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Hollis/Brookline High School algebra teacher: “The Common Core is what good teachers have been doing all along!”

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At the June 16 Hollis/Brookline Common Core forum, Tammy Leonard, Hollis Brookline High School Algebra II teacher, reported back on how the Common Core math standards have worked on in her classroom.  She found that the new standards enabled her to teach as she had always wanted.

Here are the edited highlights:

I teach predominantly Algebra II. I have a Masters degree in education and have been teaching for 16 years, here at Hollis/Brookline for seven years.

"When you look at the
Common Core math standards, 
you're looking at what the 
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 
has been telling us to teach 
for a very long time."

We’ve always had standards.  Teachers have been meeting standards, revising what we do from year to year and making sure we’re doing what’s best for our students all along.  The Common Core is really just the current set of standards.  But people are really worked up about the new standards, so it’s important understand what we are doing with the new standards in our classrooms.

When you look at the Common Core math standards, you’re looking at what National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has been telling us to teach for a really long time. Most of what’s in the standards is not new. It’s just reorganized to put each topic in the right place so that we don’t teach the same topic over and over, as we had to do in the past.  Now we teach topics once, when the students are ready, and then we teach them thoroughly.

But there are also eight standards of mathematical practice that are almost more important. The practice standards push us to be better teachers.  These are practices like, “Makes sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”  We have wanted to do this kind of thing all along, but the standards push us to do more and to go further.

"When I look at the standards 
a lot of what I see 
is what the 
good teachers I know 
have been doing all along."

When I look at the standards a lot of what I see is what the good teachers I know have been doing all along.

Take quadratic equations for instance. Any time you’re talking about hurling something through the air, whether it’s an airplane or a softball, you’re fundamentally working with quadratic equations, even if you don’t realize it.

Quadratic functions are a big part of what we do in Algebra II.  I’ve always taught quadratics by emphasizing “families of functions.”  And I was excited to see how the Common Core emphasizes quadratic functions and “families of functions” in particular, as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics does.

"We do math with Angry Birds"

I start out by sending my students to their computers to explore the different forms of a quadratic equations in small groups.  “When I do this to the equation, what happens to the graph? And then if I look at this other form of the equation, how does that look on the graph?”  They dig in and look at the technical mathematics from every perspective.

After a day this way, they get to play Angry Birds in class.  But we do math with Angry Birds – “How would you make an equation to describe the arc of the angry bird flying out of the slingshot?”

This is the groundwork.  Then I give them some notes and in-class practice and they practice more at home, they work in groups on problems that apply the Common Core standards to ‘real world situations.’

A single unit or lesson one standard. If I looked at every standard by itself, I would never get through them all in a year.  But how many standards are being addressed just in those two initial lessons on the computer and then using Angry Birds to start to apply the concepts?  There were eight standards are being addressed in those lessons, specific things the standards want me to teach.  But we also employ as many as five of the “standards of mathematical practice,” those rigorous habits of mind needed to solve real world problems.

"The real difference is that 
the standards push me 
to be more creative"

The actual topics we teach in Algebra II are not that different from the past. There are changes.  Some of what we used to do that in pre-calculus, we are now doing in Algebra II.  And the new standards have moved some Algebra II topics down to Algebra I.  But students will be ready for that because of the new higher standards in the 7th and 8th grades.

The real difference is that the standards push me to be more creative, to bring in those elements that I’ve been tried to do all along, but am encouraged by the standards to do more and more.

"We develop a lesson together."

And I have to say that I feel really lucky to work with this particular faculty because I get to sit down and say, “Hey, what ideas do you have?” We develop a lesson together, or somebody will already have one that I can use. Our kids end up with the best from all.

So I would say, don’t panic about the Common Core. It looks like a big document, but much of it is what we’re already doing – or have wanted to do. Don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.

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