Common Core to students: Think, don't recite
The desks in the reading classroom are arranged in a “U” to foster collaboration and discussion among students.
The teacher is not standing at the front of the class lecturing.
There are no stacks of worksheets for students to fill out like workers with widgets in an assembly line.
Welcome to the new world of teaching in Hillsborough County and across the rest of the state, even most of the nation.
It's called Common Core, and it's either the greatest thing since sliced bread or the root of all evil, depending on who's doing the talking.
The new set of sweeping educational standards is less about students regurgitating memorized facts, school officials say, and more about getting them to think independently, to interact with others and come up with solutions.
It's designed to prepare them better for college, better equip them for careers. It also will help states compare student performance on an even basis and enable students who are moving from one state to another to pick up where they left off.
Forty-five states have signed on to follow the nationwide set of standards, even as some consider pulling out and a backlash grows at the urging of national conservative figures such as radio talk show host Glenn Beck.
“You're giving more control of education to the federal government, which under the Constitution has no damn business at all in education,” says Andrew Wallace, a Lutz retiree opposed to the reforms. “Anybody who is in it should back out of it and take over education on their own and tell the federal government to take a flying leap.”
South Tampa resident Susette McRae agrees. She is concerned about all of Common Core, but especially the data collection part.
“Why does the government need to know what my child is doing in school from kindergarten all the way through college?” McRae asks. “Common Core is going to lead to communism. People just have their heads in the sand.
“I have grandkids, and I don't want them to go to public schools,” she added. “This just isn't something that we want.”
Still, it's something Florida will be getting over the next two school years. Common Core was adopted by Florida's board of education in July 2010 to replace the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The new standards were developed by educators from the across the United States.
The transition is already in place in many classrooms across the Hillsborough County school district.
At Orange Grove Middle Magnet School, a school for performing arts in East Tampa's Belmont Heights, language arts teacher Lesley Kahle doesn't just hand out a list of vocabulary words for students to memorize.
Seventh-graders have to analyze words such as “extortion” and “retaliation” as they learn about bullying. They have to detail what the words mean and how they can be used in other situations. It's about analyzing and not just spewing out the words.
In another classroom, teacher Thristene Francisco has students compile their own charts of pros and cons on the subject of kids playing video games.
They read stories on the topic. They brainstorm issues such as child obesity and anti-social behavior. Then they put their own social skills into action as Francisco leads a vigorous discussion on the topic.
“The level of questioning and critical thinking has grown exponentially,” says Francisco, who is in her sixth year of teaching.
“I'm no longer the one just giving the questions. They are coming up with the questions,” she adds. “Their vocabulary has changed. The way they talk about text makes it more like a college classroom.”
Students say they don't mind the new way of teaching. They say yes, it is harder, but you get used to it.
“It helps you understand the text more and get deeper into it,” says sixth-grader Skylar Casanova. “I like to be able to read the text and know what it's saying, instead of reading it and not being able to know what it's saying.”
“It makes me think a lot more,” says Taylor Barrett, another sixth-grader at Orange Grove. “It is a lot more challenging, but in the end it's worth it.”
It's worth it for students and teachers alike, says Amelia VanName Larson, assistant superintendent for student achievement in Pasco County.
Too many children were graduating from high school ill-prepared for the next step of college or careers, Larson says.
Teachers were preparing lessons in cookie-cutter classrooms designed for success on high-stakes tests and not real-world learning, she added.
“What we are asking teachers to do now is be more like a coach and a facilitator,” she says, “but the kids are the ones who need to do the work. They need to struggle with stuff.
“It's hard on everybody. It's hard on the teachers and it's going to be harder on the students,” she adds. “It's going to be a journey. It's about us reconquering our profession.”
Some students have used writing skills they have learned in the new curriculum to thank teachers for their progress.
“All of my other reading teachers have just given us worksheets to do and they would call that their reading lesson,” writes Raven Broughton, a sixth-grader at Orange Grove, in a letter to Francisco. “I feel like I am walking into a new world of learning. You are teaching us to be mature by letting us do group discussions.”
“Your version of dissecting a story really helped throughout the year,” writes Cole Maines, another sixth-grader in a Francisco class. “Now when I read, I mark key components in a text to help me with my essay.”
Francisco shrugs off the compliments, focusing attention instead on how students have changed. They ask more questions, they are more engaged, their brains are working harder.
“It's not that they are any smarter,” Francisco says. “It's just that you are challenging them more.”