Middle school English teacher Kellie Madden already has a good grasp of the new Common Core State Standards. In fact, she has been teaching to those standards for the past two years without realizing it.
Madden teaches each summer in a program where students collaborate on projects that require critical thinking, communication skills and the ability to take charge of their own learning – essentially a blueprint for how to apply the new state standards. Adopted by California and 44 other states, the new standards emphasize an in-depth approach to subjects, the development of verbal and analytical skills, teamwork, and student-centered learning focused on real-world examples. Hands-on projects and robust discussions among students replace lecture-style teaching.
This school year, Madden is using almost every lesson she developed for the summer program to help 7th and 8th graders struggling with English in the intervention class she teaches during the regular school year at Katherine Edwards Middle School in Whittier City School District in Los Angeles County. In both programs, the students focus on “close reading,” in which they pay attention to how an author uses individual words and how his ideas unfold and build to a climax.
No statistics are available on how many California school districts are discovering that their summer programs may have already been using teaching methods that align to the Common Core standards, which are being implemented in most schools for the first time this academic year. But a recent report from the Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group Partnership for Children & Youth, Getting a Head Start on the Common Core, indicates that a number of districts are relying on summer programs to introduce and reinforce the new standards.
“The educators and staff at these programs emphasize learning that excites students in new ways about reading, science, writing and math,” wrote report author Mary Perry, an education consultant. “School agencies are finding that these summer learning programs … are consistent with instructional strategies recommended for the Common Core.”
Another report, released January, contends that expanded learning time, whether in summer or after-school, is essential to give teachers and students enough time to practice and master the new standards.
“The impact of the Common Core on classrooms – for both teachers and students – will be significant in many ways, not least of which is how time is used and the quantity of time needed to allow learning to flourish,” according to the report, Redesigning and Expanding School Time to Support Common Core Implementation, from the Washington D.C.–based think tank Center for American Progress and the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, an advocacy group for expanded learning.
Domani Kem, a social studies teacher who also teaches in Whittier’s summer program, has begun applying Common Core strategies this year in her regular classroom, encouraging students to explore, analyze and talk about issues.
She said the summer teaching experiences helped her with the transition away from a more lecture-based instruction in her regular classroom, making the process much less intimidating.
“The summer allows you to free yourself from thinking of how it should be traditionally,” she said.
The emphasis on students having some choice in what they are learning is central to the Common Core approach. Eric Richards, who teaches a course for incoming high school freshmen each summer, never knows what he is going to teach.
“Each year the kids pick a project that involves social justice or community service,” said Richards, who teaches special education students at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento City Unified during the school year.
“I’ve been doing Common Core stuff for years,” he said.
The service project last summer — a campaign about litter — integrated English and math. Students delved into statistics about the amount of litter in Sacramento, looked up a history of other litter campaigns and created a multimedia presentation.
Integrated learning is another element of the Common Core approach. “When English and math are tied together, students believe if you can be good at one, you can be good at the other,” Richards said.
Although he has only anecdotal evidence – “I get nothing but good reports from other teachers about the summer service kids” – he believes the program helps prepare students for high school and beyond.
“Summer service is essential because it sets them up with this skill set,” Richards said. “There is a level of cooperation and collaboration that goes into it.”
Common Core after school
THINK Together, California’s largest provider of after-school programming, is implementing Common Core strategies in both its summer and after-school programs in districts such as Santa Ana Unified and San Jose Unified.
Santa Ana Unified has been focused on “every student answers every question every time,” said Amy Reede, who is in charge of supporting Common Core strategies for THINK Together. “Everyone talks about the issue. It makes students feel heard, that their opinion matters.”
This approach is particularly useful for English learners, she said, because they hear the answers to a question multiple times so they feel better able to answer it themselves. Students, however, have to back up their opinions with evidence.
After-school staff participate in district Common Core trainings, Reede said, and also are aware of what students are learning in class. They ask students to choose to focus on something they have learned in class for their after-school projects.
For example, first graders in one class were eager to continue their study of weather and temperature. “What they really were interested in was thermometers – that mercury could kill you,” she said.
After-school staff got the kids thinking, asking them questions like, “What do you notice about temperature and time of day?” Kids would respond with their evidence: when the sun goes down, it gets colder.
At San Jose Unified, the after-school supervisor works with the school’s primary years programme coordinator in the International Baccalaureate Program to ensure that students have a smooth transition between school and after-school. Site supervisor Peter Reyes is trained by THINK Together in Common Core methods and also attends parent-teacher conferences to discuss the progress of the students in his care.
Fun and learning
The approach seems to be working. Students enthusiastically discuss new vocabulary words with each other, trying out using the words in sentences.
“I like learning new words and what do they mean,” said 2nd grader Natalie Gonzalez.
Students also consider an issue, such as why homework is important, and discuss it among themselves. “When you get to college, they don’t remind you to do your homework,” reasoned Katelyn Hinkel, 9. “It’s important to remember to do it because you might have a test.”
Reyes is an accomplished musician, and music is an important component in the program. Students collaborate and study the subject in depth — a Common Core learning style. For example, A.J. Joaquin, a 5th grader with long, jet-black hair, has started his own band at school, Fast Melody, and has composed his own music.
“He wrote a song this year based on a progression in a Red Hot Chili Peppers song he learned two years ago,” Reyes said. “He transposed it to the piano in a different key.”
A.J., who plays lead guitar, also composed the part for the bass guitar. He and his band members are still working on the words.
The students also collaborate on science experiments. Most expressed enthusiasm about the lava lamps they had made, but 2nd grader Brandon Olguin was impressed with a failed experiment that taught him something. He was given a balloon and told to use the balloon to make a can move, but the balloon wasn’t allowed to touch the can.
“You blow in the balloon and pop it,” he said, explaining that the air from the balloon was supposed to move the can. “I tried, but I couldn’t make the can move.”
“You need a lot of air,” he concluded.