A half dozen children gathered around a table for small-group reading day in Claudine Phillips’ sunny second-grade classroom at Roscomare Road Elementary in Bel Air.
The class had recently read a short nonfiction story about Native American parents in New York who created the Freedom School to teach their children about tribal traditions. Phillip knows most of her 22 kids can sound out the words, but her goal today is to get them to delve deeply into the story’s details, to “Read like a detective,” as big cut-out letters on her classroom wall put it.
“Put on your detective hats, guys,” Phillips said, encouraging them to “hunt” for the “when” and “where” in the text.
Several children volunteered that the school was created in New York in the 1970s.
“And is the school still going on?” Phillips asked. “Are all these pictures from the 1970s?”
“No,” said one student, named Sarah. “Because one of the pictures has a whiteboard, so it couldn’t be from the 1970s.”
Phillips, a veteran teacher of 17 years, never mentioned the words, “Common Core,” but many of the techniques she’s using are inspired by these new ambitious national standards - adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia - which aim to encourage critical thinking and produce students who are more competitive globally.
Many schools across California are still in “massive upheaval mode” in transitioning to the new standards, said Jeannette LaFors of the nonprofit Education Trust West. Chosen by the Los Angeles Unified School district to be a teacher trainer, Phillips is ahead of the curve. She has undergone two years of intensive training and is now in the process of road testing the new techniques while leading training sessions of her fellow teachers.
Roscomare should have it easy. Few of its 700 students are low income, and the average home in the area sells for close to $2 million. The K-5 school has more resources than most, thanks to the generosity of parent volunteers and fundraising. The transition to the new standards here may be easier than in some places, yet Phillips said it’s been far from easy.
The new standards’ push for more critical thinking can be challenging for second graders, because even if they are capable of decoding the sounds of letters, they’re typically “not good at taking meaning” from what they read, Phillips said. “They don’t stop and wonder. They’ll read that a giraffe’s neck is eight feet long and they just keep going. I have to say to them, ‘Take a breath. Think about that.’ They think fast is better, and I say, ‘No, better is better.’”
So when she’s leading the discussion, she is training herself, she said, “to question them in a way that will propel their thinking forward, without giving them the answer, without telling them what to think.”
“My goal is to get the kids—and second grade is a tough year to do it—to question each other,” Phillips said. “I’m trying to get them to listen to each other, not to talk over each other, but to build on each other’s ideas.”
In essence, she said, she’s trying to create a new classroom culture.
These are big changes from just a few years ago. Under California’s old standards, teachers moved in lockstep through the curriculum. They knew what material they were supposed to cover every day, and how it was supposed to be presented.
“I used to have more of a sense that we just had to get through this material,” Phillips said, even if it meant skimming it.
“Common Core requires a shift in the teacher’s mind,” Phillips said. It encourages me to really assess and see if they’re getting it.” If not, she’s free to have the class “spend a few more days” on a skill until the students master it.
There is still a lot of work ahead before the new standards are fully in place – California is aiming for the 2014-15 school year – but Phillips said she’s already seeing a difference.
She has noticed that her second graders this year are better decoders than prior second-graders. Last year, 18 of her 23 students scored at the “advanced” level on the state math assessment – the most she’s ever had.
“I was very proud, and thought to myself, ‘What we did worked,’” she said. “Now I think: we need to delve deeper.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.