About 15,000 California teachers and principals gave up one of their summer vacation days to talk among themselves Friday about a subject that, depending on how the school day is going, can excite, inspire, frustrate or irritate: the Common Core.
Better Together brought together educators at 33 locations statewide to simultaneously share strategies, classroom victories and mistakes about the new academic standards in math and English language arts. The free event was organized by California State University, the Santa Cruz-based New Teacher Center and an association of the state’s independent private colleges and was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
California and 42 other states have adopted Common Core in whole, in part or, through rebranding, under a different name. Most of the venues, from small halls on college campuses to the Pasadena Convention Center, reached registration capacity days ago.
Within a few weeks, parents will be receiving and the state will be posting results on the first Smarter Balanced tests in the Common Core standards, and the public’s focus will shift to test scores. But Friday was a day for teachers to talk about their craft and to share advice and lessons.
Except for keynote remarks by actress and teacher advocate Yvette Nicole Brown and astronaut Leland Melvin, beamed eventwide, teachers spent most of the day in small groups discussing topics they spontaneously chose by placing Post-it Notes on a big whiteboard.
EdSource Today sent reporters to four of the sites to capture some of the conversations. Here’s what they found.
San Jose State University
At conferences like Friday’s teachers summit, where participants chose their own topics, the rule is that if you find yourself checking Facebook, then get up and go elsewhere: You’ve chosen the wrong room.
No one walked out of the session at San Jose State on Learning With Games, one of 40 sessions ranging from “Motivation/Rewards” and “Blended Learning” to “Going Paperless” and “Classroom Management.” The dozen teachers went nonstop, swapping favorite websites, like Quizlet, Kahoots, Nearpod and Zaption, where teachers can embed questions and quizzes in videos. They filled up three pages of notes in a half-hour on a Google Doc.
There was no debate about whether games were a smart use of time: To a teacher, they were convinced that students who loathe traditional quizzes and tests can become all-in learners when immersed in games.
“It’s been challenging to get kids to work in a team,” said 8th grade teacher Barbara Barrett.
Gloria McGriff, a math and science teacher at Campbell Middle School, uses a geocaching app to teach kids how to use maps, then virtually visit far-flung places and go on treasure hunts. At Google Hangouts, connecting classes all over the world, students who are stuck on a concept can ask students in China how they got an answer, she said.
But good games don’t have to be cyber-based. Time-honored Bingo still works, as do Cootie-catchers – aka fortune tellers – even in high school. Mari Adler uses them to ask complex questions in her French and Spanish classes at Prospect High in Saratoga.
The alphabet game works, too. McGriff assigns each student a letter. They have to move around the room and work together to answer questions and spell words. “It’s how I teach kids to work cooperatively at the beginning of the year,” she said.
At a session on middle school Common Core math, 8th grade teacher Barbara Barrett said she was hoping the second year of teaching Common Core would be easier. “It’s been challenging to get kids to work in a team” – one of the key objectives of the Common Core, she said. Some of the roles that students are usually assigned to promote cooperation “seem so stilted,” she said.
Valentina Mascorro, who teaches 6th grade at Los Banos Middle School, agreed it can be challenging – but will get better. She said at the beginning of the year, getting students to share information “was like pulling teeth.” But they became comfortable by year-end. Rather than cold calling on them for answers, she let students work in pairs first. When called on, students could share a partner’s answer, but no one had the option not to speak, she said.
Elementary school teachers shared websites to find Common Core-aligned reading materials, something they find lacking in their schools.
High school teachers gave each other ideas to stop their students from sneaking onto forbidden websites during computer lab.
And kindergarten teachers talked about ways to make sure their children get enough play during the day.
All this played out in classrooms scattered around CSU Fullerton during Friday’s teaching summit. Cal State Fullerton’s session drew about 1,300 registrants, filling it to capacity.
The beginning and ending sessions were centered at the Titan Gym where teachers gathered at round tables and the stands to watch both live and wired-in speeches, meant to give them inspiration for the school year.
But teachers also got the chance to pick their own topics in EdCamps, which drew about 20 to 30 teachers each, depending on their distinct needs. There was a facilitator in each room, but no leader, allowing teachers to direct the conversations.
In the first morning session on reading, Zoila Gallegos, who teaches 8th through 12th grades at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, said she struggles to get her students – who often come in with low writing skills – to stay on task.
Threats of punishment don’t work because they are already in juvenile hall. “Candy is like magic,” Gallegos said. “Catch them being good.”
In the second session, transitional and traditional kindergarten teachers sat in a circle and talked about how they integrate play into learning, help special education students who may not be diagnosed yet and balance their time in both half- and full-day settings.
Leslee Milch, a reading specialist at Gilbert Elementary School in Buena Park, said she focuses on making sure children are learning skills while playing, such as sorting food in a kitchen area.
“Our power is knowing the standards and tying play to the standard,” Milch said.
Cal State Los Angeles
More than 500 teachers from across Southern California gathered at Cal State Los Angeles to share examples of what’s working with California’s implementation of the Common Core standards. They expressed frustration over problems with their roll-out. But generally, they were eager to exchange ideas with colleagues from throughout the region.
Montebello 2nd-grade teacher Gabriella Orozco Gonzales, who helped write questions for the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced Assessments, encouraged teachers to embrace creativity as they implement the Common Core.
“You are all the experts when it comes to teaching Common Core,” she told the audience. “No one knows more about what’s working and what’s not working. Embrace that authority you have.”
Other discussions focused on technology in the classroom, improving literacy in early education, and boosting science, technology, engineering and math education.
Rancho Palos Verdes English teacher Lovelyn Marquez-Prueher, 2015 California Teacher of the Year, spoke to colleagues about how to personally connect with English learners to ensure they feel included in classrooms.
She shared her experience growing up as an English learner and how she often felt isolated from fluent classmates, and from teachers who became frustrated with her because she could not comprehend lessons.
“Students really need to feel that they’re being supported by teachers,” she said. “A student who doesn’t feel supported becomes disengaged. And that will make our job even more difficult.”
During the more than two dozen breakout sessions, teachers exchanged contact information so they could to keep up with the latest trends in curriculum.
During one session, teachers talked about the challenge of incorporating technology in classrooms when some students have more access to laptops, iPads and other technology at home, while other classmates are introduced to the technology only when they begin school.
“Students really need to feel that they’re being supported by teachers,” said Lovelyn Marquez-Prueher, an English teacher at Rancho Palos Verdes. “A student who doesn’t feel supported becomes disengaged. And that will make our job even more difficult.”
Another session included a discussion of the challenges of teaching Common Core curriculum to special education students.
“I feel the best part of this summit is just meeting all these different teachers, and sharing ideas with them,” said Lucy Palmer, a 5th-grade teacher from Pomona.
A few recent college graduates attended the summit in hopes of landing their first teaching jobs. They spent much of the morning networking and passing out resumes.
St. Mary’s College
St. Mary’s College in Moraga was filled to capacity Friday with 500 teachers, administrators and students from the college’s Kalmanovitz School of Education eager to learn from each other.
The morale was upbeat, as participants embraced a day of collaboration “by teachers and for teachers” focused largely on how to successfully implement new Common Core standards.
“I hope that we have lots of fun together, learn together and change the world together,” said Chris Sindt, Dean of the School of Education.
Kevin Harrigan, a retired Oak Grove school district superintendent and former Mt. Diablo school district teacher and administrator, called the summit an “unconference” because topics were not pre-planned. He urged educators to think about the kind of environment they need to learn, before they headed out to various classrooms to share expertise and resources in 31 EdCamp breakout sessions.
Harrigan said he appreciates learning environments where risk-taking is valued, exploring new possibilities is honored and questions are encouraged.
Mt. Diablo High School Principal Liane Cismowski, who is a National Board Certified teacher, praised the EdCamp model because it allows teachers to control their own professional development.
“Think of one student whose life you made a difference in,” she asked the group. “Then say it out loud.”
The room erupted in a chorus of names as teachers collectively recalled the positive roles they have played in the lives of countless students throughout their numerous years of teaching.
Teachers discussed a wide range of issues during the EdCamp sessions, including Project-Based Learning, math standards and “flipping the classroom” through blended learning by asking students to watch online lectures at home, then do projects that would normally be considered homework during class guided by the teacher.
Ana Estrada, program director for the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, said the day was intended to provide an opportunity for teachers to “come together as a network to support each other.”
EdSource Today’s coverage of the Common Core is supported by the Gates Foundation and other foundations. EdSource maintains sole editorial control over the content of its coverage.