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Raising the Bar on Expectations for Student Learning ~ Ouida Newton

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Ouida Newton has served as an educator in Arkansas for the past 37 years. She currently teaches math for grades seven through twelve at the high school. During her 34-year career, she has taught math, Algebra I and II, sixth-grade science, pre-algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, calculus, trigonometry, transition to college math, physics, and Algebra A & B.

Mrs. Newton is currently the 2015 Arkansas Teacher of the Year.

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(Ouida Newton presented the following remarks to the Arkansas Common Core Review Council on 4/23/15. You can watch her compelling testimony here or read it below.)

As an educator in Arkansas, I know we all want students in Arkansas to be successful in whatever their future might be whether it is college or career.  We all want what is best for our students.  There have been a lot of misunderstandings about what the Common Core State Standards are and what they ask of our students.  So instead of speaking to you about what Common Core is, I would like to show you.

Over the last several weeks my 7th graders have been learning about surface area and volume.  In the past, the framework that would have guided my teaching would have been M 13.7.4 Derive and use formulas for surface area and volume of prisms and cylinders and justify them using geometric models and common materials.  The emphasis here was on students being able to use the formula.  The classroom experience for the students would focus on them being able to use the formulas in different situations. We would first go through the process of deriving the formula and end up with the formulas for surface area of a rectangular prism:  SA = 2lw + 2lh = 2wh and of a cylinder SA = 2π r² + 2πrh.  In the classroom, there would have been practice exercises using the formulas followed by a time of working on open response items.  The focus of the learning would be making sure the students could use the formulas.  This is probably the way you and I all were taught with the exception of the time of practicing on open response items.

Since implementing Common Core, my teaching has changed drastically and I believe for the better.  The standard that guides my teaching for this concept is now 7.G.6 Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, volume and surface area of two and three-dimensional objects composed of triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons, cubes, and right prisms.  As you can see the focus has changed entirely.  The focus now is on students being able to think critically and use information not just on being able to perform an algorithm.  What the students do now is totally different.

We begin by investigating and looking at area, volume and surface area of different 2 and 3-dimensional objects.  We then progress to the students designing a sports bag.  This is an MDC (Mathematics Design Curriculum) lesson that has students make sense of a problem and persevere in solving it by applying math skills.  From there we progress to students becoming the CEO of a candy company and choosing from four different possibilities of packaging which one would be the most cost efficient.  In this activity, students have to apply the several different math concepts at the same time to make a decision.   While doing this they also have to construct an argument and defend why they believe their package would be the best for the company to choose.  

Next, the class progresses to being given 18 cylindrical shaped candies and designing a carton to package and sell them in.  They measure, calculate surface area and volume and then decide if the package they designed would be cost efficient.  Finally, they actually make their carton.  Each one of these activities requires students to use math to model the situation, attend to precision and critique the reasoning of others.

Just by changing the focus of the standard from the formula and algorithm to a real-world application, we have raised the level of the students’ thinking.  Students are required to think critically, analyze and construct.  By just changing the focus of student learning, the class has moved from learning at the knowledge and comprehension level to application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.  Students are developing the ability to think and reason.

Students today carry more information in their pockets to access with their thumbs than you and I learned in 12 years of school.  Our job as educators is to help students learn how to use the information they have at their fingertips.  We need to expect more from our students than just memorizing facts or following algorithms. We want students to develop creative and critical thinking skills.  Common Core does that.

With Common Core, I feel as if I have been given the freedom to really teach kids again.  Before, I felt like I had a checklist of skills that I had to cover before testing time.  Since I have been using Common Core to guide my teaching I have been able to get back to making sure students understand a concept.

Common Core is not my curriculum.  Common Core is my guide.

Common Core does not dictate how I teach my students, but it does raise the bar on expectations for student learning.

No longer do we live in a society that is isolated from one another by boundaries and distance.  Not only do students have access to vast amounts of information at their fingertips, but they also have to be able to function in a global economy.  Common Core expectations will prepare students to be able to compete for jobs, not just at a local level, but at a global level as well.

I want you to think about the Class of 2015 that will be graduating very soon.  Most of the members of the Senior Class of 2015 were born in 1996 or 1997.  Think about what the world was like when they were born.  Google had not been birthed and a cell phone was not something you could carry in your pocket.  Face book, Instagram and twitter were not the primary means of communication between teenagers.

Now think about this year’s kindergarten class.  They will become the Class of 2027.  What will the world be like when they are ready to step out into the world?  We can’t answer that question.  How can we prepare students for a world that does not exist?  Can it be done?  I think it can. But it is going to require more from our education system than having students become gatherers of information and consumers of information.  Our education system is going to have to develop critical thinking skills in our students that allow them to step out confidently into their future.  I believe implementation of Common Core is the first step.