Standards Opinion

Four Teachers ‘School Me’ in the Common Core

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 02, 2014 6 min read
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For Kathleen Pickard, the Common Core is a work in progress, and she’s working at it like crazy. She and her colleagues approach the new standards with a sensibility that avoids the high-flown rhetoric and doomsday prophecy of the Core’s advocates and detractors. “I embrace the Common Core because I believe that we are teaching them real world applications. They can use it and they will understand its use, and it will last for more than the test at the end of the year,” she said.

At the same time, she is quick to say that not all her students are “getting” it. Math is especially hard for her third graders, and they have not internalized the new standards and how they come together. “Until they do that, they can’t drive their own learning,” she adds.

Pickard teaches at Cedargrove Elementary in the Charter Oak Unified School District, which is home to 5,300 students in the San Gabriel Valley, 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. More about the district follows in a later post. Here, the focus is on Pickard and three of her fellow teachers.

Carol Gilkinson is just the kind of teacher that corporate reformers like to talk about. She’s passionate about her teaching and dedicated to her students. She takes on the tough cases and tears up when she talks about their challenges. She reads Education Week and the professional journals, goes to conferences, and is one of the district’s top technology mavens. She works at Washington Elementary School long after the students leave and reaches into her own pocket to buy supplies and equipment. She ranks high on any scale of selflessness.

But she doesn’t fit the stereotype of the bright 26-year old that the corporate reformers want to give preference to in teacher layoff situations. Gilkinson has more than 40 years of teaching under her still-slim belt, and she was championing educational technology when computers had green screens. “She was my mentor when I first started,” said Jeanine Robertson, the district’s assistant superintendent for educational services, who is retiring this spring.

“How is the Common Core really different,” says Gilkinson? “We’re finally making them think. It’s horrible what we made them do in the last ten years.” For her, the Common Core provides the structure to move beyond one-right-answer bubble testing, and technology provides the means to match teaching to students’ learning styles and levels.

Kelly Chavez and Brandi Campbell are teaching and innovation partners at Royal Oak Middle School. “She’s very into curriculum,” Chavez said. “I was anti, going to resist this [Common Core] thing as long as I could, and she talked me into it.” In both their classrooms students are doing a great deal more exploration and group work. That’s part of the work-in-progress. “Sometimes we have to cut it back because the kids aren’t used to it, and some take advantage,” Chavez said.

“It’s about introducing the ideas (of algebra) first and letting the kids discover relationships before introducing the formula,” Campbell said. “It’s allowing them time to make discovery.” “When kids open a video game they don’t read the instructions; they try out things. That’s how we are trying to teach math,” Chavez noted.

All four teachers echoed the “deeper learning” claim of Common Core advocates. Chavez said that the CPM math program, which Campbell had introduced her to, had more word and project-type questions and “lots of looping” so that concepts are repeated. “Because they have to demonstrate how they got an answer, I can follow their thinking and see where their thinking went wrong,” she said. “There is a right answer--two plus two still equals four--but there are lots of routes students can take to get to an answer.” “Some of the kids that failed last year, are getting it now,” she adds. She is particularly happy with the way special education students are taking to the Common Core curriculum.

Pickard’s 3rd grade students deepen their knowledge by teaching 1st graders. Originally, the idea was to have the big-kid 8 year olds introduce younger students to computers, showing them how to sign on and navigate the abundance of desktops, laptops, and tablets in Pickard’s room. But this idea morphed into introducing 1st graders to learning material.

These teachers embraced new learning technologies, partly because they like the challenge and partly to keep up with the kids. Gilkinson talked about the traditional “Oregon Trail” history unit. “Ten years ago when I’d ask what would you bring on the trail, students would list their dog or cat. Now it’s their Xbox or 360. It’s scary. The ones that are in high school are using their iPhones; the ones that are in grade school are using their iPads. It’s here. But [the majority of teachers] we’re ‘no.’”

Tablet computers are standard issue in Gilkinson’s classroom, and students pursue individual and group projects. Jason likes bugs, the girl sitting next to him does not. “Go to bugcycle.com,” he instructs. She grimaces.

Because of her fundraising and personal philanthropy, Gilkinson’s classroom bristles with technology, and with it the capacity to individualize. “I feel it’s best for the two ends,” she said. “For my GATE (gifted and talented) kids, they are not well served by a middlish curriculum, and with 35 kids in a classroom, few teachers have the ability to design something special for them.” For example, for children with small motor problems: “If they could word process, their writing looks as good as everyone else’s.”

These students look like a cross section of California. “I speak three languages,” said one of Gilkinson’s 3rd graders, “English, Spanish, and Farsi.” “Me, too,” said another.” Her third language was Finnish. Technology meets language learners where they are, but students need to master basic operations, like keyboarding, in order to do well in the Common Core’s on-line testing environment. “My mantra this year is that no matter how well you have taught everything, if you haven’t taught them to keyboard, they aren’t going to be able to do the test,” Gilkinson said. Indeed, keyboarding is one of the skills that Pickard’s 3rd graders teach younger students.

In Charter Oak, at least for these teachers, transitioning to the Common Core has been led by teacher entrepreneurism and initiative. All four teachers talked about their efforts to understand the new standards and what they meant. None of them mentioned dictates, mandates, or much help from the California Department of Education.

All found much of the teaching material they use. “We went through the California Standards and went to Teachers-Pay-Teachers and picked material that matched the standards we are teaching,” Pickard said.

Translating technology from potential to tool requires deep knowledge and the ability to discern what works for which students. “I go to a lot of conferences. I read EdWeek,” Gilkinson says. I know which vendors are pasting on something that says ‘Common Core’ and which ones are working from the ground up.”

Her students use a set of workbooks that teach the process skills the Common Core requires: finding facts, creating a causal chain, drawing inference from a text. “And it has an online piece, too--they gave me a site license for a year--it allows kids to work at their level. I’ve got kids at the 1st grade level in reading in this room, and at the 5th.”

For Pickard, the new standards have a little back-to-the-future air. She’s brought back manipulatives for math: “They haven’t been out for years.”

But none of this is easy. All four teachers report lots of off-the-clock time reworking their teaching, and they share an uncertainty about how things will work. “It’s kind of like I’m a first year teacher again,” says Chavez.

Photos from top: Kathleen Pickard with her student at Cedargrove Elementary; Carol Gilkinson with her student Washington Elementary. Photo by CTK.

(Next: What the Charter Oak District did to get the Common Core up and running.)

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