Common Core Standards Part 3: Why I Like Them

FINALLY! A month later, I’m finally getting back to the third installment of my Common Core Standards series! I apologize for the delay, folks! Click below to read the first two parts.

Part 1 – Common Core Standards: Busting the Myths

Part 2 – Common Core Standards: What Do the Teachers Think?

So, here we go. Why I like and support the CCSS:

1. More depth and less breadth. We now have fewer standards to teach, but the standards go into greater depth. So instead of skimming the surface of many topics, we are going deeper with fewer topics. For example, for third grade students in Tennessee, there were previously 22 tested standards in Reading and 34 performance indicators (things that teachers should see students doing) in Reading. There are now 10 standards in Reading. Now, if you look at the standards, they are chunky and meaty and deep. They are not teach it – check it off – move on standards. They are standards that we work on all year.

2. Conceptual understanding as well as procedural understanding. What I mean by conceptual understanding is a deep understanding of what the procedures represent. For example, here are some previous 4th grade Math standards from TN:

Generate equivalent forms of common fractions and decimals and use them to compare size.

Use the symbols < , > and = to compare common fractions and decimals in both increasing and decreasing order.

Convert improper fractions into mixed numbers and/or decimals.

Add and subtract proper fractions with like and unlike denominators and simplify the answer.

All of those things are Math procedures. I suppose there is an expectation that teachers will teach the underlying concepts before teaching the procedures, but teaching the concepts has never been laid out explicitly for teachers. Here’s what I mean by teaching the concepts: some teachers will begin a unit on multiplication by using beans, blocks, or some other kind of counter to demonstrate that 2 x 5 means 2 groups of 5 beans. Once kids understand the concept, they can go on to learn the procedure. Another example: I was taught in college to teach place value and regrouping (borrowing) with base ten blocks so that the students could actually see that they were changing tens to ones and ones to tens during regrouping. That was powerful for me, because as a child I’d memorized the procedure for regrouping, but I never truly understood what it meant. Anyway, there are 7 fourth grade CCSS standards for fractions. Let’s look at two of them:

CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.3 Understand a fraction a/b with a > 1 as a sum of fractions 1/b.
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.3a Understand addition and subtraction of fractions as joining and separating parts referring to the same whole.
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.3b Decompose a fraction into a sum of fractions with the same denominator in more than one way, recording each decomposition by an equation. Justify decompositions, e.g., by using a visual fraction model. Examples: 3/8 = 1/8 + 1/8 + 1/8 ; 3/8 = 1/8 + 2/8 ; 2 1/8 = 1 + 1 + 1/8 = 8/8 + 8/8 + 1/8.
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.3c Add and subtract mixed numbers with like denominators, e.g., by replacing each mixed number with an equivalent fraction, and/or by using properties of operations and the relationship between addition and subtraction.
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.3d Solve word problems involving addition and subtraction of fractions referring to the same whole and having like denominators, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.4 Apply and extend previous understandings of multiplication to multiply a fraction by a whole number.
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.4a Understand a fraction a/b as a multiple of 1/b. For example, use a visual fraction model to represent 5/4 as the product 5 × (1/4), recording the conclusion by the equation 5/4 = 5 × (1/4).
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.4b Understand a multiple of a/b as a multiple of 1/b, and use this understanding to multiply a fraction by a whole number. For example, use a visual fraction model to express 3 × (2/5) as 6 × (1/5), recognizing this product as 6/5. (In general, n × (a/b) = (n × a)/b.)
CCSS.Math.Content.4.NF.B.4c Solve word problems involving multiplication of a fraction by a whole number, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem. For example, if each person at a party will eat 3/8 of a pound of roast beef, and there will be 5 people at the party, how many pounds of roast beef will be needed? Between what two whole numbers does your answer lie?

If you had the patience to read through all that, you see what I mean. Common Core really lays out the conceptual side of things, not just the procedural rules of adding and multiplying fractions.

3. High emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving. In Common Core Math, there are more than just the Math standards; there are Mathematical Practices. Mathematical Practices focus on the processes involved in doing Math; not just Math concepts. The focus is developing a skill set for mathematical (and other) problem-solving that will help kids on their educational journey. Here are the Practices:

1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

4. Model with mathematics.

5. Use appropriate tools strategically.

6. Attend to precision.

7. Look for and make use of structure.

8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Almost all of those are skills that can be used in other areas: debate, science, literary criticism, etc. We are giving kids harder problems to solve, and we are asking them to persevere in solving them. (I think #1 is the hardest one, personally!) But we are also giving them the experience of seeing many different ways to solve a problem and many different tools to use to solve problems. We are teaching kids to think about numbers in a new way and to be able to decompose numbers in creative ways in order to solve problems.

4. We are exposing students to a wider variety of texts.

I have talked about this several times before, so I don’t want to spend tons of time on it. Again, Common Core is not doing away with fiction texts or asking English teachers to teach less fiction. However, Common Core is asking teachers and students to engage in texts that are complex, challenging, and rich. This involves a wide range of types of text, not just stories.

5. We are teaching students to read like writers. As a writer, the most frequent advice I hear from other writers is 1) to read widely and 2) to write regularly. I am an avid reader and and absolutely love reading for personal pleasure. I often find that when I read a book I like, I also learn something from that book that I can apply to my life. However, I have never been a very analytical person or reader. Writers often read other books with a writer’s eye. They look at how other authors develop characters, develop a story arc, make use of flashbacks, use the setting as a character, develop great dialogue, etc. etc.

When I read, I usually read to enjoy something, not to analyze the author’s craft. That’s why when I started my MFA degree I had such a hard time. My previous degrees were in education, so I did not have much practice with analytical reading, and I struggled. Fortunately I had great professors who had patience with me and were able to lead me into a deeper level of analysis and criticism as I read literature. However, I strongly believe that if I had been taught Common Core standards in school, I would have already had those analytical skills.

Common Core asks students and teachers to engage in close reading, or multiple reads of the same text to search for deeper meaning. The first read may be just to understand the text and to personally connect with it. I believe that kids still need this – they need to read texts just for the pure pleasure of it. They need to find characters that remind them of themselves. They need to read things that evoke a personal response.

However, a close read means that we go back and re-read the text for a different purpose. We might stand back from the text and analyze the author’s craft. We might look at the author’s choice of vocabulary or syntax and think about why an author might choose that type of language over another type of language. We might think about what time period the author was writing in and how that affected the work. We might see whose voice or point of view got left out of the text. Why do we analyze texts in this way? So that we can be better writers. It is what every writer has been telling us to do for years, and finally we are teaching chidlren to do it! Creating a generation of analytic readers means creating a generation of good writers.

I see this even at the elementary level when we use mentor texts for writing mini-lessons. Again, this text might be a read-aloud that I read with the kids on Monday for enjoyment. But on Thursday, we revisit the text to look at how the author conveyed the character’s feelings. Maybe the author showed it through what he had the character say, or maybe the author directly stated how the character felt. We might talk about which strategy (implicit or explicit) had a better effect on the reader and story. Then the students will apply those ideas to their writing.

Here are a few ninth/tenth grade Common Core Reading standards that demonstrate this analytical reader thing:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6 Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

So there you have it. I am a supporter of Common Core standards and I will defend them as much as I can. (Though I have to admit my legs are getting tired from standing on this soapbox!) I really hope that at least one of my three posts have helped you understand the Common Core standards better and maybe even turned you into a CCSS supporter, too!

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