What a Common Core Classroom Really Looks Like ~ Brad Clark

Brad Clark is a Kentucky State Fellow for the Hope Street Group, blogger and Virtual Community Organizer for the Center for Teaching Quality, and a fourth and fifth grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Simmons Elementary in Versailles, Kentucky. He tweets at @notbradclark.

It was a typical Thursday morning in my classroom about a year ago. Students were busy at their clusters of desks, working in small teams to create comic strips based on a chapter from Alice and Wonderland.

While this might seem like an art class activity, it was actually an example of the Kentucky Core Academic Standards in action. Students had to analyze a complex piece of literature and give a visual summary analyzing characters’ actions, dialogue, and thoughts. They were learning the elements of a novel—and having fun while doing it.

Lily, a fourth grader, approached my work station. “Mr. Clark, what does summarize mean again?” she asked.

I paused. “Well, if I asked you to summarize each scene in your comic strip, what would you tell me?” I asked her.

“I would have to talk about the setting. And character interactions and the narrator and stuff, wouldn’t I?” Lily answered her own question—and then went back to her group to explain what she had discovered.

Lily is now in my fifth grade class. She daily demonstrates the ability to collaborate and communicate with her peers. She is resilient. She understands how to persevere and not give up when she doesn’t know the answer. And she’s only ten years old.

In the four years since Kentucky transitioned to Common Core State Standards I have seen numerous students make changes just as impressive as Lily, and in even earlier grades. It’s no accolade to myself or my colleagues, though we have worked hard to implement new practices. What has changed is what we expect of the kids in our classrooms and the level of intentionality of our instructional design.

Prior to the introduction of Kentucky Core Academic Standards, teachers were limited in the scope of what we could tackle in the classroom. With several hundred content requirements to address over the course of a school year, we effectively had a script to follow. Taking extra time on a certain area meant scrimping on others. If a student had trouble with a lesson, it often demanded time outside of class to address.

The Kentucky Core Academic Standards provide fewer, clearer objectives for every student at each grade level. In turn, that provides more freedom to focus on student needs and dig deeper into critical thinking skills. The new standards encourage greater student autonomy, and help create stronger building blocks by setting forth a more logical progression in skill sets; students are able to make meaning of the content.

Last month, Kentucky released its latest report card for public schools. For the third year, college-readiness rates increased. Graduation rates increased, and the inequality gap shrunk. Proficiency rates among elementary and middle school students made steady gains. Taken as a whole, those are pretty good signs what Kentucky teachers are doing is working.

The standards don’t just impact students—they affect teachers as well. Thousands of classroom practitioners across the country are working to increase their effectiveness and share best practices via organizations like the Hope Street Group and virtual networks like the CTQ Collaboratory. We are honing our craft and finding better ways to challenge and engage our students.

A recent Education Evolving survey found that 91% of Americans believe that teachers should have greater control over schools and student success. Some 75% of teachers nationwide support the Common Core. And where teacher support for the Common Core wanes, you are sure to find teachers who are absent from the decision-making processes that impact classrooms.

So what’s the takeaway? We must trust teachers to do their jobs. And we must support the tools that teachers need to be successful: including the Common Core.

But without the support of policy makers and parents, my colleagues and I will not have all the resources we need to deeply impact student learning. In the ongoing debate about the standards, too few people are asking the true experts—teachers—what children really need in their classrooms.

I’m convinced that the Common Core standards are the right thing for U.S. schools; they have had a deep impact on student learning in Kentucky. My fourth-grade students are developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills that I didn’t even begin to approach until I was in college.

So parents: what can you do to support your children as learners? Ask their teachers about the standards. Explore some resources specially designed for parents. Ask to visit your child’s classroom, or send your child’s teacher an email.

Support your children’s future by supporting their teachers—and the tools we need to prepare kids for 21st-century success.