On a rainy Friday afternoon this month, the library at Shady Grove Elementary School was bustling with activity.
Shady Grove Elementary School teachers met in the school’s library on an off-day for students this month to go over the Common Core standards and what they mean in the classroom. Similar sessions were held across the school district.
Teachers Vanessa Wheeler and Erin Pauly walked among the tables to see how the different groups were working together.
But there weren’t any children in the East Memphis school building.
Thirty teachers sat in five groups at child-sized tables and chairs on a day off for students, learning more about the Common Core state standards to which they are teaching.
At times, Wheeler and Pauly called upon their habits and tactics for calming classroom discussion – raising a finger to her lips with one hand, Pauly raised her other hand.
Wheeler and Pauly were among 700 teachers across the state who underwent five weeks of summer training on Common Core English, language arts and literacy standards. And their job on the Friday holiday was to lead the faculty through how to use the standards – what the standards are and what they aren’t.
“This shows the teachers how the standards that are in our curriculum already are aligned to Common Core,” Wheeler said later.
That included taking specific objectives and writing them out with a reference number from the Common Core manual and then having the teachers formulate an “I can” statement for students and themselves.
“We break it down into an 'I can' statement for the students, so they can make more sense of their objectives,” Pauly said.
The next step in the state standards shared by Tennessee and most other states means higher and more specific standards for Tennessee that have been coming for several years now. This school year, along with all of the other changes in local public education, Common Core still tops the list of teacher and parent discussions.
The Common Core session at Shady Grove was the day after the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year.
Shady Grove principal Kiersten Schnacke and Pauly said they encountered parents who had far more questions about Common Core than about the historic transition to the schools merger that began in August.
“We probably had more Common Core conversations than we did merger discussions,” said Pauly, who is a first-grade teacher.
Parents are reacting to a noticeable difference in the answers they get when they ask their children what happened in the classroom that day.
“I have siblings, and the tests we are giving them are different. They are seeing different work come home,” Pauly said. “Our spelling test even varies week to week because we are still trying to figure out what is the best assessment for them. … It’s a transition for parents and teachers and children and administration.”
The assessments are key because along with the Common Core standards, teachers and principals are using much more intensive intervention when students have trouble mastering a standard. The goal is to begin working immediately to keep that child on the path of their grade level as soon as they show signs of falling behind, so there are more tests to determine where they are.
The two are so closely aligned that it has changed how teachers work.
But Common Core is not the method or the curriculum. It is the standard.
“It is not a roadmap,” Wheeler, a fifth-grade reading language arts teacher, told those in the library. “You will not be given a sheet of paper that tells you this is Common Core. … We’re looking at what we already do.”
The Common Core standards are shared with the students as well. They are supposed to know that at a certain point in the school year they are expected to be able to achieve specific academic standards. Those Common Core standards are higher than in the past, calling for students to be taught not just to know an answer but to know how they got the answer. They are called on to comprehend and explain longer passages from their reading.
“All they are doing is taking something and creating and allowing students to go deeper and dig deeper into the curriculum, which allows for more creative classrooms and questioning and critical thinking,” Schnacke said after the session. “It’s not all at one time. It is spread out.”
It is spread out as in from grade to grade, with teachers across grade levels and subjects working together on strategies for the same students.
One teacher remarked that she didn’t use vocabulary words that she felt students wouldn’t understand. Building vocabulary in the elementary grades is a big part of the school system’s effort to bring up lagging state achievement test scores in reading and language arts.
Instead of telling a child they were a “messenger” sent to the office, she referred to them as a “courier,” knowing it was a new word. Instead of telling children to line up, she said, “Everybody adjust.”