Courtesy of Gabriela Gonzalez
Gabriela Gonzalez, who teaches 2nd grade in the Los Angeles area, shares her advice about Common Core instruction in a blog and at workshops.

As a former student who came to school speaking only Spanish, elementary teacher Gabriela Orozco Gonzalez says she can relate to her Los Angeles-area students, who are mostly English learners. In her quest to give students the best education possible during her 17 years as an educator, Gonzalez has become a “teacher leader” whom others turn to for advice and resources for teaching the Common Core standards in math and English language arts, along with standards for English learners.

Courtesy of Gabriela Gonzalez

Gabriela Gonzalez is a 2nd-grade teacher in Montebello Unified who is a Common Core expert.

She shares tips and insights in her blog, called the “Common Core Café.” Many of her posts draw from her classroom experiences, as well as from teacher training workshops in Montebello Unified or other presentations she has given.

Gonzalez became a Common Core expert through her work writing test questions for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which developed the standardized tests in math and English language arts administered to California students in grades 3-8 and 11 each spring. She also shares Common Core ideas on Facebook, Twitter, and in the National Education Association’s online EDCommunities Common Core K-5 group.

Below are excerpts from an interview with EdSource:

Q. What sparked your interest in the Common Core state standards?

A. When the Common Core started (after 2010), it was like there was this big darkness where nobody knew what to do. The state just rolled the standards out, but there was no curriculum aligned to the Common Core and teachers were left on their own figuring out what to do and what to teach.

My district curriculum wasn’t aligned. No one at the district office was trained. We had consultants, but they had never taught Common Core.

I started looking for answers and resources and that’s when I came across the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and they were looking for teachers to write questions for the state tests. 

Q. How did your work on curriculum and tests lead to your blog?

A. About six years ago, I spent an entire summer writing ‘performance tasks’ for the Smarter Balanced tests, which involved questions around various stimuli, like a video or picture or text passage. We were asking, ‘What is a performance task?’ ‘How do we write it?’ Nobody knew.

I learned through trial and error in my own classroom. I wrote 3rd through 5th grade English language arts and math performance tasks. I found myself with an archive of research and that’s how my blog was born.

I found if I blogged about it and I labeled it or tagged it, I could utilize it.

If you go to ‘labels’ on my blog, you will see performance tasks, and you can find examples.

Also, I’ve been a teacher leader at my school for about 10 years. We started writing units of study and really banking our own curriculum so it would be available to other teachers. Many of these are on my blog.

Q. How are Common Core tests different from the state’s previous standardized tests?

A. It’s no longer just a test where you bubble in answers. What I like is it involves video or images that could tie into core literature. What I think is unique is there’s a classroom interaction activity, where teachers can go back and review vocabulary and gauge comprehension.

In answering questions, students can do a selected response, constructed response or essay, which I think is the most productive part of this assessment, because there are several opportunities for students to construct their own sentences – making meaning of what they’ve learned, then demonstrating that through their writing.

For a constructed response, you do a short answer, a short paragraph – maybe a few sentences. You use the text to state your evidence. The question requires that you utilize the text.

The big difference is:  before, students could just guess and bubble in the answer and they might get it right because of prior knowledge. The big equalizer on the Smarter Balanced tests is they have to use the text provided to respond, so they can’t just tap into prior knowledge.

Q. Do you find that English learners are at a disadvantage when test questions assume prior knowledge?

A. A lot of it has to do with experience. Some of my students have never left the four-block radius around their homes. They’ve never gone anywhere.

I can relate in the sense that I grew up in an urban neighborhood in LA. If you put up a test question about a hot beach and ask what the water feels like, they’re not going to be able to answer that.

With the Common Core tests, at least students are given some kind of reference, such as videos, and they can tap into that to respond.

A Common Core performance task probably wouldn’t ask students about a beach because that would be biased. Questions are often based on pieces of literature, not based on students’ own personal experiences.

In the past, students were often asked, ‘How would you feel (in a certain situation)?’ We found that our students couldn’t put themselves in that situation because they’ve never had those experiences.

Q. How important is teacher collaboration in your district?

A. My Common Core Café includes teacher-led workshops at the district office for Transitional Kindergarten through 12th grade. All teachers are invited to participate. For instance, with my visible learning workshop, teachers from Transitional Kindergarten to 12th grade could attend.

Work happens with the conversations and having teachers collaborating and engaged. And it just becomes more meaningful because it’s teacher-led and teacher-authored.

We also record our lessons and then we share them. And sometimes our workshops are virtual.

Our district decided to do away with a percentage of money for consultants. I pitched it to them. I said, ‘Look, you have consultants coming out and they haven’t ever taught Common Core and we have created units of study, which are aligned. And we’d love to share, if you’re willing to give us space and compensate the teachers.’ And they said, ‘Yes.’

Q. What is different about the Common Core compared to previous standards?

A. It allows for more creativity. It allows students to spend more time deeply looking into a certain standard. For example, in math, we spend so much more time on number sense and really making sure our students understand the fundamentals of numbers. I found my students thrive because they’re given more time. With that time, the students can actually utilize what they’ve learned.

The new standards focus so much more on academic language and literacy, and I really have fewer students who struggle with language after they leave my class. That’s something I’m really excited about. They’re laboring. They’re given time to use the language of the lesson. They are developing 21st century skills such as collaboration. They’re constantly engaged in conversations and have multiple opportunities to learn.

It’s not just kind of ‘spray and pray’ – like throwing out the standards and hoping the students understand. You’re spending time creating language.

We go deeper into learning so you’re able to uncover so many layers to a standard, such as phonemic awareness. Literacy includes not only students learning to read, but understanding what they read. Being able to have that time for the understanding is really key for a lifelong learner.

And students are writing in every single content area. In the past, we were only writing in language arts. Now, we’re even writing in math. You have to explain your thinking and your process.

Q. How important is the integration of English Language Development (ELD) standards for English learners with the Common Core standards?

A. It’s key. The Common Core standards wouldn’t even be relevant if we didn’t have the ELD standards to meet the needs of our students, because there are so many different levels of language.

When students come to Transitional Kindergarten or Kindergarten, like I did, with only their native language, you have to front load so much to communicate.

I use Structured English Instruction. So it’s all-English, but very heavily focused on the fact that I have a predominately English learner class. We focus on language all day.

What I like in the ELD standards are the different stages of students’ use of language from lesson to lesson, really stressing that academic vocabulary, which I don’t think is stressed enough if you have Common Core only. The stages are: emerging, expanding and bridging.

Q. How do students move from one stage to another?

A. Emerging is at the beginning stage – entering a new language and having basic, short answers and working with students to improve language acquisition. Then they move to expanding language and bridging, where they’re making connections with language – maybe through cognates that translate into English, such as ‘carne,’ and ‘carnivore.’ That’s where the bridging happens, adding more proficiency. The child can articulate and you’re just expanding the comprehension.

I focus on the writing and really have them write richer and more full sentences where they show more shades with meaning and deeper understanding.

Q. Does your English learner background help you feel a connection to your students?

A. Absolutely. I speak Spanish. I was born in this country, but my parents are immigrants. About 98 to 99 percent of my students are English learners. I’m reflected in my students everyday. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to teach in the school I did.

I can’t see myself leaving – especially the profession – because I see how much I love teaching in my community.

Q. What attracts you to teaching?

A. Professionally, I’m fulfilled. I’m excited about education.

For me, it’s a calling. It’s something I wanted to do since I was a child.

I love being able to have opportunities to collaborate with other educators because it keeps the work exciting – and then I can bring back all those gems to my students.

Q. What kinds of gems?

A. Like hearing someone who talks about reading a new book, who’s excited about something they’ve read about different pedagogies or teaching styles and strategies, for instance.

At my workshops, conversations with the audience help me become a better teacher, because I realize, ‘I didn’t think of that.’

One of the big things is, besides being an English learner, I’m also a technology learner. I’m in my mid-40s. I’m an immigrant to technology. Students are natives.

Sometimes, teachers attending my workshops are more tech-savvy. I may talk about taking out a sheet of paper and they describe how they do some things electronically. Then, I think, ‘I should be doing that too. I should be integrating more technology.’

Q. How is Common Core implementation going across the state and country, based on your observations and discussions with others?

A. It’s hit and miss. It depends on the district and it depends on the quality of the investment they’ve made in teachers to train them properly and allow them to take really creative liberties to create their own work.

That’s one of the equalizers in our district. When we wrote our own units of study, it was all teacher-led and that allowed teachers to have more of a buy-in. They felt valued and the work was more meaningful. We also shared samples of student work. That’s been very successful in our district.

But I’ve visited other districts, where teachers say, ‘I wish we had that.’ They keep adopting curriculum materials, but some are not Common Core-aligned.

All I can do is guide them in how to approach their department, or their administrator, or their district office to maybe present, like a pitch that would hopefully lead the people who release funds to support teachers in this training. It’s all about support and really allowing teachers to develop their craft.

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