I have been teaching for 28 years, and I have never been more passionate about education than I am today. Since learning about and implementing the Common Core in my classroom, I’ve become a fervent advocate of these new standards.
That’s because it’s important to me to appropriately challenge my students, even those with learning difficulties. These standards are better not only for my kids — the ones I greet at the door of my classroom each school day — but for all students, K-12, in every district of every state.
This year, using Common Core aligned lessons and teaching practices in my classroom, I have found a renewed sense of creativity and energy. I find myself embracing these more rigorous math standards, even though I teach middle school students who already have difficulty with math.
Common Core allows me to shift away from the “mile wide, inch deep” curriculum of old. Now, I can focus on helping my students to master the truly important concepts required for their future success. This focus is what my students and I need. It gives us more time to spend on each standard — which creates more opportunities for discussion and more time to bring in additional resources and nurture higher-level skill sets. I now have the time to demonstrate different ways to approach problems, and help students recognize and embrace varied ways of solving them.
My students learn that there’s usually more than one way to get an answer. It’s okay if they don’t understand or cannot remember one specific strategy to solve a problem because they’re learning multiple ways to solve it, and they can choose the method that makes the most sense to them.
After a successful lesson on splitting numbers into parts before multiplying, a student recently confided that he “never got how to do this before” because he’d always forgot what step to do next. Now, this student can confidently multiply two-digit numbers, a fourth-grade skill he finally learned in the sixth grade with Common Core-aligned teaching methods.
In my classroom, using the Common Core Standards, I expect my students to see the mathematical sense behind a solution. Instead of teaching my students simply how to get an answer, I’m teaching them real math skills — the understanding that goes beyond any single answer. Whether it’s the sideways smile of an eighth grader who’s finally mastered multiplying fractions, or a sixth grader who, after struggling with a math concept, cries out, “I got it! And I used my own brain!”– these are the moments that any teacher lives for.
Common Core emphasizes authentic comprehension. In the past, students could depend on memorization to pass an upcoming test, then forget the procedures afterwards; yet they’d need to relearn the material in the following years.
However, Common Core moves beyond rote memorization. We expect students to not only solve problems, but also use accurate reasoning to explain how and why their processes were correct. They need to apply their learning to solve problems in a real-life context. This builds true mathematical understanding, which leads to greater retention. It also encourages some lively discussion, as students confer, collaborate, explain and justify their work.
My district decided to give the CMTs this March for one last time. As I proctored the exams, I was able to juxtapose our old state standards with the new Common Core Standards. The comparison made it clear that the old tests and the standards they measured were not rigorous.
The majority of the CMT problems were multiple choice and asked students to answer questions at a very basic level. There was little to no critical thinking or application of learning assessed on the CMT. In contrast, I feel like under Common Core, I’m teaching exactly the skills that our students will need for colleges, careers, and an engaged citizenship.
Change, even change for the better, is difficult. Implementing these rigorous standards requires teachers to significantly change their curriculum and teaching practices. But let’s not abandon the Common Core Standards just because they’re hard and the implementation has been rocky. It will take time to get it right, but it’s the right thing to do. We cannot go back to our old standards.
We owe our children more resilience than that.
Catherine Freeman is a mathematics teacher at Sage Park Middle School in Windsor. She was a Connecticut Teacher of the Year finalist in 2010 and the Windsor Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2012.