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Can I Say the C-Word? {A Teacher Busting Misconceptions About Common Core}

Innovators. Problem Finders. Environmental Stewards. Compassionate Citizens. Creative Artists. Rigorous Thinkers.

Am I referring to the movers and shakers in Silicon Valley or the highly valued entrepreneurs of the world? Maybe the business minded moguls living large in SF’s Financial District?

Nope. I’m talking about our kids in public schools in California, ages 4-17.

You guys, we have a great thing going right now in terms of public education in Sonoma County. We have highly skilled professionals in the classroom. Students are eager to learn and to engage in new and purposeful ways. We also have districts valuing professional development and technological integration statewide.

Realigning My Expectations and Ideologies

This is an exciting time to be an educator. The last few years I’ve been inspired to make big changes in my curriculum, to stretch myself, and to keep up with cool tech tools.  What prompted me to reassess my yearly syllabus, to get way outside of the comfortable box? Yup, those two words that are typically met with criticism or disdain, Common Core.

I find it interesting that most opponents of Common Core have never actually thoroughly investigated it. Common Core is not a textbook curriculum that one can pilot in a classroom. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Nor is it “backward math” as some may argue. Common Core is a mindset, it’s an approach to teaching and learning that I personally find to be sensible and refreshing.

At its core (pun intended), it is an approach that values digging deeper, making connections, evaluating strategies, using evidence, making mistakes and thinking creatively. It is the opposite of “dumbed down” learning as suggested by social media memes and videos. In contrast, it challenges students to explain their thinking and conceptually understand the why behind their learning, and then it pushes them to effectively communicate their methods in defense of their solution.  This shift in education has led to the decline of the regurgitating robots and the ascension of the independent innovators.

Not Your Mother’s Math

Granted, Common Core had a shaky start. Publishers hastily developed curricula, some of which was atrocious. There was a push to adopt programs that were not well-developed, let alone piloted, and some districts found themselves with content that should not have been printed.

It was during this time that Common Core got a bad rap. Some people saw it as simply math problems on a page, rather than a shift in an educational mindset. It seemed like those same photos were circulating all over social media, citing “fuzzy math” and going back to the “old-fashioned” way (except the meme was misspelled and said “old-fashion way”). Admittedly, the current assessment connected to Common Core also leaves something to be desired, but it is still a work in progress. Unfortunately, many took that ammunition and ran with it, and their fixed mindset has not allowed them to consider what Common Core actually translates to in the classroom (Sidenote – Please come and sit in our classrooms and see what it going on, seriously, we welcome you anytime).

The New Reality: An Emergence of Invested Learners

I have been a middle school teacher for the last 16 years. That means I’ve served approximately 1,600 students. The caliber of thirteen-year-olds coming through my doors impresses me. My current eighth graders have been in the Common Core bubble for the last seven years. They are resilient, highly collaborative, tech savvy, global thinkers. And I’m not just saying that out of bias. They came to me that way.  

Through the implementation of Common Core, these students have mastered over the last seven years the art of authentic learning. Students have taken charge of their education, and can therefore dictate how they learn best. They can assess a situation and approach it in the way that works for them. Students know their strengths and weaknesses and understand that making mistakes is encouraged. They no longer have a “fixed mindset” that paralyzes their learning, they know that a “growth mindset” allows their brain to form new, lasting connections. (The Growth Mindset study by Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck). And the best part is, I think they actually care. Students invest in their education on a whole new level, and that is what I find to be most rewarding as an educator.  

Common Core allows for collaboration; among peers and between the student and the teacher. I am no longer the giver of knowledge, dumping in facts and SAT words and diagrammed sentences. I am a partner, learning from my students, while exploring ideas through literature and making real-world connections. We are doing more with less. We are looking deeper and thinking critically, while taking more time to internalize information. Consequently, we are no longer concerned with the outcome, as much as we are the process.

Embracing the Changes as a Lifelong Learner  

Does this mean that sometimes I don’t get thrown off by the homework my third grader brings home? Nope, I totally do. I have to reread the directions and work really hard to get myself out of my own mental math jail. I have to tell myself that I learned it differently, but I know that my brain can grow and learn math in an even cooler way. In fact, when I see my third grader’s homework, I’m sad that my math experience was so debilitating and limited. And when she shows me a “new way” to solve an “old problem” I am inspired. Probably because at heart, I too am a lifelong learner, and stretching my skills right alongside my own kids is pretty dang inspiring.

Illustration Credit: Sylvia Duckwork, images used with permission.


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8 Responses to Can I Say the C-Word? {A Teacher Busting Misconceptions About Common Core}

  1. Cherilyn Cook April 25, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    By your own words: “Publishers hastily developed curricula, some of which [no ALL of which] was atrocious. There was a push to adopt programs that were not well-developed, let alone piloted, and some districts found themselves with content that should not have been printed.”

    People so incompetent to allow this to happen should NOT and NEVER AGAIN be trusted with our children. You explained common core perfectly – now you’re excusing this nightmare by putting lipstick on a pig. After 16 years it’s about time you put away your chalk – for good. Your thoughts – no thank you!!!!

    • Julia Castro
      Julia Castro April 25, 2017 at 7:37 pm #

      Hi Cherilyn, thanks for your thoughts. I’m sorry that this shift in education has not been a positive one for you. I think your frustration is with the publishing companies who were anxious to cash in by getting their materials out as quickly as possible. I am fortunate enough to work for a district that chose to pilot materials for several years before adopting, which allowed us to weed out the bad stuff. And as far as putting away my chalk, that’s laughable. I have a smart board, document projector and LCD projector in my classroom. It’s called 21st century learning and it’s fantastic.

      • Cherilyn Cook April 25, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

        My apologies about the chalk comment – purely from frustration – but not just at the publishing companies. People who are in charge of EDUCATION use the garbage you describe in your post to this day. Whether the choice is made by force or incompetency, lack of funding or lack of common sense, the fact remains that worst of the worst of teaching materials is in our classrooms and COMMON CORE is stamped all over it. Common core is to garbage curriculum as garbage curriculum is to common core. But wait – there’s more! Garbage curriculum is only just ONE symptom of the disease! I could be here all night but I’ll end with this: a new set of education standards did not magically create “deeper learning” and “lasting connections” any more than The Emperor’s New Clothes existed. Unless the truth is that it’s really a magic potion that teachers swallow to make them great teachers…or fairy dust…. What a load!!! What Common Core created is a DISASTER in education – publishing companies = not to be trusted, “educators” = not to be trusted, the federal government in education = not to be trusted, Public Education = not to be trusted, Tell me again about how great Common Core is…???

        • Julia Castro
          Julia Castro April 26, 2017 at 8:29 pm #

          I’m curious about where your point of view comes from. Are you an educator? Have you worked in a school in any capacity? Do you have kids or grand kids in public schools that have been negatively affected by common core? Clearly our experiences are very different. My post was written about my district in my county in my state. I can’t speak for everyone. I was sharing my experience. It’s disheartening that you don’t feel educators can be trusted. Do you think we teach for the summer vacation or paycheck? I would encourage you to go and observe a classroom in your town so that you can really get a feel for what’s going on. That way you’ll have accurate information when forming your opinion. I think you’ll be surprised to see something far different than what you anticipate. What schools and teachers need is support. Your support. Instead of complaining about the state of education, get in a classroom and volunteer your time. Donate to local school fundraisers. Go to school board meetings. Share your gifts with the young people in your community. And for goodness sake, give thanks to the teachers in your town who do everything they can to help kids succeed academically, socially and emotionally. For what is more important?

  2. Cherilyn Cook April 26, 2017 at 11:17 pm #

    Thank you for moving forward as your response appears that you’re changing your assertion from defending common core to defending schools and teachers. As it should be. And noted (as if it weren’t before) that your opinion comes only from your situation and experience – note: your limited experience in your isolated situation. By context it appears that the purpose of your short essay is clearly meant to establish that we social media using “misspelling illiterates” are stuck within a “fixed mindset” unable to escape from “mental math jail” as we somehow experienced “paralyzed learning” and are so “debilitated” that we are quite unable to “look deeper, think critically, and take time to internalize information”. Harsh – actually pretty judgmental and arrogant. I have two young children. We wouldn’t be talking if I didn’t know what was going on in their classrooms – but thank you for the “get involved’ advice. Most teachers are amazing people – inside and outside of the classroom and my kids have been fortunate enough to have some of the most outstanding teachers anyone could ask for. Some teachers just get by. Some teachers are horrible. Amazing teachers can “teach around a mud puddle” (mud puddle = common core – I’m stealing directly from a teacher’s comment) Good teachers will get by. Bad teachers are and most like will always be bad teachers. The dynamic of people’s abilities exists in every occupation across the board universally. Common core did not introduce a magic wand that will change teachers or their abilities in a classroom. What common core brought is the worst curriculum ever introduced into a classroom, as described by your own words, a cycle of mistrust as I’ve already described – among other major problems that are outside the limited scope of this conversation…and there are plenty. But to answer your question about my where my viewpoint of common core comes from – we experienced the ‘do more with less’ process. and where it got us is my advanced 5th grader could illustrate (literally with a picture), write two paragraphs about and show 195 different ways (exaggeration, maybe) how to add 12 + 12. We didn’t get to long division, square roots, multiplication of more than two digits, etc. etc. – there was no time – we had to dig deep, not wide. We estimated, estimated more and estimated even more and then wrote paragraphs about estimation and drew pictures. We didn’t answer a question about literature, instead we chose which answer best described how we felt about it and proceeded to back up our feelings by ensuring that we located and chose the correct line number within the text that would justify our feeling. The process wasn’t nearly as inspiring as you describe. I’ve never felt so burdened and suffocated in my life by “learning”. I’m concerned with the process. This is where we agree – process is important. However, the process of common core to me is a painful death of creativity and expression, burdensome, a black hole of nothingness leading into a state of mindless decay. And, contrary to your indifference to outcome, I believe the outcome is why we do the process. I’m EXTREMELY concerned with the outcome. Have a good evening and good luck in your classroom.

  3. Julia Castro
    Julia Castro April 26, 2017 at 11:43 pm #

    Thanks for your thoughts, Cherilyn. I appreciate your interest in the topic. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one because it sounds like our kids have had very different experiences. I too have an advanced 5th grader (I’m basing that on his state CAASPP scores in Math and ELA). He has been able to learn all the skills you mentioned along with some algebra and geometry this year. It sounds like teaching methods and topics, as well as teacher training opportunities vary widely from state to state. I can understand why you’d be frustrated. It makes me appreciate the high educational standards that I see on a daily basis even more. Best of luck to you in the future.

  4. Cherilyn Cook April 27, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    Oh – I completely forgot to mention – I broke the rules. I sat at the kitchen table with my children and learned common core methods. I can draw a number lines, boxes, circles, number match, do mental math, reach deep inside and extract how I feel about a passage and justify those feelings with examples from numbered text. I “stretched” and you name it, I can do it “the common core way”. Do you know why I broke the rules? Because when I expressed frustration with these “enlightened” new methods i.e. mindless drivel, the clear message from the teachers and the school was – “don’t help, you’ll just confuse, we got this.” Excuse me?? MY children…plus don’t you all want support??? I broke the rules and formed an opinion of common core and the methods used within and yes, clearly, our experiences (and opinions) are very different. And, we’ve only lightly touched the surface of the most obvious problems with common core – there’s so much more. I do thank you for allowing my comments on your blog – I never would have guessed they’d make it past moderation. Enjoy your day.

  5. Cherilyn Cook April 27, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    I apologize, my most recent post was before I saw your most recent post. Yes, we will agree to disagree and I am very happy to do so based on your honest assessment of how variables across the states will still have impact on teaching methods, etc. etc. Seven years of common core and this truth still exists and will forever more. We’re not common and hopefully never will be. My children are both gifted based on CogAt. I would venture to say your 5th grader would have easily learned the concepts you mention without common core but we’ll never know. Have a good day.