I was a kindergarten teacher in Minneapolis when my school started transitioning to the new Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.
Based on my experience as a teacher, I've highlighted seven steps our school took to help me learn more about Common Core and how to integrate the standards into my classroom.
7 Steps to Successfully Implement Common Core
- Clear communication about the big transition between school leadership and teaching staff. In May of the year before the transition, our principal and leadership team (which was made up of two administrators and one teacher from each grade and content area) announced that our school would begin using Common Core during the next school year. They explained why the transition was happening and how we would phase in the new standards.
I really appreciated this level of transparency, and the clear communication on the differences between Common Core and the old standards.
- Common Core would give us more opportunities to dive deeper into key concepts and skills so that students had time to master and apply what they learned. The standards would also help us build on student learning from year to year, just like a staircase. When my kindergarten students went to first grade, they would use what they learned the year before as the foundation for continued learning.
Knowing about our school’s transition to Common Core and how it was going to happen encouraged me to learn more about the standards.
- Time to dissect the Common Core standards in grade-level and content teams. Our principal provided time for my colleagues and I to gather in our grade-level and content teams to dissect the new standards.
In our kindergarten teaching team, we identified what knowledge and skills our students needed to have by the end of the kindergarten. We learned about best practices in instruction to help students develop their knowledge, understanding, and skills for each of the standards.
By the end of May, in the year before the transition, we all had a clearer understanding of what students should be able to know and do by the end of next school year -- making us very eager to start planning how we would help all our students meet the new learning goals.
- Selecting curricula that aligned with the Common Core standards. One of my pet peeves is hearing people confuse curriculum with learning standards.
To be clear, learning standards, like those outlined in Common Core, set goals around what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade.
- Learning standards are not a curriculum, nor do they ask teachers to use a specific set of lesson plans or materials. Those decisions remain with individual teachers, schools and districts. At the beginning of summer, in the year before the transition, my colleagues and I reviewed our English Language Arts curricula and teaching resources to make sure that they were research-based, culturally-relevant, and all aligned with the learning standards described in Common Core.
Our kindergarten teaching team found that most of our lesson plans met those criteria.
Through this process, we also identified that we had very limited curricular materials to cover the Common Core writing standards for kindergarten. For example, two of the new writing standards called for students to:
- Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which students name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.
- With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.
When we identified this gap between the standards and what was actually taught in previous years, we realized that we needed to increase the quality and academic rigor of our writing program.
To support student writing, our team researched different instructional methods and selected a writing curriculum that would support our teaching so that we could help our students develop their writing skills.
- Back-planning next school year. In order to create a meaningful long-term instructional plan for the next school year, my colleagues and I got together to back-plan the year.
We started by identifying our end of year goals -- which were informed by the Common Core -- around what our students need to know and be able to do.
Once we were clear on the goals, we planned out the order in which concepts and skills would be taught, best practices in teaching students each concept and skill, what curricular resources we could use, and how we would measure student learning to ensure that our kindergarteners were building on what they had learned throughout the year.
The long-term plan also served as a strong foundation for our learning units and lesson plans.
- Ongoing professional coaching. Throughout the next school year, all teachers worked with an instructional coach to focus on great planning and teaching that supported student learning.
Each session with my coach was very helpful because it was an opportunity to reflect on my goals around student growth, identify my own strengths and areas of improvement, and create a plan to continuously improve my effectiveness as a teacher.
My coach made sure that I was planning and executing rigorous lessons -- that were aligned with the goals in Common Core -- to engage all of my students.
For example, most of my students were also English Language Learners, so I worked with the coach to carefully select teaching materials and tailor my instruction to meet the needs of all of my students. Here are some of the research-based practices I applied to support my learners:
- Fostered a learning environment that was visual, hands-on, and interactive
- Celebrated and incorporated the cultures and languages of my students in the classroom
- Taught vocabulary explicitly; had students practice using academic vocabulary
- Created materials that helped my students understand and apply work to their lives
- Opportunities to troubleshoot and share best practices in grade-level and content teams. Each Friday, my kindergarten teaching team met to reflect on the week. This was an opportunity to speak candidly with other teachers and discuss what went well, what didn’t, exchange ideas, troubleshoot and make any planning adjustments for the following week.
I found that these Friday sessions were essential in improving our team’s communication and collaboration throughout the year.
These on-going, high-quality professional learning experiences helped us all gain a strong understanding of Common Core and how to integrate it into our day-to-day classrooms.
We used Common Core as a guide to our instructional planning so that our students continued to build on their learning throughout the year, and from grade to grade.
Under the new standards, we still had the flexibility to craft our own lesson plans and be innovative with our teaching so that we could help all of our students develop valuable knowledge and skills that would prepared them for college, career, and life.
- Talk to parents often about Common Core and how to support students at home. The teachers at my school connected with parents frequently to discuss our shared hopes and dreams for our children and our children’s progress in and out of school.
A lot of our conversations were centered around Common Core -- the learning expectations around what students should know and be able to do by the end of each grade.
Since many of our parents also spoke many other languages outside of English, our school made sure that we had translated materials and skilled translators at every meeting so that our parents could understand what Common Core actually meant and how to support student learning at home.
I believe that meaningful parent engagement around Common Core made a huge difference in building strong partnerships to help all of our students realize their full potential.