And now, for something completely different

The first two days of the new school year under my belt and I have to say I’m pretty excited about it, but last week I might not have said so.

I’m sure a lot of you have heard at least something about Common Core State Standards. In theory, it all seems like a good idea. Shouldn’t an Algebra class in Sacramento teach the same things as an Algebra class in Iowa? I have had students move into my school mid year and they can’t transfer their knowledge because the classes are so different in scope and sequence. It certainly seems that if all the states had the same standards, then students would be better prepared for their next step, whether its college or trade school, or a career.

There are two entirely different sets of problems with the whole thing. The first is what most people have heard about. The federal government has too much control over the minutia of our lives. I’m not going to disagree and what has the federal government ever done really well anyway? The second set of problems is significantly more important. No one, up to this point, has been able to tell teachers exactly what Common Core means to the classroom. The early implementation at the elementary level has largely been chaotic. Most students and most parents do not even understand assignments that have been sent home. In an effort to encourage students to think “outside the box,” teachers are presenting assignments in a manner that is just confusing. They don’t seem to understand the difference between allowing different thinking and forced confusion. The idea is to let students learn in ways they feel comfortable with, but too often it has been about forcing students to be uncomfortable.

Clarity snuck into our pre-service meetings this year. Other than the fact that we had three days to change everything, I finally began to see some benefit potential for the new way of learning… and that it isn’t really new. Many of the teaching strategies that I learned in my credential and masters programs, and have been discouraged from using in my current assignment, are exactly what we are being asked to do now.

So, I rearranged my classroom in groups. The first two days have been a total divergence from what I have done for the past 10 years or more. Rather than present a rule, show a process, deliver an example and then let the students try on their own, my new process is to present a problem and let the students develop a method to solve it amongst themselves. The different groups communicate and find multiple paths to the same solution. They talk to and encourage each other. The students dictate how the material will be taught. Not what is taught, but how it will be taught. The students show me where they are and I can then take them from there to where they need to be. Students have less homework and more responsibility. Students learn to learn.

Truth be told, I’m still not excited about the federal government managing my classroom, but I am excited about the amount of learning that will go on in that room this year, by me as well as my students.