Why My Son Needs Common Core

February 3, 2014 7 comments

I know that there is a debate regarding the “new” math common core state standards.  I understand parents are frustrated with children having to learn “new” ways to add, subtract, multiply, or divide.  I understand that parents are frustrated with children having to show work and defend an answer, even when the answer is correct.  I understand your frustration as a parent.  I have a child who is off the charts in math.  He consistently scores in the 90th percentile and above on all standardized assessments.   He just “gets” math.  (His mom is a math educator.)  He is always frustrated when I ask him to defend his answer.  His typical response is, “because I know it’s right.”  I used to think common core was not written for children like him.  He does not need to draw a picture or learn a “new” way to divide.  I was wrong!  My son needs common core.

A few weeks ago we sat down and worked several TCAP (Tennesse State Assessment) type problems for math homework.  They were all division problems similar to the one below:

John has 12 apples.  He wants to share them with 3 friends.  How many apples does each person receive if John gets the same amount as all his friends?

My son was flying through these problems.  After a few moments of watching him, I realized he wasn’t even reading them.  I stopped him and asked him what he was doing.  This was his explanation:

“Mom, the lesson is on problems with division.  I just divide.  The bigger number always comes first, so I take the bigger number divided by the smaller number.”

Something inside my math teacher heart died.  I wanted to scream, “The bigger number doesn’t always come first!” and “What if the problem was multiplication and you assumed wrong?” and then I realized that our curriculum and check list standards have reduced real life mathematics to this.

A week later my son’s need for Common Core became evident.  We were at Publix grocery shopping and we came to the juice aisle.  Orange juice was on sale, 3 for $6.00.  At Publix, you do not have to buy all 3 to receive the sale price.  My son started to put three juice cartons in the cart.  I stopped him and explained we only had to buy one.  I then asked him, “If they are on sale for 3 for $6.00, how much is one carton of juice?”  Remember, my son was in the 98th percentile last year in math and he “gets” it.  His response, “$2.50? $3.00?”  What?!  We stopped in the grocery store and got out paper and pencil and I made him show me how he arrived at his answer.  He drew a picture.  Through this process, he realized his mistake.  He told me he didn’t realize it was a division problem.  He said, “Mom, I know 6 divided by 3 is 2, but I didn’t realize this was a division problem.”  So yes, my third grade son sometimes needs to draw pictures.  Memorizing his math facts is not enough.  He needs to understand the situations that necessitate the memorized facts.  He needs to be taught strategies to solve problems when they seem unfamiliar.  He needs Common Core.

Categories: Common Core, General

Why I Blog… for @k8nowak

December 3, 2013 1 comment

I took some time last week to scroll through my own blog and could not believe some of my old posts.  I hardly recognized my own words.  I am definitely not the same educator or the same person I was when I started this blog over three years ago.  I have changed.  My job has changed.  Education has changed.  Kate Nowak played such an integral role in starting me on the path to blogging so I wanted to respond to her request:

1. What hooked you on reading the blogs? Was it a particular post or person? Was it an initiative by the nice MTBoS folks? A colleague in your building got you into it? Desperation?

Dan Meyer.  I found Dan Meyer one summer through desperation.  My principal asked me to serve as department chair and I felt so unworthy.  I had a 25% failure rate in my classroom.  I had students who hated my class and did not see the purpose in being there.  From Dan’s blog I found Kate’s and Sam’s.  All of these blogs showed a passion for teaching I had never seen or experienced before.  I wanted to be a part.

2. What keeps you coming back? What’s the biggest thing you get out of reading and/or commenting?

Teaching is hard.  It is rewarding, but hard.  I see teachers everyday struggle and cry.  I see teachers leave their rooms in joy with the desire to share their successes and I see them hang their heads and want to hide from their failures.  I see how overwhelmed some of them are with all of the changes Common Core is bringing.  It is more necessary now to build a free community of resources and support for teachers.  We can not and should not do this alone.  If what I write or say can help even one teacher, then it is worth my time.

3. If you write, why do you write? What’s the biggest thing you get out of it?

I started writing as a window into my classroom.  I wanted to share what worked and what failed.  I now work at the district level and have access to hundreds of classrooms.  This is a huge responsibility and honor.  I feel like writing about these experiences gives me the opportunity to share to a larger audience.  I write to push myself.  Right now, I found myself going off on a tangent (I deleted it) and started writing an I wish I would have when I was in the class room list…  That will be a later blog post.  This just goes to show that blog writing forces me to reflect and push myself to improve.  It really is a selfish exercise.

4. If you chose to enter a room where I was going to talk about blogging for an hour (or however long you could stand it), what would you hope to be hearing from me? MTBoS cheerleading and/or tourism? How-to’s? Stories?

I would love to hear the nuts and bolts of how to start a blog.  Also, how to handle reading blogs and not get overwhelmed.  I remember a time when I wanted to just shut down because I could never get caught up with my blog reading or what I wanted to write about.  Baby steps…  Oh yeah, and twitter.  Twitter and blogging go hand in hand.

Categories: General

Active Vocabulary Walls

November 20, 2013 1 comment

I recently visited several schools in Florida to observe Spring Board in action.  I was impressed with the curriculum, but beyond that I was impressed with the level of engagement of the students.  Students and teachers utilized some great strategies in the classroom.  I was also very impressed with the consistency among the schools across the district.  Every classroom I visited had an active vocabulary wall.  I have never been successful with vocabulary walls.  I would try and hang words on the wall, but I never did anything else with them.  This changed my mind.

IMG_1348 IMG_1362 IMG_1364 IMG_1374

(These cards are attached to a ribbon and have the definition on one side and word on the other)

All teacher are required to have academic vocabulary (Tier 3) posted on the wall.  Every teacher has a unique twist to their word wall.  The definition is always included and students are encouraged to get up and use the wall during class if they need to refresh their memory.  One teacher even moved words to the “Mastered” wall after the class demonstrated a thorough knowledge and understanding of the word.  The teachers would cycle the words according to the unit of study.  I absolutely loved that the words had the definitions hidden, but accessible to students.  If I was still in the classroom, I would find space for this on my wall.


Categories: Common Core

Turtle Multiplication and Conceptual Understanding

November 16, 2013 3 comments

Math teachers love algorithms.  I think one of the reasons I love math so much is that there are rules to follow.  I know that says a lot about my personality.  When I was in the classroom, my students would say, “Just show me how to do it.”  I also heard, “I can follow the steps and get the right answer, but I have no idea what I am doing.”  Unfortunately, I could relate to these students.  Much of my math career as a student was like this.  It was only when I began to teach it that I truly understood the whys and hows of math.  I think this is one thing Common Core will fix for students.  They may hate it and resist it at the beginning, but they will retain it.

When I was in the classroom, I was guilty of reducing mathematics to an algorithm.  I taught cute tricks like “Outers over Inners” to simplify complex fractions.   I think all teachers are guilty of this at some point.  I came across this video in an elementary classroom that testified to this:


The teacher was teaching students how to multiply a two digit number by a two digit number.  I had heard from several teachers how great this “new” method was for students.  It is so cute!  I had to bite my tongue.  If you watch the video, my questions are “Why does the turtle drop an egg?” and “Why do we draw a collar on the turtle?”  I need students to understand this.  What happens if I have a three digit times a two digit?  Does turtle multiplication still work?  I need conceptual understanding that transcends to problems of varying types.

Here is how I would love to see multiplication by two digit numbers taught:


What are your thoughts?  Are we hurting students by teaching cute algorithms in isolation?  Is procedure really what matters?  What other “tricks” do we teach that hinder conceptual understanding?

Categories: Common Core

Differentiation: Not Another Buzz Word

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

Oh the buzz words in education!  I love that we dissect great instruction into definable strategies, but I hate how quickly these ideas become buzz words.  When teachers hear these key phrases repeated and diluted, they lose their power, and there is power in this one.  One of our targets this year as a district is to focus on differentiation in the classroom.  As a teacher, it is easy to focus on the students in the middle.  We often fail to provide support for the struggling students.  It is easy to overlook the higher achieving students.  On the other end of the spectrum, it is tempting to pour all of our efforts into the struggling students and fail to push the higher achieving students to reach their potential.

As a teacher, I was guilty of reactionary differentiation.  I would have a few students who would finish a test early and think, “Oh no, I have to find something for them to work on now.”  If a student struggled in my class, I would encourage them to come to after school tutoring or try to modify the assignment with fewer problems.  My “go to” method in differentiation was having a strong student sit and help a struggling student.  All of my strategies were reactionary.  I never planned my differentiation in my lessons.  To be honest, my strategies and methods were not solid differentiation practices.
I then found intentional differentiation.  I did not create this wheel.  I can not claim responsibility for this brilliance.  I only did a lot of research to arrive at my conclusions.  Here is what I have learned about this buzz word:
1.  Differentiation needs to be planned as a part of my lessons.  It must be intentional.
I need to consider all of my students when planning my lessons.  I need to make sure I have an entry point for all students.  I need to create opportunities to extend the learning for some students.
2.  Differentiation is not more or less work.
By giving more work to students who are ahead, I am communicating that more work is the same as rigor.  This is not true.  Modifying assignments by giving struggling students less work only tells them that I do not believe they are capable of doing the same work as the rest of the class.
3.  Differentiation is not creating multiple assignments or assessments.
All students must take the same PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessment in 2014-2015 and the number of accommodations will be limited.  All students must take the same ACT or SAT to enroll in college.  If we are creating separate assessments for students, we are creating a false sense of success for them.
4.  Differentiation can be embedded into my lessons easily.
My favorite way to differentiate in my math class is with these graphics:
I created posters of these for my classroom.  When a student (advanced or struggling) is working on a task in my classroom, they normally select one path to a solution. It was easy for me to say, “That is great, now can you take that equation and draw a graph, make a table, or put the equation into a context?”  For elementary school, teachers can use the diagram in blue.  If a student is struggling with a math concept, the teacher can ask them to approach it from another area in the chart.  For example, if a student can not write an equation for a given problem, the teacher could ask them to use a manipulative (Uni-fix Cubes) or draw a picture.
5.  Differentiation is necessary for all students.
I tried to limit my whole group instruction in my classroom.  There was seldom a time in my class where all students needed the exact same thing from me.  All 35 of my students were at different places in their learning.  It is my job to meet them where they are at and help them grow.  Differentiation provides a way to do that.
A great resource to learn more about differentiation is Differentiation Central.
Categories: Common Core, General

The Librarian and the Common Core

September 20, 2013 1 comment

My new job involves conducting training sessions.  Recently I was asked to conduct a session on the Common Core State Standards and the role of the Librarian (Media Center Specialist) in the transition.  As I did research, I was really excited to find how important the role of a librarian is to schools and how much he or she can do to help teachers and students.  Several research studies verify that schools that have a librarian have higher achievement on standardized tests.  Through working with the media center specialists, I realized they have  a desire to serve students and teachers.  All of the librarians in our district wanted to work with teachers to help lighten the load.  With the new era of Common Core and the focus on informational texts, this has never been more crucial.

Here is a link to the power point.  Feel free to use and modify.

The Media Center in Common Core


Categories: Common Core

A New Perspective

August 16, 2013 7 comments

I recently left the classroom to serve my school system as the K-12 Math Coordinator.  My goal this year is to work towards building a vertical alignment towards Common Core.  I started by writing curriculum maps for my system.  I started by looking at The Dana Center and the Mathematics Common Core Toolbox.  This is a great resource and provides some great maps and sequenced units.  We currently use a text that is not aligned to the common core, so I constantly found myself returning worrying about finding reliable resources for implementation.  I felt like I needed more guidance.  I found that several states have put very good curriculum maps and resources out there for their teachers to use.  My own state, Tennessee, has provided teachers with tasks to use in their classes,  but little direction for how to sequence the standards and how to pace them.  Since my experience is at the high school level, I really needed a resource I could trust.

I then found CommonCore.org aka EngageNY.  CommonCore.org is a nonprofit organization that  created a curriculum for the State of New York.  I spoke with one of their employees this week and Louisiana has signed on with them as well.  This curriculum is being written as we speak.  The first nine weeks is posted and what I have seen I really like.  I know there are critics, but I challenge them to show me something aligned to common core that is better.  My favorite part is that it is free through the EngageNY website.  You can purchase an individual teacher license through CommonCore.org to access training videos and a digital version which is much easier to navigate.

The elementary level curriculum is amazing!  It is a story of units and adopts a place value system for dealing with numbers and algorithms.  I can not do it justice in this blog.  It is worth watching the video here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qm5A38rBToo#action=share

If you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to look at it with an open mind.  I know there was an issue one of Dan Meyer’s tasks being used without permission and I hope they remedy that.  (I would be so excited if they linked to my blog, but I’m not holding my breath.)  I personally think any curriculum linked to a Dan Meyer task has to be awesome!

So, I said my perspective has changed.  Since I have left the classroom, I now see that supports that my district provided that I didn’t need and often hated, serve a purpose.  For example, curriculum maps:  I know my standards and how to teach them and when.  I feel confident with my subject matter, but not all teachers do and wouldn’t it be nice if we could collaborate across our hallway and district.  Textbooks:  I do not use textbooks.  I find the best materials from blogs and twitter and I steal.  Not all teachers read blogs and have time to dig online.  They need a good, reliable resource that is readily available.  I think EngageNY could be that resource.



Categories: Common Core