intervention now.
Then I became a classroom teacher. We used to have two language arts teachers for each grade – a reading and literature teacher and a writing and grammar teacher. We lost that ability to specialize in the budget cut, so we now have to one teacher per class and created a new class called Language Arts Essentials as an enrichment for some of the kids. That’s what I teach now.
In the 7th grade we work mostly on grammar. In the 6th and 8th grades, everybody works on reading novels and text dependent questions, going in depth with our students in how to read a book.
What’s the status of the Common Core in Manchester classrooms?
The Common Core is still part of what we do. We’re just going to build on it.
That’s fine, of course. Every district looks at the Common Core and says, “This part is great but we can improve on that part, and let’s push that particular standard up to a new level.”
And just as Manchester is looking at the standards, I am looking at the standards. I think the standards have to be the floor that I expect I’ll raise as I go along. But I expect all students to master certain things and that’s the Common Core floor.
What got you started on the Common Core path?
We really got started the summer before the 2012/13 school year, with the idea that teachers could implement at least some lessons starting in September this year, 2013/14. Manchester School District principals essentially were told, “Roll out Common Core at your own school.” So our principal, luckily for us, jumped on it and brought lots of training in. He asked 7 of us – one teacher from each subject area – if we would be a part of the committee to take the lead at Hillside. He wanted to make sure all subjects were represented because he knew the new standards would affect everyone in the school. He sent us to a series of workshops right nearby and attended all five days himself.
Then, during the year, committee members found everything we could that would help teach everyone else. NHDOE came in to help. We’d have meetings after school – at least once a month – to recap the various training sessions and discuss the questions we had. And we questioned everything – from where the Common Core came from right up through the questions you hear today from people who don’t seem to like Common Core.
For instance, we talked about the emphasis on informational text. It wasn’t a difficult debate because, yes, we’re going to include more informational text and nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean you have to drop literacy and literature. The 8th grade can still read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and the 7th grade can still read ‘The Outsiders’.
Of course, teachers are always investing time in improving our practice. It’s just what we do. So the Common Core is more of that. I’ve studied the Common Core all along but I’d say that, at this point, most language arts and math teachers are as knowledgeable as I am – teachers in the other subjects, a little less so.
Honestly, implementing Common Core is not that challenging. Everything you need is available. There are examples of everything for every subject.
The administration is very strong in backing what we have. Superintendent Livingston and Assistant Superintendents Ryan and Burkush have a pretty big stake in bringing us all up to the same standard. The best way to do that was the Common Core because it was well written and raised the standards quite a bit.
The new standards raise expectations
I did a presentation for our teachers just the other day about text dependent questions. Most teachers use text dependent questions now, but we wanted to improve our skills. I gave them a graph that went downhill from 1975 to 2012.
I said, “What do you think this is?” They said, “Reading comprehension?”
I said, “No, these are the SAT scores that have constantly gone down since 1975.”
So the College Board is saying our students were brilliant but are getting dumb. We’ve been talking all along about closing the gap between what 12th graders can read and what they’re expected to read in college, so they were not surprised that the SAT scores were going down.
My next graphic was the fraction 1/3. That’s the number of students who need remedial reading or math class before they actually could take college classes. They pay for these classes but don’t get any credit for them. Why are we sending students to college who need remedial anything?
That was shocking and they agreed, “Yes, we really need to bring kids back up to the right reading level.”
In the past, schools let it slide when a parent said, “My student can do this or can’t do that.” The educational community became fearful of raising expectations. But that’s where we’ve been failing. We need to set that higher standard. The Common Core does that.
Each teacher provides a different educational experience but achieves the same standard
Manchester is a transient community. As educators, we often talked about wanting to teach all students to a specific set of standards so that no matter where they were, those standards were accomplished. Now we have a baseline. I know that if my student moves to McLaughlin Middle School or North Dakota he will still be held accountable for the same standards.
Of course, it’s still true that nobody teaches like I do and I don’t teach like anybody else. Does that mean that my students are getting something different from each of us? Yes, they’re getting a different educational experience. Is it any less rich than what I do? No. Is it any less meaningful than what I do? No. She just does it in a different way.
So under the Common Core I retain my autonomy. I can teach my class the way I want and Marcelle can teach her class but, ultimately, we are getting certain standards covered.
And we’re collaborating more because I want to make sure she’s covering ‘this’ and she wants to make sure I’m covering ‘that’ so that all our 7th graders are reaching the same standards. Perhaps they’re just taking a different path to get there.
We need to have a purpose in teaching so that the students have a purpose in learning and they understand their purpose. The Common Core has clarified that purpose reinforced the need for good lesson plans to get there.
The Common Core is real teaching compared to the superficial teaching of the No Child Left Behind era
In the years leading up to No Child Left Behind, our teaching had become superficial – “cram this all in.” Teachers went by the texts – especially for math. It would be “Teach everything in this math text.” So it was the textbook companies that determined what 6th graders learned.
No Child Left Behind pushed us even more toward teaching many topics in a surface way. We had X days to teach this skill and then we were done, whether the kids had learned it or not. Our teaching became illogical with the advent of No Child Left Behind because we were so concerned with adequate yearly progress. It became a data circus – became useless, really.
But the new standards get us back to real teaching. Now it’s clear what students should know and be able to do by the end of the year. We can move through the year in a logical way. The Common Core is designed to help teachers get back to teaching deeply whatever we teach.
Instead of teaching my students superficially how to use commas in a series and after a name on a letter, now I can go deeply into it.
If students have learned multiplication in the 3rd grade, I should be able assume, as a 4th grade teacher, that they know how to do multiplication – not just that they worked on multiplication for a period of time – but that the teacher has taken the year to solidify that skill. I can build on that, multiplying larger numbers, fractions, decimals and start, in the upper grades, teaching kids how to apply it to real life.
Algebra in the 8th grade? Sure!
Then, when we can teach certain parts of algebra later in elementary school, students can understand it. We have to make it a careful progression. Abstract concepts are hard on young students, so we stick to the concrete while they’re young. But once students have learned multiplication and division, they can put a variable in and make basic algebraic equations. The Common Core supports that kind of progression.
The earlier we can introduce those things and take it slowly, the easier it is for them to understand. When they want to do algebra or pre-algebra in the 8th grade, they understand the principles and can do it.
Now all teachers are English teachers
I started last year using what I was learning about the Common Core in the Language Arts Essentials class I was teaching. None of us had any real curriculum for that, so we were able to make it up as we went along.
When we really started looking at Common Core together, we realized students were not transferring skills from one class to another. They’d learn to use capitals properly in my class and then go to social studies and write the word ‘I’ with a small ‘i’. So transferring the skills was something we really worked on.
We have a lot better communication now because teachers understand that everyone is a reading teacher. So as students answer questions or write lab reports in science and write country reports in social studies, the teachers work on grammar and reading with them. They wouldn’t just read the chapter but really read for discovery.
For instance, I’ve started putting some key words up. Students are seeing vocabulary like ‘evaluate’ and ‘analyze’ here in the room. They see the same words again in science and social studies.
Our goal is to enhance literacy in every classroom. Now in art class, when Mrs. Johnson is working with students about a particular artist or type of art and the students respond to some reading they’ve done, she is not just correcting for content anymore. She’s also correcting for, “How did you read and what did you discover from it? Did you expand your vocabulary and, yes, how is your grammar?”
Students are starting to see that their English skills need to be used in every part of their lives, not just language arts class.
Students are responding to the challenge
The students are finding things more challenging, but they like it. I don’t have students with a lot of discipline problems because they are challenged all the time and they know what they need to be doing. They are working hard to find the deeper answer. Even if they give me an answer and can tell me where they found it in the book, I dig deeper. So they have to stay involved in what they’re doing.
One of my 7th graders is a boy I had as a 6th grader. He talked all the time, did no work and failed my class. This year we moved him into a “guidance support” class where students get extra help with homework and there’s a teacher available if they need it. But he came to me and said, “Ms. Hannan, I don’t want to leave your class. It’s fun and I like what we’re doing.” I said, “You’ve got to prove that you can do the work.” So he did that and he’s back in my class now catching up with what he needs to do.
Even learning vocabulary is more engaging now
Bringing vocabulary to the students has been an important part of my mission this year. I really wanted to teach them vocabulary and get them to apply it in other classes.
But it’s hard to get students to study vocabulary at home. So I’ve started giving them ten minutes at the beginning of class to sit with another student and study vocabulary together. They have to show what they know and don’t want to be embarrassed. So it brought some accountability. As a result, many more students passed most of vocabulary tests with flying colors.
I have one very smart boy who last year was just chatty all the time. He wouldn’t pay attention to the vocabulary. This year he does every lesson and does it well. He’s actually excited to do it because I’m challenging him more.
We read closely and drive deeper into the text
Actually, my classes are more challenging this year because of the depth of questions that I ask and the depth of reading that I ask my students to do.
One book we’re reading is Things Not Seen. A couple of years ago, I might have asked, “Have you ever done something like that, that made you feel good?” Or, “How would you feel if you turned invisible?”
Now the question up on the board reads, “What is Bobby’s good deed and how does that turn bad?” And, “How does Bobby feel now that he’s invisible and what’s his real concern about that?”
The student’s personal thought is very important and that’s part of the class discussion, but we’re diving deeper into the text rather than always going into the student’s thought first. So students begin by talking about those questions, “What does ‘deed’ mean and why was it a good deed?” And then, “How does it turn bad? What are the consequences of doing something? What are the different scenarios for what could happen and how could you prevent that?”
So they have to do close reading of the text, read it again and sometimes find a deeper meaning. But it’s no longer only a matter of writing. They’ve got to be able to discuss it.
The questions are up there on the board to give students a chance to think before they speak. They need to know what they’re going to say and how to say it well. And they need to know not to interrupt.
Then they start bouncing off each other and that’s when I let them relate it to their own lives because they do need to make that connection that, “I’ve done a good deed.”
Something as simple as talking about a good deed can open them to other possibilities. So through the classroom discussion we build and build and build on it.
The kids learn to write for the real world
The writing needs to stay more formal because they’ll need it for careers and college.
I tell the students, “You can’t write a letter to your boss and say, ‘I need a raise. The end.’” You need to give her real information. Prove why you’re a good employee and deserve a raise. Tell her in what ways you have been an asset to the company. And if you don’t know words like “asset,” then those are words you need to learn.
We discuss, “How does this particular skill apply to real life?” How will doing a good deed in the book apply to real life? Maybe you work for a company that doesn’t do a whole lot of community work and you can find something for the company to do. You can be that person who helps the company reach out more.
Teach to the standards, not the test
People see the Smarter Balanced test as untested. But the NECAP was untested at one point too.
Some of the Smarter Balanced tests can last two or three hours, and the kids need to be able to sit there and work for all that time. The only thing we can do is prepare students for how long the test will be and what they’re going to be using for test materials, like the computer.
So we teach students to do the kind of long assignments required on the test. For the 6th grade performance task for the end of quarter one, we gave them an entire week to do it, 54 minutes of class per day. They could spend 5 hours on this one assignment, making sure their answers were well thought out and had works cited.
There will be less tendency to focus teaching to the test now, partly because the Smarter Balanced test is self-adjusting. When students are taking the test, if they have a right answer, the computer will move on to either something a little more challenging – on a wrong answer, maybe a little less challenging. They can feel they’re getting things right.
You can’t teach to these tests anyway. You don’t know what’s on the test. But we’re teaching all year long to the standards. By the time the test comes along in April or May, we should have accomplished those standards and the students will be prepared for the test.
And reviewing the test results when they come back is going to enhance our performances as teachers and allow our students to see what they can do.
And in conclusion…
Parents should be thinking, “My child needs to be challenged more. My child needs to work harder and do better.” Isn’t it every parent’s goal for their child does better than they did? And if we’re providing something that’s going to help them be better, why oppose it?