“I can, you know, do math and stuff,” says Harry Potter defensively in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Math and stuff. I'm sure Professor McGonagall would shudder to hear that. The key shifts in Common Core math are leading students to a deeper understanding of why they do math and what the numbers mean. The thought is that students will be able to apply this deeper understanding to any problem they come across, not just explicitly taught problems, and be better mathematicians in the long run. In the short run it may have you beating your head against the wall! Here are the key shifts in mathematics and a few baby steps towards achieving them.
It used to be that a student would study place value at the start of the year. They might learn ones and tens in kindergarten, review and add on in 1st grade, bust into the thousands place in 2nd grade, and by the time I saw them in 4th grade, we’d glide into the millions. And then the next month? Done. Finished. See you next year. We had fifty million standards to skedaddle across and no time to stop and dally on any one item. What the math standards do is take a deep, not wide approach. For example, instead of teaching thirty different objectives in a year, you might teach three. The difference is that you will teach those three inside, outside, and upside down so that each child fully understands and masters the concept. Focus on going deep for mastery and transferring those skills.
First things first: find out what your grade level is supposed to focus on exactly. AchievetheCore.org offers an easily read document that shows the grade band priorities and more specific priorities at each grade level. The problem for teachers wanting to align to Common Core is the gap in what has been taught and where the standards are now. This can be overwhelming, so think about prioritizing the way you would with any large task. Creating your own pacing guide is a good way to dig in and get familiar with the standards, while making a feasible plan.
When I teach fractions, I need to know that my students saw parts of a whole last year. I need to know that next year their understanding of decimals will relate to percentages. Coherence means that students are not learning entirely new skills in isolation, but building on previously learned material. I think the best example of coherence I’ve heard deals with money. Young students are being taught to understand ones, fives, and tens. They can count forward and backward by 10, 25, or 100. They truly know what it means and how 100 is created. By the time a 2nd grade teacher shows them a nickel or dime, the learning isn’t totally new. They just have to take what they know and attach the picture of a coin to it. Bam! That’s coherence!
Grab the doorknob, stick your head in the hallway, and talk to those people you work with. Coherence cannot be done in isolation. Grab a person from the grade below you and ask about their standards. Ask your co-worker in a higher grade what foundations you need to lay for them. Our Professional Learning Team meets monthly with a representative from each grade level and we discuss the learning going on in our classrooms. When we implemented the standards, we took all the old standards, cut them apart, and put them where they now fall in the Common Core. You can’t just know what is happening in your room. You need to understand where your kids have been, and where they need to go, to ensure that they are making connections throughout their learning. The Publishers’ Criteria for Common Core has a table that shows the kindergarten through 8th grade skill coherence moving towards algebra. It is a great visual for getting started thinking across grade bands.
Do you ever feel as though the creators of Common Core just like big words? Some places, such as EngageNY.org, break this shift into three smaller parts. The keys here are conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application. What does that all mean? Conceptual understanding means that you don’t just know it’s the hundreds place, you understand that hundreds are ten times the tens place and one-tenth of the thousands place. Conceptual understanding will help students apply what they know to problems they have never seen. Procedural skill and fluency is what you know as good ol' “skill and drill.” Kids have to be able to perform computation with speed and accuracy to ever be able to apply functions to complex problems. Application is taking math into the real world and connecting it to life outside the math textbook. Rigor? I think of it as mental toughness. We want our kids to have that!
Rigor is not just harder. That’s missing the point. Rigor is all about truly understanding the meaning behind the numbers, getting those facts down pat, and then applying all that knowledge to the real world. Conceptual understanding is aided with the use of manipulatives. Give students the hands-on, concrete experiences they need with numbers before making them use paper. Take away the algorithms and see what purposeful questioning can help students derive on their own. Make sure they “get it” from every angle you can throw it. The lower grades in particular are charged with getting those basic facts rolling off the tongue. Programs like FastMath help get the fluency rolling after the conceptual groundwork has been laid. Then take those lessons out of math class. Science is a great fit for real life measurement, graphing, and probability. Figure out the ratios used in art. Use reading strategies to decipher mathematical text. Apply knowledge across subjects to make sure they have sunk in and aren’t going to leak out anytime soon!
Why? Check out these statistics from the National Math and Science Institute:
The key shifts in mathematics don’t stand alone. They are used with the mathematical practice standards and integrated throughout lessons and curriculum. Alone they are meaningless, but together — wow. What if Harry didn’t just mix potions? What if he could create his mixtures by applying his knowledge? Snape wouldn’t know what hit him!
Have you started on Common Core math? What has been challenging for you?