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Voices: Common Core helps teachers prioritize

Denver South High School math teacher Megan Lawson says the Common Core State Standards can help teachers focus on strategies that work.

As a mathematics teacher in an incredibly diverse urban public school, my fellow teachers and I are constantly fighting to provide our students with all of the support that they need to be successful within the classroom.

We are relentlessly searching for research-based methods that can help our students thrive. So often, our students come to the classroom lacking not only basic mathematics skills but also language skills. At our school, over 40 different languages are spoken. We have students who have had continual education since kindergarten. And we have students who have had no formal education whatsoever until they set foot within our doors.

As a mathematics teacher, the key is to find a way for all of these students to be successful and graduate from high school with the math and critical and logical thinking skills necessary for success in college or a career.

The Common Core State Standards have helped us to clarify and define what needs to be taught within each content area. In theory, a student in Colorado and a student in Alabama who are both being taught in a Common Core classroom should be acquiring the same knowledge and skills.

This can be a daunting task, however, when not all school district curricula completely align to the Common Core. But this lack of alignment is no excuse. If we want our students to be successful on a global level, we need consistency in our classrooms and to have high expectations of all of our students – all across the country.

Role of Mathematics Design Collaborative

In order to help students become successful in meeting these new and rigorous mathematical standards, we have begun implementing Mathematics Design Collaborative Tools. These tools have proved valuable in helping students to read, write, speak about and comprehend mathematics.

First, students begin the task by working individually on a provided prompt. Then, I read all of the students’ work and develop a series of questions to help guide and clarify student thinking. Next, students are asked to reassess their own work and eventually examine the thinking of a student outside of the class (a student work sample) to answer a series of guided questions regarding the work as a team.

The key element of the lesson is the students working together to examine the student work sample. For my English language learners, this part of the lesson has proved to be the most challenging. However, it is often the most beneficial step in establishing long-term understanding of the course material and, in turn, the Common Core. As students examine the work of their peers ,they are asked to make sense of how the work is organized, what mistakes and misunderstandings are present, and how each student’s work could be improved.

For all students, examining outside student work samples forces a deep conversation into the mathematics present within a particular problem. As a class, we use this opportunity to discuss how students are thinking, what they have observed and to grade each others’ work.

I have noticed that all students are very excited to grade the work. They always want to give their fellow classmates a “partially proficient” score. All students are able to find a way to improve upon the work that they see. When we have these conversations about grading, they inevitably lead to the question of, “Why?” Why does someone deserve the grade that he or she earned? Part of my job is to push students beyond the “what” and the “why” behind the grade, and to think about “how” they can help their classmates improve their level of proficiency without giving away the solution.

Finally, students are asked to revise their own work, keeping in mind the discussions that have occurred at the teacher-student, small-group and whole-class level.

Classroom challenges remain

While the idea behind the Mathematics Design Collaborative Tool is a beneficial one, it requires a serious time commitment. A thorough exercise takes at least two full 50-minute class periods, if not three. Not only that, but developing the student work samples can be a very challenging task.

Despite these challenges, the Mathematics Design Collaborative Tools provide students with valuable opportunities to show their understanding and revise their thinking within mathematics through individual, small-group and whole-group tasks. These tools have also helped me to become more focused with my feedback as a teacher. And they have helped my students to make better sense of the feedback that they receive while still thinking critically about their own work.

In my classroom, the Mathematics Design Collaborative Tools have helped my students to better challenge, learn, understand and – most importantly – succeed in mathematics.

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