common changes

Teachers explain how Common Core changes could impact their classrooms

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Kindergarten students at Global Prep Academy, an innovation school that was started with funding from the Mind Trust.

When the state released proposed revisions to Common Core last month, there were a lot of changes, but most seemed relatively small. In some cases wording was tweaked; in others, an existing standard was made more specific.

But a key question remains unanswered: How would the revisions affect classrooms across New York state? To find out, we turned to the experts: teachers.

In most states, changes to the standards have not yielded a major departure from the Common Core. And in New York, the teachers we spoke with generally said the recommendations here do not mark a radical shift either.

“This wasn’t really the venue for us to say, let’s start from scratch,” said Bobson Wong, who was part of the state’s math standards review committee and teaches math at a high school in Queens.

Still, even small wording changes, if made permanent, could impact how math and English are taught or understood. We asked teachers to drill down into proposed alterations to individual standards and explain why, or if, those changes matter. Here are their answers:

April Rose is a third-grade teacher in Queens and a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

The current early-grade reading standards have often been criticized for not being developmentally appropriate. Some of the state’s proposed revisions appear to tackle that problem.

For instance, a third-grade reading standard asked that students be able to, “Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.” That standard has been revised to, “Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding…”

The wording change is small, but it could have a real benefit for teachers, Rose said.

“What if I have students who are above or below that [grade level]?” Rose asked. “All children come to grades at different entry points.”

Rose said she’ll still expose all students to grade-level and higher-level texts, but it’s important to have the flexibility to meet struggling students where they are, particularly if students are English Language Learners or have a disability.

“I feel like the pressure may be a tad bit off,” Rose said.

Bobson Wong teaches geometry, algebra II, and Advanced Placement statistics at a high school in Queens. He is also a Math for America master teacher and served on the state’s committee to revise math standards.

The existing higher-level Common Core math standards also inspired confusion among teachers. Some of the standards were too vague, some were too specific, and others were entirely misplaced, Wong said. The proposed standards try to clarify those problems, he said.

For example, an old geometry standard read, “Prove theorems about triangles.” It then listed a number of possible theorems and said teachers could consider others. That is too vague for a math teacher, Wong said.

“That could easily be half a year in a geometry course. It could be anything,” Wong said. “As a teacher, it was extremely difficult to read a standard like that.”

The new standard is more specific. It lists the precise theorems that students should know how to prove, including that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and the exterior angles add up to 360 degrees.

Changes like this are unlikely to upend anyone’s teaching style, Wong said, but a teacher confused by the original standard will be aided by the clarity.

Bushra Makiya teaches eighth-grade math and algebra in the Bronx. She is also a Math for America master teacher.

The eighth-grade math standards — which were not as hotly criticized as some of the other grades — were hardly touched by the state’s proposed revisions, Makiya said. Her subject’s standards saw only a few tweaks or clarifications.

When asked if these revisions would change her eighth-grade math classroom, she had a simple answer: “No, not at all,” she said.

Makiya also teaches an eighth-grade class of algebra I, and said those standards had some welcome changes. For example, the old standards asked students to learn about a complicated type of exponential equations. But the committees determined that concept is too difficult for algebra I, and instead, proposed moving it to algebra II.

Makiya said the change is the right move, but her students would not notice a difference in class.

“I honestly wasn’t teaching that anyway in algebra I, because I thought that was too much for kids,” Makiya said. “My guess is that’s probably true for a lot of teachers.”

Katie Kurjakovic teaches English Language Learners at an elementary school in Queens and worked on the state’s English standards committee.

The draft standards are missing something important to Katie Kurjakovic: accommodations for the English Language Learners she teaches.

“I’m very disappointed in the overall final product,” said Kurjakovic, who worked on the state’s committee to revamp English standards.

Kurjakovic said in lieu of creating a different set of standards for English learners, she wanted to see guidelines to help teachers working with non-native English speakers still unable to master the standards in English.

For example, the early grades have standards focused on recognizing and producing rhyming words. Those standards have not been changed, but Kurjakovic wanted them to include a different option for English Language Learners — allowing those students to learn the concept of rhyming in their native languages.

State officials acknowledged that they need to keep thinking about how to make the standards work for English learners. They said the State Education Department has engaged an independent expert, in part to help determine how the standards should be implemented for English Language Learners and special education students.

But that does not go far enough for Kurjakovic, who said accommodations for English learners should have been released at the same time as the draft standards.

One bright spot, she said, is the proposal to combine “Reading for Information” and “Reading for Literature.” That change will allow teachers to focus on reading skills without getting bogged down in whether they are using fiction or nonfiction texts, Kurjakovic said.

Under the current standards, teachers might struggle to achieve that balance, she said. This “allows teachers a little bit more freedom to choose teaching material thematically.”

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s now been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30-45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,”McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do so … when we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list of Detroit district schools that offered music and art last year. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.

How I Teach

After teen’s suicide attempt, this Colorado teacher wrote letters to each student. Now, she’ll share her story on a bigger stage.

Teacher Brittni Darras is lifted by graduating seniors from Rampart High School's varsity cheerleading squad, which Darras coaches.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Brittni Darras, an English teacher at Rampart High School in the Colorado Springs-based Academy School District, was shocked by what she learned about one of her students in a parent-teacher conference. The outgoing teen had recently attempted suicide, the girl’s mother told Darras.

The news made Darras realize that other students were probably suffering in silence, too. She decided to write personalized cards to her more than 100 students telling them how much they mattered.

“It changed the way I see my role as a teacher,” she said.

Last fall, Darras’ efforts earned her the 2016 Hero of Mental Health award from AspenPointe, a nonprofit mental health provider in Colorado Springs. In July, she’ll speak at the TEDxMileHigh 2017 event at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver.

Darras talked to Chalkbeat about her card-writing campaign, what motivates her to wake up at 5:45 a.m. and why she doesn’t mind if students talk in class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I have known I wanted to be a teacher since I was in third grade. When I was in elementary school, during summer breaks, I would teach my little brother “lessons” and make him practice school-related work. He was a real trooper!

At the time, I thought I wanted to teach elementary school, but when I entered college, I started tutoring at my former high school through the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) program. I left every day inspired by how hard my students worked. I enjoyed having conversations with them about college and their future plans. By the end of that semester, I switched my major from elementary education to secondary education.

What does your classroom look like?
I like to think of my classroom as a place that is both interactive and caring. My students are frequently up and moving around. For example, one of my favorite interactive activities includes me posing a statement relevant to the unit I am teaching. My students have to stand against the “agree” or “disagree” wall and be prepared to defend their position in regard to the statement. We have had phenomenal discussions about heroes and what it means to be a hero as a result of this activity. It serves as a great introduction to our tragic hero unit.

I consider my classroom caring, because I always reiterate the need for my students to use positive self-talk and to use encouraging words with each other. I also make it a point to ask my students each Friday what their plans are for the weekend, and I always follow up on Monday to ask how their weekends were. It gives me an opportunity to learn what else my students do outside of school, and it provides me with very valuable information about each of my students.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _______. Why?
My students. They are the reason I wake up and go to work every day. It’s like I always tell them, “If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.” I love what I do because of my students, so if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be worth waking up every morning at 5:45 a.m.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
One of my favorite lessons is a scene interpretation assignment where students have to pick some kind of alternate reality and apply it to a chapter in a novel or a scene in a play we have read in class. They then have to alter the dialogue or script to match their alternate reality. Finally, they perform the new version in class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
If one student doesn’t understand my lesson, I like to pair that student up with another student who understands the topic a little better. It helps develop leadership, and it allows my students to share their knowledge and understanding. It helps the students realize they ARE smart!

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I don’t mind if students are talking. Many times, I ask them to talk. I believe having conversations allows my students to make more sense of the material, and it also allows my students to help and support each other through the learning process.

If students are off task, 99 percent of the time, a conversation with that student one-on-one solves the problem. Most of the time, if a student is off task, it is not intentional. Instead, it is usually because something else is going on at home or with their friends that is causing inner turmoil and making it hard for them to focus. These conversations allow me to assist and support my students as well as show them that I care about more than just their grade on their report card.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I get to know my students by learning about what they do outside of school. As mentioned before, every week, I ask them how their weekend was, which gives me valuable information about their sports, hobbies and passions. Last year, I created an “Events” section on my board where students could write the date and time of upcoming events, such as their sporting events or school plays. It allowed me to show up to a variety of these events, and I was also able to follow up with my students to ask how the event was if I wasn’t able to attend.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A memorable time that had the most impact on me was when I had contact with a student’s mom at parent-teacher conferences. Her mom told me she had been absent from my class because she almost committed suicide. While this was tragic and devastating, it made me realize that this beautiful, outgoing, friendly girl can’t be my only student who is struggling.

As a result, I took action and wrote personalized cards to each of my students to let them know how much I care about them and why they make a difference in my class and on this planet. It changed the way I see my role as a teacher; teacher’s often see students more hours in a day than the students’ own parents do, so it is important for teachers to support students emotionally instead of just academically.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
Right now, I am reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. Part of it is for enjoyment, and part of it is to prepare to teach AP Literature next year!

What’s the best advice you ever received?
The best advice I ever received is to live each day like it’s my last. I am grateful each day for the opportunities and experiences that I have, and I try to encourage my students to embrace each day and each moment also. I strongly believe that when you start to examine the positive aspects of life, you live a happier, more fulfilling life.