Over the past two years, elementary teachers in Weston Public Schools in Connecticut have been learning to implement Singapore Math, a highly regarded program that delves deeply into concepts ranging from understanding numbers and length to rounding and adding fractions.
Weston’s three-day summer institute for high school educators is focused on teaching writing in science, history and social science classes.
Elementary teachers in Oregon’s Multnomah County are dealing with the challenges of incorporating more informational texts into the school day and getting students to use evidence from those texts in verbal and written reports.
Tennessee’s professional development program, called TN Core, has provided three-day institutes the past two summers for 30,000 ELA and math teachers. High school English teachers tasked with demanding more of student writing have read multiple texts and have written papers. A number of elementary teachers also have attended the institutes for training in math and English.
What all these district, county and state initiatives share is the daunting implementation of the Common Core. With the new standards dominating professional development, here are examples of how leaders are preparing teachers to transform learning.
A sharper distinction is emerging between training offered to elementary teachers and to their peers in higher grades. The former have to handle all subject areas, ratchet up their use of informational texts, and further integrate technology into class lessons. The latter focus largely on course content, which under the Common Core will become more rigorous with an emphasis across all subject areas on problem solving, critical thinking and writing.
“As opposed to secondary school, where most teachers are content experts, we ask elementary teachers to be experts at everything they teach,” says Mary Eich, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts. “High school is very content driven, and a lot of it is about wanting kids to be prepared for the SATs and college applications.”
Eich pays special attention to helping the teachers at Newton’s 15 elementary schools become familiar with a more demanding range of content.
For instance, before kindergarten and first-grade students study butterflies, teachers in PD identify three concepts they want their classes to know about the insects. They also study videos and science texts, and they meet the tiny creatures in the same mesh containers the students will use.
Mastering new math
In Weston, Singapore Math has been phased in based on the curriculum that has helped students in that Southeast Asian country post some of the highest standardized test scores in the world.
Under the new program, elementary teachers are shown how to introduce math concepts through concrete objects, such as discs or blocks, that can be combined to make a particular number. Before classes add or subtract, teachers learn to have students make drawings in which, for example, the number 10 in one column is exchanged for the same number of 1s in another column.
District curriculum leaders also have trained teachers to use math games and hands-on activities. In one, students hold up placards that display different numbers, and must rearrange themselves from the lowest to highest number.
The Common Core places extra demands on K5 teachers, Weston Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Kenneth Craw says. “At the elementary level, teachers face the double whammy of math and English language arts,” he says.
Writing across the curriculum
In English language, elementary teachers are facing a brave new world of presenting more—and more complicated—texts in areas such as science and social studies. They’re also teaching more with fiction.
“They really need to have kids incorporate evidence from what they have just read, and the students have to go back to the text—it’s a higher-level skill,” says Penny Plavala, a school improvement specialist who works with eight districts in the Multnomah County Education Service District in western Oregon.
“If the students say a character in a story is sad, where’s the proof from the text? Is he sitting in the corner looking glum?” Plavala says. “And when it comes to social studies and science, teachers really need to have kids write about what they’ve read instead of responding to an isolated writing prompt on the board.”
In Weston, high school science, history and social science teachers have joined English teachers at a three-day summer institute to provide students with problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in every subject.
“We wanted to provide greater awareness of the shifts that these teachers needed to make under the Common Core,” says assistant superintendent Craw. “The positive message to English teachers is that they are not solely responsible for the teaching of writing.”
Andrew Miller, who provides training for ASCD, says, for example, that biology teachers could cover a host of standards by having students write, edit and revise their arguments after analyzing a biology text or conducting an experiment. Teachers also could incorporate technology standards by having students work collaboratively with classmates or publish written work online.
The responsibilities of elementary teachers also determine the ways they use technology in their classrooms, says Jill Thompson, an instructional technology specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina.
For instance, Thompson introduces elementary teachers to ShowMe, a mobile app that keeps students on task by locking them into the application they are supposed to be using. “We wouldn’t take that approach with high school teachers because we want their students to take ownership of their learning,” she says.
When it comes to class content, Thompson helps elementary teachers create e-books. If they are studying ecosystems, students can contribute a page to a chapter on water, she explains. Thompson also has found that the district’s elementary teachers are more open to using new apps for their lessons. “K5 teachers ask for a lot more professional development than teachers of older students,” she says.
Professional development providers say a number of training approaches can suit all K12 teachers. What teachers of any grade share, they say, is the need to apply specific Common Core standards written for their grade level or subject areas.
“Our teachers want grade-specific and subject-specific training,” National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel says. If they teach third graders, he adds, they want to talk to other third-grade teachers about the mathematics and ELA standards.
In some ways, the Common Core is even making the practices of elementary and upper level teachers more alike than ever before. Tiffany McDole, the executive director for training and support at the Tennessee DOE, says the Common Core’s emphasis on more rigorous content across all grade levels—as well as its universal mandate to have students analyze, discuss and create projects around that material—has put elementary and high school practices on the same track.
“Often with elementary teachers, there’s been more emphasis on pedagogy. Those teachers have been surprised by how much more content they have to teach,” says McDole, who directs TN Core’s summer institutes. “The high school teachers are surprised by how much pedagogy they need to learn. Across the board you’re seeing K12 teachers doing all of these things.”
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer.