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Reflections on: Trying to Teach a Common Core Curriculum

June 5, 2015

I’ve spent this year trying to teach a genuine Common Core Algebra I curriculum to high school freshman (my first time doing either of those) and I keep trying to find a way to write about with my experiences, but it’s hard not to get lost in all of the moving pieces that’ve happened this year. As the year winds downs (edit: did wind down. This post has been in the ‘draft’ pile for a few months and its already summer), I guess the biggest thing I feel is: the Common Core shift is real and I feel it and I have to rethink a lot of how I used to think about curriculum. This post is about me wrestling with what it means to try and genuinely implement a Common Core curriculum and trying to know where the wiggle room is.

In an effort to be proactive and give guidance to new (and old) teachers, my district aligned themselves with the Carnegie Textbook & Curriculum. This is the first time I’ve worked for a school that has aggressively pursued aligning lessons, materials, and curriculum to a textbook – in the past, I always viewed the textbook as a resource for problems and a baseline for what would get covered (and to what depth) in a class. Rarely would I look to the text for instructional guidance or activities or resources that I would use primarily in class with my students. I was used to creating (or stealing) lessons with an investigative aspect, or using a notetaker with problems embedded, or facilitating discussion and having students take notes. It was almost an unspoken rule that the textbook was a subpar mechanism for delivering instruction and it was better to create your own spin on the content. As such, I have lots of resources from my days supplementing a subpar textbook.

But this textbook isn’t like most textbooks I’ve seen. This text was developed from scratch in the last few years to address the specific shifts of the Common Core standards (just like EngageNY or the Math Vision Project) and, for a change, there are lots of things I like about it. The newness of the text means I don’t have any of these cut and paste issues from previous non-common core editions. I like that the textbook is consumable – students are encouraged to write in the book and take notes; that problems are embedded along with the notes. Non-traditional tasks & activities are embedded in chapters (organizers, sorting activities, matching activities) which are things I used to design independently. Questions encouraging discussion and debate are embedded into the section, which I can expand on if I want to. The textbook follows the ‘let’s do one problem in depth’ rather than the ‘here’s the vocab, here are some examples, here are lots of tiny problems’ philosophy, which I like. The textbook tries to ground content in a context or developed from prior skills rather than saying ‘here’s the new thing we need to learn for arbitrary reasons’. Each chapter is like a narrative – some starting problem leads to something new and everything wraps up by the end. Here’s a sample chapter if you’re curious what I’m talking about.

In practice, I’m having a lot of trouble embedding this textbook with my usual classroom procedures and remaining honest with the spirit of the curriculum. The biggest obstacle is: there’s a lot of reading and active learning and student-driven contributions and analyzing different methods which takes time and is especially challenging if my students aren’t on their game or the lesson has a high entry-point and my students begin to feel defeated. My lessons don’t fit nicely in hour-long class periods anymore – the bell rings in the middle of discussing a problem or a class debate, leaving all of us with a feeling that we spent the class period spinning our wheels without ever landing on something solid to take away from the day. I try to have routines grounded in bellwork and exit tickets and an occasional homework, but it’s been hard to plan when I can’t always predict where or when the conversation will end. I have trouble reacting when students aren’t contributing and analyzing where the struggle is. Is it an off day and I need to work on my questioning and engagement strategies? Or is the activity in the textbook too dense or the entry-point is too high or assumes too much from their prior knowledge? In the first semester, I spent one month on only half a chapter as I tried to parse all of this out, reacting to unfinished discussions and delayed assignments and unsure if the activity was flawed or if it was something with the class & how I was running it. By the time second semester rolled around, I didn’t open the textbook at all – in the spirit of ‘coverage’, my lessons needed to move faster, which meant isolating the most important parts of the curriculum and using that independently from the textbook. We didn’t do a single lesson on statistics, despite it being 20% of our Algebra I state test.

This all leads to this really delicate internal conflict for me: if this textbook/curriculum does a lot of things that I like in theory, but I’m struggling to deliver the material effectively in practice, which of the two needs adjusting? Do I need to find better strategies to implement the content and rigor of the textbook/curriculum effectively? Or, since the textbook & curriculum is only 2 years old, are there aspects of the text that are genuinely unsound and worth revamping in my own style? I’m already thinking about next year and I need to ask myself: where do I want to dedicate my time? To a more purposeful integration of this textbook and trusting that, after my students get used to it, things will be better? Or do I start supplementing aspects of the text with my own materials and routines that I’ve used in the past? In other words: do I want to dedicate time to trying to implement the textbook more effectively as intended, or to dialing back some of the expectations in favor of more tried and true methods/activities/assignments I’ve used in the past?

The pre-Common Core me would have said “Abandon the textbook – make your own stuff – use the blogotwittersphere for resources” in a heartbeat. The current me isn’t so sure. The current me is still getting used to the content and rigor shifts that are supposed to be occurring in our classrooms. The current me doesn’t know the Common Core standards as well as I knew the old ones. I’m worried it would be too easy for me to simply start using my old resources and slip into a curriculum that isn’t aligned to the level of rigor in the Common Core standards anymore. ‘Abandon the textbook’ could accidentally lead to ‘Abandon the Common Core’, and I don’t want that to happen. Very few of my old resources are connected to a context like the textbook is (and like the standards demand); very few of my old resources are as calculator-heavy as the textbook is (and the state assessment allows); my old resources aren’t aligned to the curricular shifts that have occurred (lots of my materials are suddenly more suited for 7th and 8th grade rather than 9th grade). To revert back to what is familiar and ‘worked’ in the past doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing myself any favors as I try to implement a true Common Core curriculum.

Start SideNote: I started writing this post as a personal reflection on my experiences with a specific textbook and a specific curriculum, but after some reading (like here and here) and talking to some other math teachers at a conference here in Tucson, I think this post might resonate with anyone trying to genuinely implement a new ‘from scratch’ Common Core curriculum. End SideNote

I guess another important part of this shift is: it bangs its head against many of the ‘daily lesson’ frameworks and routines I’ve seen – things like the Essential Elements of Instruction (EEI) and the Madeline Hunter model of daily instruction where everything is self-contained and wraps up nicely at the end of the day. I’ve always found this to a be a useful way to make sure I don’t overreach in the course of a lesson, but I don’t think it works well with the way this curriculum is structured. I feel like an EEI self-contained lesson would present the mathematics so we can solve a problem, whereas I’m trying to investigate a problem for the purpose of unwrapping the mathematics inside. I’m used to bellwork every day and exit tickets at the end and the lesson is snuggled somewhere in between, but I haven’t been able to fall into that groove this year. It’s been really strange to read my own posts from 2 years ago describing my thoughts on bellwork and homework and exit tickets and how to establish those as routines, yet I’ve almost completely abandoned those this year as I try to make room for discussions and presentations and student-driven interactions. Is it okay that my lessons run over? Is it okay that I haven’t figured out how to assign homework in a common-core world yet? Maybe I need some new frameworks for what a ‘daily lesson’ should look like – something like Complex Instruction? Something that gives guidance for how to manage a discussion & an investigation over multiple days? Is this where I spend my time – on adjusting what my idea of a ‘daily lesson’ looks like?


MathyMcMatherson Note: So – these paragraphs (this one – right here – that you’re reading in this very moment) exists completely independently of the post above. Let me tell you a secret: I’m really good at starting blog posts, writing a fair amount, then getting distracted or not really knowing how to wrap them up or finishing my thoughts and then not caring enough to publish (much like how Hitchock got bored with his movies as he was filming them), and then they sit in an unpublished pile while life goes on. And I’ve decided I don’t like that. I’d like to try and have more of this stuff out in the world.  Is that egotistical? Maybe. Isn’t having a blog in the first place somewhat egotistical? Probably. Anyway.

So – I’m trying something radical: I’m going to start publishing posts even if they’re unfinished. Like this one – it’s unfinished – there’s no closure to anything that I wrote above. It’s like a mystery novel with the last 2 chapters torn off. But you know what? It’s better than having it sit for months unpublished (or is it?). And maybe it’s still useful. And maybe you, dear reader, will yell at me to finish it, which might be motivating. Who knows? This is an experiment. Expect more of these – deliberately unfinished posts – in the coming weeks and we’ll see what happens.


From → Classroom Theory

  1. Reblogged this on Indiana Jen and commented:
    My good friend and former colleague Dan is one of the best math teachers I have ever known. As an Independent School teacher, I do not implement standardized curriculum; never the Common Core. His reflections here are thoughtful, albeit open ended. I hope you will join the conversation if this is something that sparks your interest.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, for several reasons:
    a) I’m glad to hear that something out there which claims to be Common Core-aligned seems like it actually is, upon testing in an actual classroom with actual children!

    b) I appreciate the quandary you’re wrestling with in terms of adjusting the curriculum vs. adjusting your style/habits– it’s so easy to throw out the curriculum rather than treating it as an opportunity to grow in your practice (I say this from experience, having done that myself when I was teaching, and seeing the teachers I coach/support do it on the regular), and it takes courage and optimism to consider trying to adjust to fit an external model (the curriculum). It’s the exact opposite of that “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail” adage 🙂

    c) I was trained in and I work for an organization that believes deeply in Madeline Hunter and self-contained units of instruction (and student mastery at the end of every lesson, regardless of whether it’s an arbitrary 44 minutes long or 90 minutes long). The nice thing about that is it prevents teachers from interminable lessons dragged out excessively (e.g. extending the same activity or task for daaaaaaaays because not everyone “gets it” or has spontaneously arrived at the right answer yet), because it provides nice short chunks to plan for. But children– and the learning process– just aren’t that predictable, and it requires much more sophisticated teaching to be able to anticipate (closer to) where and when there’ll be breaks in conversation, but also to be able to respond in the moment and make choices about how to break when the bell rings and what to do the next day. Have you tried “exit tickets” that are more like reflective statements (e.g. “one thing I learned today was… a question i still have is…”) or syntheses of what happened (e.g. “rewrite the strategy you heard Daniel share in your own words, and explain how it is similar to and different from the strategy you initially tried with your partner”)? I wonder whether these could provide an element of routine and structure and also give you some useful information about where to start the next day.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing, and I hope that your experiment with sharing unfinished posts leads to more public, thoughtful reflection on these questions!

  3. melomania permalink

    I agree with your point about the EEI and Madeline Hunter models requiring a self-contained lesson that wraps up nicely at the end of the class period. It reminds me of a TV show – at the end of the half-hour, everything is nicely taken care of. Everyone has closure and everything is back to normal.

    My own side-note here: I’m TERRIBLE with timing. I can never wrap a lesson up by the end of class. I always need another 5-10 minutes. Every day. Maybe I talk too much.

    Is that what math class SHOULD look like though? We all know that TV isn’t real life. I wonder if this nicely packaged, self-contained lesson format is contributing to a subconscious assumption in students’ minds that everything should be like that? That everything should be wrapped up by the “end”, whatever the end is? I used to have trouble with this in my interpersonal relationships – I felt like any conflict needed to be wrapped up by the end of the conversation, but people don’t work that way. Sometimes you need to walk away and let yourself process. This is true in education as well – your brain needs to process.

    Sure, having the bell ring in the middle of a sentence is not ideal. There probably does need to be some closure at the end of class so everyone can summarize important points, basically organize their thoughts as best they can. Then the next day they can return to the discussion. It may not pick up right where it left off, but it doesn’t have to – maybe the 24 hours of processing will have led someone to a cool thing to bring up, or a new way to look at things. That’s really what should happen when we give our brains that time to think and process.

    I guess the short version is that (assuming those discussions are bringing up good mathematical ideas and everyone is participating/listening) the discussions are worth it, and the time should be taken. This is something I struggle with too – the knowledge that if I dedicate the time now, the benefits of improved understanding will pay me back later. (I tend to panic and just tell the students what I wanted them to learn from the activity “so they’ll know it” when I think I’ve run out of time.) So have some good discussions. Prepare for them effectively (like 5-Practices style) so you know what to expect and how best to guide them. Be sure to take the time to explore the really important concepts – choose which ones you can skimp on and don’t emphasize the discussions for those ones.

    Also, take all of my advice with a grain of salt. This is just my opinion, I’m not in your situation, I don’t know your students, and I don’t have much experience. I could be completely off-base here. (But I like to think it sounds good.)


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