In an English-language arts training for hundreds at Terra Environmental Research Institute this summer, two dozen fifth-grade teachers sat in groups at desks in a tropical-themed classroom and broke down Seymour Simon’s Gorillas. Their instructor, Nanette Raska, read the book aloud as part of a mock lesson she said could be repeated in classrooms.
Raska, a reading curriculum support specialist who has helped craft sample Common Core lessons for the district, said one of the ways Common Core differs is that students must be able to explain not just an author’s intentions, but how he or she got their point across and whether they agree with it, citing the text. She had her pupils answer that by analyzing sentence structure, examining writing methods and levels of meaning, and finding vocabulary words, which they analyzed and discussed together over several hours.
“We do it deeper. And if it takes longer, that’s better,” Raska said. “We’re not in a rush. We’re here for meaning.”
Raska told the teachers that their students’ writing requirements would change from responding to prompts, like describing an imaginary camelback ride, to referring back to texts and using citations. She said “front-loading” students with information to support what they read should be minimized to force students to analyze texts, and teachers’ job description would also change to require them to be more of a facilitator than ever before.
“They seem to really like that it’s not something pulled out of the air,” she said about the teachers she has trained. “It’s all about evidence, evidence, evidence.”
Ydania Alonso, a fifth-grade teacher at Gateway Environmental K-8 Learning Center in Homestead who attended the training, said she’s excited about the freedom offered by the new standards, which despite criticisms to the contrary don’t mandate how educators teach or what materials they use. She taught Common Core last year in third grade.
“I loved it because I was able to get more creative with it,” she said. “But we did find some children took a little longer to grasp that I didn’t just want this superficial information. That transition was the hardest for children who aren’t exposed to it. But If you set the bar high they’ll get it,” she said.
Alonso said parents also found the new material and class work foreign.
“I had to have a lot more conferences,” she said. “ Parents wanted to know, ‘This is totally different. I’ve never seen this.’”
Early indications are that the learning curve may be steep.
Results from one of the first Common Core-aligned tests released this month in New York showed just 31 percent of students across the state were proficient in math and English-language arts. Those scores reflected a huge drop, which was also the experience in Kentucky when the state became the first in the country to assess its students under the new standards several years ago.
While some teachers say they feel they’ve already been teaching in a manner aligned to Common Core, the plummeting scores have fueled questions of whether students and teachers will be ready for the change. That remains a chief concern among teacher unions at the local and state level, who support the concept of Common Core but question whether Florida has moved too swiftly.