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Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series looking at how Belle Chasse Primary School, in suburban New Orleans, is adjusting to the Common Core standards that are reshaping teaching in classrooms throughout Louisiana. The first story in the series, done in partnership with The Advocate and New Orleans public radio, can be read here.
BELLE CHASSE, La. — When Mike and Camille Chudzinski tried to help their son with his homework earlier this fall, they were bewildered. The fourth-grader brought home no spelling lists, few textbooks, and a whole new approach to solving math problems. When he tackled multi-digit addition, for instance, Patrick did not just line up the two numbers and then add the columns, as his parents had been taught to do. Instead, he sketched out a graph with a series of arrows and marks that appeared at first to his parents as indecipherable as hieroglyphics.
Sarah Carr talks with WWNO News Director Eve Troeh about how parents feel the Common Core changes, as they help their children with homework
“The first few weeks of homework … there was a lot of us asking, ‘Why are you doing that? You are wasting time. Just add the numbers,’ ” said Camille Chudzinski.
The education standards known as the Common Core have ignited political battles throughout Louisiana and the country. But in kitchens and living rooms across America, they have prompted struggles of a different sort as confused parents adjust to the new approaches to teaching English and math—and the accompanying changes in homework.
The Common Core standards, adopted by 45 states and Washington D.C., do not constitute a federal curriculum or mandate specific readings. But they do spell out skills that children should learn by different grade-levels (such as understanding place value in first grade) and general education principles (such as incorporating nonfiction readings in English and multi-part word problems in math).
At schools like Belle Chase Primary, which Patrick Chudzinski attends, the standards have already prompted significant changes in the way students are taught and the homework they bring home. In math, for instance, students are sometimes expected to solve arithmetic problems (like 23 x 42 or 1,709 + 2,350) using multiple methods, some of which are unfamiliar to their parents.
Hear Camille Chudzinski talking about the changed approach to math homework
The teachers at Belle Chasse Primary devoted much of their summer vacation to learning the ins and outs of the new standards. Many say they appreciate the Common Core’s emphasis on critical thinking, and the opportunity to teach fewer skills in greater depth.
Families say the school has gone out of its way to explain the new methods and expectations, including holding information sessions for parents with guidance on how to help children with their homework. Yet the changes have still caught some parents off guard. Arguably nowhere have they fostered more anxiety than among the families of fourth-graders, who must pass a standardized test that will be at least partially aligned with the new standards to advance to fifth grade.
“We thought we would roll along and weren’t expecting anything crazy,” said Ted Campiso, the parent of a fourth-grader at Belle Chasse Primary. “Then we started seeing homework.”
Multiple ways to solve a problem
When Patrick Chudzinski tackled multi-digit multiplication in his homework earlier this month, a single equation could consume an entire page. Faced with the problem 452 x 4, for instance, he started with the “break apart” method, which entails multiplying 4 by 2, 4 by 50, and 4 by 400, and then adding up the results. He depicted a similar problem graphically using the “area model.” He also tried “repeated addition” (adding 452 four times) and what’s referred to as the “standard algorithm” (lining up the problem vertically, as his parents were taught to do).
“In past years, like third or second grade, we didn’t even know these methods existed,” said Patrick.
The theory behind the new approach is that children will come to understand the meaning behind math problems—and not just learn how to follow rules.
Mary Beth Newchurch, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, said she has already noticed some encouraging results. One student recently described 1.5 million as 15 hundred thousand, a connection she doesn’t think he would have made without the changed instructional approach. “We’re teaching them to think,” she said.
It took the Chudzinskis a few weeks—and some texting and emailing with other parents—to adapt to Patrick’s new homework assignments. “I’m not mathematically inclined,” said his mother. “My kid’s the mathematically inclined one. So when you first see this, it’s very daunting.” It helped when Patrick showed his parents a page of a classmate’s work. That proved to them that Patrick wasn’t solving the problems “wrong” or in his own way, but exactly how he and his classmates had been taught.
“It really was a light-bulb for all of us where we were like, ‘Okay, we can work with this now,’ ” said Camille Chudzinski. And even if she doesn’t fully understand the different methods herself, Chudzinski can always rely on the “standard algorithm” to check her son’s final answers.
Pushing students to think deeply
Some families have had a rockier transition than others.
Knowing that the Common Core changes were coming, Gina Horton enrolled her fourth-grade son, Joel, in after-school “homework help” for the first time this fall.
Horton can tell that her son is being pushed harder than before. When his class read the book Tuck Everlasting recently, they analyzed themes, characters and settings in more depth than Joel was accustomed to. But “he’s creative and likes a challenge,” said his mother. So far, Joel has maintained honor-roll grades.
“The instruction is not something from the day of old where the teacher could just say, ‘Okay, this is how you do it.’ They are making them think and reason,” said Horton. “I think the school is doing what it can to make sure this works.”
For Irene Breaux’s daughter, also a fourth-grader, the adjustment has been harder. The family’s home computer is broken, which makes it hard to research the new standards online. And Breaux can’t afford after-school homework help for her daughter at the moment. Her older son is skilled in math, but wasn’t taught according to the Common Core. “We don’t always know how to help her,” said Breaux.
Her daughter earned a failing grade in math for the first time this school year. Breaux says that’s probably not entirely attributable to the Common Core, however. Her husband was in a bad accident, and the children have been understandably stressed during his recovery.
She’s counting on her daughter’s strong work ethic—and the school’s support—to help the child rebound.
Belle Chasse parents, like the rest of the American public, have struggled at times to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to the Common Core. Campiso said rumors run rampant on Facebook, where parents occasionally post images of “alleged” homework assignments that might, or might not, be linked to the new standards. Some, like the different methods for solving math problems, can be traced back to the Common Core. Others, like a specific reading assigned by a teacher, are less likely to be related.
School officials have focused two Common Core information sessions for parents on the shifts in math instruction, where the changes are most obvious. At the second session last week, fourth-grade teacher Vickie Nagin showed parents examples of “tape diagrams” (visual models that use rectangles to represent the parts of a ratio), “array models” (a way of mapping out long division visually), and “number bonds” (visual representations of addition and subtraction).
“Some ways are going to click [for] one child and not another,” she told the parents. “The point is that they are thinking about what they are doing with the numbers.”
Hear Patrick and his mother work through a tape diagram to solve a math problem during homework one recent night
Ted Campiso said he can tell his son has been doing a lot of deep thinking—and some worrying—this school year. Between extracurricular activities (including karate, baseball, lacrosse) and the new standards, the fourth-grader is sometimes up until 9 or 10 p.m. finishing homework.
Campiso and his wife are trying to keep an open mind about the Common Core until it’s been in place longer and they can better gauge the results. “We consider ourselves in the middle,” he said. “We don’t love it and we don’t hate it.”
In the meantime, he said he appreciates how hard many Belle Chasse Primary teachers are working to adjust their instruction and re-educate parents in addition to students. At the recent information session, Campiso was one of about 15 fourth-grade parents listening, taking notes and trying to be patient.
“If it sticks around, hopefully it makes our kids more intelligent and better prepared for college,” he said. “But to say one hard and fast thing about it—not yet. We are still waiting.”