Common Core

In Oakland, on the front lines with the Common Core

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OAKLAND, Calif.—It’s mid-September in Lisa Rothbard’s fourth-period English class and her last chance to prep these 32 juniors for the next day’s district writing assessment. On face value, the stakes are low; the test’s purpose is strictly diagnostic, designed to give the teacher a sense of the students’ skill level.

But Rothbard knows it’s really more than that; it’s a chance for her kids at Skyline High in Oakland to show that they’re successfully transitioning to the new national Common Core standards, which aim to increase students’ analytic and critical thinking skills. They’ll have to do more than write an argumentative essay based on opinion or anecdote. To do well, her students will need to produce a solid essay, including a strong thesis statement that is backed up with evidence, sources and research.

It’s also, in a sense, a test for Rothbard. Developing new and more effective ways to teach and help students succeed is the essential challenge of the Common Core initiative. Success or failure will depend on teachers like Rothbard working on the front lines. So in early September, she gave her two classes of sophomores and two classes of juniors an essay prompt—“Has social networking’s impact on society been more positive or negative?”—plus a packet of research and news articles to help them prepare.

But on this day, as she walks up and down the rows of desks to check students’ progress, it’s clear that not everyone is ready. “I have never had so many sophomores and juniors who didn’t know what a thesis statement was,” she says. The objective of today’s lesson is to review the basics of a thesis statement one more time.

Instead of kicking off with a lecture, Rothbard aims to encourage student interaction—one of the goals of the Common Core—by asking the teens to “turn and talk” with their seat-mates and offer their own definition. Soon there’s a low buzz around the room. Some kids are silent, and others are chattering about whether rap mogul Tupac Shakur is alive or dead, a question Rothbard had mentioned earlier as a possible thesis topic. But a surprising number are actually debating the definition of “thesis statement” with their neighbors and a few minutes later, they’re ready to share their ideas with the group.

A girl named Ajee raises her hand. “Chasiti said it’s like a plot, and I said that it’s like what’s necessary for an essay.”

“It’s like a plot,” Rothbard repeats slowly to the class. “That’s the first time I’ve heard that, and it makes a lot of sense to me. Malik?”

“It states your claim and guides where you’re going,” Malik answers.

Rothbard is pleased. Today’s lesson is taking a turn for the better. But she’s also very aware that her transition to teaching—Common Core style—is still a work in progress.

While every teacher in this traditional comprehensive high school of 1,900 students is working to make the same transition, Rothbard has a slight advantage and an extra burden. In addition to her regular classroom duties, she is one of the few teachers at her school starting their second year as Oakland Unified’s Common Core trainers.

For Rothbard, that means monthly professional development workshops run by the district, where she is the student, getting expert advice on how to implement Common Core. Back at Skyline, in addition to using what she has learned in her own classroom, she also leads collaborative training sessions with her fellow faculty members, who are generally enthusiastic about the new standards.

“Teachers often feel like, every year, there’s some new effort and new direction thrown at us that will not be seen through,” she says. “But this is different. There’s a continuity to what we’re working on, and our district is empowering teacher leadership.”

Rather than wholesale change, Rothbard sees the goals of Common Core at the high school level as encouraging teachers to create a smarter version of what they had been doing before.

In the English department, she says, “We’re largely teaching what we’ve always taught. But we’re making changes here and there reflecting the goals” of the Common Core.  For instance, she says, “We’re making this push toward using more informational texts,” the kind of complex nonfiction that students are likely to encounter in college and the work world.  “The other thing I’m using my training on is making things relevant so that what the students are learning seems authentic and meaningful,” she says. “We’re building on those skills to hit all the standards, all the time.”

With her sophomores, she’s starting the year by helping them learn to do research and evaluate the credibility of online sources. At the same time, she’s urging all her kids to read for deeper meaning and to discuss their insights more often, with the hope that they will get “better and better at them as we go”. Her goal, she says, is not just getting her students to write summaries of what they have read or discussed in class, but to generate essays that display higher levels of analysis and criticism.

So, for example, if they do a literature unit on the Civil Rights movement, they could read novels with that theme as well as nonfiction works like the Declaration of Independence, the Alabama clergymen’s letter to Martin Luther King Jr., and his response, written from the Birmingham City Jail. By the time they’re finished, Rothbard says, she hopes her students will be able to generate their own writing prompts as well as their own online research. “They should be able to write on topics like, ‘Is our society still segregated?’” she says. “Their writing should reference what they’ve learned from the initial texts and from their research, and their ideas should show an evolution.”

She adds: “We’re supposed to be teaching most of the standards in every unit, and building on them as we progress.”

What’s the biggest challenge the Common Core poses at Skyline? That’s easy, says Rothbard with a sigh. Time. There’s just not enough of it. Particularly at a place like Skyline, which draws a very diverse mix of students from all over Oakland, a city with significant poverty and unemployment.

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“We are trying to roll out new training, new assessments, new ways of doing things. We need time to learn to do it well,” she says “and, we’re doing this professional development on top of an already very demanding job.” Rothbard conducts twice-monthly trainings (one with just English teachers, and a second with English and history teachers who are jointly trying to improve student literacy and writing skills) on shortened school days. Each session lasts only about 90 minutes after school. Yet Rothbard considers herself lucky because her school is dedicating all of its professional development time this year to the Common Core, a level of commitment not seen everywhere in Oakland.

But the generally positive reviews that the Common Core has gotten from teachers don’t mean everyone is a fan. Not every English teacher is happy about the push for more nonfiction. “I’ve heard some gripes about it from teachers around the district,” she said, adding that was not much of an issue at her school.  Some teachers are less than enthusiastic about the plan to periodically have all classes at each grade level teach the same book at the same time, so teachers can compare notes about their effectiveness. There’s also some uneasiness about the coming online assessments, partly because Skyline — and its 1,900 students — have less than ideal access to technology.

“At Skyline, we have 22 desktops in our library and as of last year, we reopened our computer lab with 32 desktops, and four laptop carts, each with 32 to 34 Chromebooks,” Rothbard said. But two of those carts are largely committed to remedial programs. “So that leaves the library, the computer lab and two laptop carts for all teachers to reserve for classroom purposes,” she says. “But we’re much better equipped with technology this year than in past years.”

Rothbard says she does her best to “monopolize” the computers available to her, but acknowledges that many of her kids need more time in front of a screen. “Some of our students have shockingly poor computer skills for being students one or two years away from being in college and the career world,” says Rothbard, who switched to teaching after years working for a nonprofit education-advocacy group. “It’s one of the biggest inequalities that students with more disadvantages face: a lack of access to computers. In this day and age, there should be one computer for every student. I am very passionate about that.” (At Skyline, about 68 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch.)

Her hope is that the online tests coming as part of the Common Core conversion will force school districts across the state to invest more in technology. “If the Common Core helps push the effort to meet that need, that would be amazing,” she says.

After all, to Rothbard, the Common Core represents a promise of better opportunities for her students.

“We’re always trying new things, and there is always some mistrust about whatever the new thing is,” she says as she wraps up for the day. “But on the whole, I think those who understand Common Core are pretty positive about it, and so far, I haven’t experienced any pushback. I think one of the positives about this experience is that we’ve seen more consistency and progress than usual. But a lot remains to be seen.”

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