Dumas Elementary teacher Nadjea Butler-Wilson leads her 3rd-grade students in a lesson on reading a persuasive paragraph. The author believes his town needs a new library. Butler-Wilson wants her students to analyze his argument.

 “The reason he’s giving you is that the library is too small. How can you prove that? What is some fact about the library that will show it’s too small?” she prompts the class.

 “Some people think it’s too small,” one boy says.

But this is not the answer Butler-Wilson is looking for. She pushes the students to give facts to prove their point.  A girl suggests one, saying, “More people keep coming in [the library] and there’s not enough room.”

Learning how to construct written arguments, the goal of this lesson, is an important element of the new Common Core State Standards, set to begin phasing in next year. Last year, Dumas was one of 35 schools that became “early adopters” of the standards and were given money to pay for substitutes while teachers worked on model lesson plans aligned to the standards. The lesson plans became the basis for curriculum guides.

(Dumas and two other early adopter schools, Canter and Armstrong, are closing. The Dumas building in Woodlawn will stay open as children from nearby Wadsworth transfer over and the school is renamed Wadsworth.)

As CPS begins to phase in the standards, one group of teachers will have a particularly tough task. Teachers of young children will have to expose students to high-level ideas without relying on strategies that are not geared toward young children; for example, too much desk work that could easily frustrate them and, in turn, make learning more difficult.

In fact, many early childhood teachers have long resisted efforts to impose academic expectations on young children. The Common Core standards have re-ignited the debate, and the fear that tasks meant for older students will be “pushed down” to younger children.

But educators say that, with careful work, teachers can learn to adapt. At Dumas and other early adopter schools, preschool and primary teachers are striking a delicate balance, slowly incorporating lessons that teach Common Core concepts and skills to young children at a level and pace that are developmentally appropriate.

Principals also say young students can handle the Common Core, if teachers give them the right support.

When very young students respond to a topic by talking about their likes and dislikes, Dumas Principal Macquline King says, teachers refer them back to the text they have read. “We understand what you like, but what does it say in the text?” she explains.

Nancy Hanks, the principal at Melody Elementary, says that a lesson in which students look for details in a text can be made accessible to those who don’t write yet: Some students may write the details, some may draw them, and others may dictate them to the teacher, she explained at a Chicago Principals and Administrators Association panel.

“In raising the bar, [students] jump right up to it,” Hanks believes.

Hanks once saw students drawing pictures of dolphins after reading a book about dolphins, but realized that the pictures didn’t have specific details in them. So she told them to re-do the pictures. Some of the details the new pictures showed included dolphins’ spouts and dolphins coming up for air.

Rhonda Atkins, a preschool teacher at Dumas, says that meeting with kindergarten teachers and learning about the standards helped her align lessons with the expectations her students will face when they leave preschool.

Teaching students about counting money entailed getting a book about money that was appropriate for preschoolers, Atkins explains. “You talk about something preschoolers understand–has anybody ever gotten money for [their] birthday or for Christmas? Did you get coins? Did you get dollars?”

She also asked parents to count loose change with their children to reinforce the concept at home.

Other concepts Atkins introduces include shapes, ordinal numbers (first, second, third and so on) and writing.

“Children have been working on how to write sentences. My very high-level students are able to write paragraphs,” she says. “There’s only a few, but you try to push them further.”

Breaking down complex texts

Cardenas Elementary Principal Jeremy Feiwell says that having students read more complex material has paid off with higher test scores on the NWEA MAP assessment, which measures the ability to understand complex texts and is given to children as young as 3rd grade. The ability has “skyrocketed” among Cardenas students, Feiwell says.

Referring to evidence from the text is an important part of the Common Core, and Feiwell says even children as young as 1st grade can do it. Proof hangs on the wall of Maricela Aguirre’s 1st-grade classroom, where a collection of student work shows answers to questions about a story featuring animals, with evidence to back up students’ thoughts. “How did the pig outsmart the wolf? How do you know?” reads one prompt.

In a pre-K classroom, teacher Maria Morin reads the story “Thinking One Can,” an earlier version of the story that became the classic children’s book “The Little Engine That Could.”

But this story is read aloud from a teacher’s guide, with only one picture.  Morin tells her students it will be more challenging to listen to the story without looking at pictures to tell what is going on.

At the end, Morin asks students what lesson the story is trying to teach. After some discussion, she re-reads the sentence where the story sums up its moral.

Feiwell explains that Morin’s teaching shows two shifts spurred by the Common Core. First, Morin is showing students how to summarize main ideas using evidence from the text. Second, by exposing children to a story without pictures, she is helping them get ready to understand higher-level books down the road.

In Elizabeth Rickey’s 3rd grade class, students work through a play about the Greek mythological character Medusa, who was transformed into a monster when a goddess turned her hair into snakes.

“We were doing a shared reading of a play about Medusa, and we were looking at it through her perspective,” Rickey explains. She asked students taking on Medusa’s role to answer questions like “What do you think about the way Athena treated you?” and “Why do you think she changed your hair into snakes?”

“It’s a really challenging thing to put themselves in the character’s shoes,” Rickey says.  At the same time, they are talking about how to differentiate their own point of view from that of the author.

From basic arithmetic to understanding concepts

In 2nd-grade teacher Eva Verta’s room at Columbia Explorers Elementary, students practice counting, using math worksheets with pictures of manipulatives.

“Remember, I should be able to follow how you’re counting by checking your labels,” Verta reminds the students. She speaks directly to one boy: “You know what, Emilio? I cannot read your mind when I look at these labels. I can’t see how you counted. I look at yours and I say, ‘Hmm, how did you get 501?’”

With the Common Core, math must go beyond just getting the right answer. Students must be able to explain their thinking and demonstrate understanding—in this case, by labeling each item in the drawings.

Columbia Explorers is not an early adopter school, but has been incorporating the English standards for a couple years. This year, the school began to implement the math standards.

Principal Jose Barrera says that based on the school’s experience, redesigning lessons will be hard work.

“Nothing’s going to happen with CPS giving you this magic kit,” he says. “You have to take ownership, 1,000 percent.”

In 3rd-grade teacher Jennifer Ford’s room, some students practice multiplication tables on worksheets. Other children, working in groups, say them out loud using flashcards.

Before long, Ford gathers the whole class in a circle. Picking one number at a time, she has students surround her for an exercise. The first number she gives out is five.

One by one, each student in the circle reels off a math fact of his or her choosing that involves five:

“Five times one is five.”

“Six times five is 30.”

“You got it,” Ford says.

“Five times six is 30.”

“Five times ten is 50.”

Curriculum coordinator Beth West explains that one Common Core goal is to make sure students master skills “fluently” so they can use them with ease. In the earlier grades, this includes a sizable dose of mental math.

Terry Carter, who is leading Common Core implementation at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, says schools run by AUSL are focusing mostly on math in grades pre-K to 3. AUSL manages 25 schools and is slated to take on six more with this year’s school actions.

The schools are working with the Erikson Institute’s Early Mathematics Education Project on ways to make math concepts accessible and appropriate for youngsters.

As part of the Common Core, Carter says, students must be able to explain and demonstrate their thinking using manipulatives and visual models.

Children should also learn to persevere in solving tough math problems.

“The Common Core likes to see the endurance and stamina of children to be inquiry-based. Children are allowed to struggle with a problem rather than being told or funneled [to an answer with] teachers breaking down every step,” Carter says.

To learn how to make those changes, AUSL teachers are working in groups to practice lessons.

One teacher teaches a lesson in another teacher’s classroom while colleagues observe. Then, they analyze what went well and what went poorly, and teach a revised version of the lesson to a different class.

Not necessarily a disconnect

Sandra Alberti, director of state and district partnerships and professional development for the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, is hopeful about what the Common Core could mean for early childhood teachers.

“What the standards do is signal to early childhood educators and everyone in the system that… these are a list of things kids need time to develop, play with, and explore,” Alberti says.

In math, Alberti says, giving students more time with the material can slow down instruction and allow time for deeper conceptual understanding.

Currently, most math teachers teach strategies and tricks students can use to get the right answer.  “That’s not math,” she says.  Some curricula focus on concepts but fall short at having students actually practice enough problems. But, Alberti says, “We shouldn’t make a choice between having kids get the answer right and having them explain their thinking.” 

With reading, she says, the most important piece of the standards is to challenge students to engage with material above their level because that’s how they will grow as readers.

“It’s very hard for (students) to catch up to grade-level peers when everything we give them has been scaffolded,” Alberti says. “If they’re not given a more complex text, they’re not going to develop a more complex understanding.”

At Dumas, Butler-Wilson says that the Common Core can be a good fit for early childhood because the standards ask students to use their imagination and ideas. 

Students can master the standards, she believes, “but it requires everyone to change the way they think about teaching and learning. It requires the teacher to be more of a facilitator in the classroom as opposed to being at the front [teaching] one lesson the same way to all the students. The standards can’t be reached that way.”

Butler-Wilson recalls a math lesson that required students to do a scavenger hunt for items of a certain length –a foot, an inch or a yard – and made posters of the results. The goal was to help strengthen their understanding of the concept.

“When they would think about an inch, they would think about the things they discovered in the classroom,” she says.

Elizabeth Najera, principal of Velma Thomas Early Childhood Center, also doesn’t necessarily see a mismatch between Common Core expectations and what students should be learning in preschool.

A team of teacher leaders in the school has identified what they want children to know in order to be ready for kindergarten. One thing that’s key, she says, is making sure teachers intentionally design instruction to build on children’s knowledge.

Teachers at Velma Thomas try to use open-ended questions to develop higher-level thinking skills, even in very young students, and Najera sees that as a good fit. 

“Some of the things that are in the Common Core, I think they are not too different from what we are doing already,” she says.  But a lot will depend on how the district changes its expectations for preschool teachers, she adds. “I guess we kind of have to wait on that.”

Early Childhood Resource Page: http://catalyst-chicago.org/early-childhood-education-resource-center/

Common Core Resource Page: http://catalyst-chicago.org/common-core-state-standards-resource-center/

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