Common Core Brings Classroom Changes For Tennessee Teachers


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Photo by Christine Jessel.

Robert Beam’s been teaching high school classes – U.S. History, economics, personal finance, A.P. History, social studies – and the like – for 28 years in Knox County, Tennessee. Beam was one of around three-thousand teachers participating in district-wide Common Core training this summer. His disciplines aren’t under Common Core – but he says he’ll definitely be applying the principles. In tw0 years, 45 states, including Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, will begin testing students based on a new, nationwide curriculum known as Common Core. Some school teachers have already been introduced to that curriculum, while other teachers will begin using those standards in classrooms this fall.

“You can’t wait ‘til 2014 to start implementing it. We’ve been hearing about this for a year; we’ve already started having conversations about how to implement it. I mean, you can’t wait,” he says.

Tennessee trained 13-thousand elementary and middle school math teachers on Common Core standards this summer. Language arts won’t be phased in until next year. High School English teacher Anita Johnson says in some ways Common Core is back to the future.

“For me, a 27 year veteran, it looks like something that we did years ago, it’s coming back to having more common standards that will flow easily throughout the state,” she says. “We’ve gone back to just doing some basic teaching.”

Tennessee’s already started to retire state-designed math standards in favor of Common Core standards. Johnson says the state’s decision to drop hundreds of standards is a step in the right direction.

“It just seems that somewhere in the 90s they decided that we needed more – more was better – and we started trying to teach everything, and you can’t do that – the kids have gotta be able to have time to grasp that information and I don’t think we were giving them that time, to grasp so much information all at once,” she says.

“And if you were a slower student, or you just needed more time to process that information – the train has moved on and you’re still standing at the depot,” she says.

Third grade teacher Laura Miller says she’s looking forward to the shift from prioritizing long whole-class lessons to a focus on small-group teaching. Miller says that’s how she learned to teach – but never felt she really had time to put it into practice.

“We’ve had nine months to cram all of these SPIs [State Performance Indicators] in, and I’ve always said it’s like you’re just standing at the front of the classroom throwing balls out there to the students and if they catch them great … and if they don’t catch them, – sorry – time’s up – we’ve gotta go to the next set of balls, and throw them out,” she says.

Now, she says, she’ll be able to focus more on specific needs in her classroom.

“So this hopefully will be a way that – especially working with those small groups – that we can help those kids who are struggling but also enrich those kids who do tend to get it right away and give them the more complex texts or some more challenging situations to work more collaboratively on things,” she says.

Kindergarten teacher Brian King’s already seen some of the changes in store: Tennessee adopted Common Core standards for Kindergarten through second grade last year.

“There was some confusion between Tennessee standards and Common Core – what we’re responsible for now – what we’re not responsible for – so that took a little time to get used to,” he says.

Veteran Robert Beam says he knows Common Core’s not a quick fix. He calls it a blueprint. But he says he does think it will help good teachers dig in deeper with their students.

“I’m excited to see that hopefully instead of having this huge wall of standards … that by cutting that down, we can focus and go more in depth, because that’s good teaching. And if you teach kids how to learn, then they’ll learn a lot of things on their own,” he says.

So far it’s been mostly theoretical. With kids headed back to school, Beam and his fellow teachers will be getting the chance to see just how well these new Common Core standards work in practice.

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