Not If We Don’t Change the Way We Teach

arizona-teacherThe recess whistle has just blown. I sit at my desk, shoveling in the last few bites of my lunch. As students enter the classroom, I smile and give them quick directions. They begin to settle in, and I grab the next math worksheet on this week’s stack. I peruse it quickly to remind myself of what today’s lesson entails, despite the fact that our school’s math curriculum hasn’t changed in years. I use this curriculum with “fidelity” and at this point,  I know the activities inside and out. In the scope of how limited a teacher’s discretionary time is, math activities tended to not take much of it. Sound even a bit familiar?

This describes much of the math and reading instruction I did prior to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Sure, my colleagues and I put our personal touch on lessons. We used manipulatives, varied groupings, and a plethora of active participation strategies. At the end of the day, though, we were ultimately saddled to the Math and Reading programs that our district expected us to use.

Then came these “new standards” that were supposed to be very different. I vividly recall sitting in the first meeting my school had to discuss them. I hear chatter around me, commenting about how “These aren’t so different,” ”Oh, we’re already doing all of this!” Given the reaction from my colleagues and the perceived hype around the Common Core State Standards, I was unsure of how I should feel.

I leaned over to my principal and asked her if she thought these standards were really going to make a big difference. She said, “No. Not if we don’t change the way we teach.” I saw then that she understood that implementing these new, more rigorous standards meant more than just checking them off one by one and exclaiming “Done!” She already understood the instructional shifts the standards called for, and she knew that the way we teach mattered as much as what we teach.
I watched over the next year or so as my colleagues and I started to match the new standards to our old curricula, in an attempt to make it all “fit.” The fact that our old textbooks were simply not aligned to our new and greatly improved content standards became increasingly apparent. What were we to do? How could I change the way I taught to reflect the instructional shifts when what I had to use was not aligned to what I was meant to teach?

For our district, the solution was found in another big change: the adoption of a district wide common pacing calendar, and freedom from the shackles of those math and reading series that needed to be used with “fidelity.”  Now, for each standard, it was up to us, as professionals, to find aligned, rigorous resources: aligned texts, activities, practice pages,  to engage our students. We could use our old curricula if they were still aligned in certain areas, or we could find our own.  It was thrilling, but daunting.

I began to notice some poignant changes. The conversations within our team meetings, which had usually been more business and task-oriented, started to become more collaborative and more productive. We were becoming more analytical, thoughtful, and reflective of our teaching practice.

One of us would share a resource we’d found and explain our rationale for its use. Another colleague would share another, and we’d discuss the merits of each resource and how they might help our students do the major learning of the unit. We began to analyze what was missing and thoughtfully searching out activities that targeted specific skills, or, often times, we created our activities.  We’d constantly refer back to the standard, using it as an anchor for thoughtful conversations about what mastery looks like and how we’d get our students there.

The Common Core, in and of itself, doesn’t mandate or even guide teachers to engage in this kind of collaboration. States, districts, schools, and teachers have the sole power to select the content and strategies employed in classrooms. Fortunately, though, the adoption of the standards brought about renewed interest and attention to the resources and curriculum teachers are using to facilitate learning for students.

When my district finally did away with a mandated math and reading curriculum, teachers were given the gift of using our professional judgment. We’ve earned our degrees, certificates, and endorsements, spent hours practicing and perfecting our craft, and now we were finally trusted to decide what’s best for our students. That might mean using our old textbooks, I still do for portions of the day, or having the ability to look elsewhere.

I know not everyone reading this will be in the same boat as me. I know many districts have purchased new “aligned” materials or are still using outdated ones. I recognize that each administrator has different levels of required fidelity to these materials.

But, regardless of your circumstance, I challenge you to view the adoption of the Common Core, and what you’ve learned about the instructional shifts that accompanied them, as an opportunity to refresh your practice.

How can you shift or enliven your practice? What can be replaced, moved, swapped or enhanced in your curriculum? Check out the videos and high-quality aligned resources from Achieve the CoreTeaching the CoreThe Teaching ChannelBetter Lesson, and EngageNY for ideas.

The bottom line is that while we are not textbook authors or curriculum designers, we are teachers. We are the only ones who know the students in our classroom and what they really need today, what they’ll likely need tomorrow, and what they might need next week. The higher standards many of our states have adopted provide an incredible opportunity to prepare our students for rigorous college experiences and fulfilling careers. But not if we don’t change the way we teach.

Dayna Burke is a first grade teacher at Sahuarita Primary School in Sahuarita, Arizona. In addition to teaching, she serves on her district’s Professional Development Team and works as a Reading Coach. In 2014, she was named a finalist for Arizona Teacher of the Year and has spent her time since advocating for educators and students all throughout the state. She is pursuing National Board Certification in the area of Literacy: Reading and Language Arts.  When she isn’t teaching, Dayna spends her time with her four year old son, husband and two dogs.