The new school of learning

The words "Common Core" don't hold special meaning to students in Terri Clarke's second-grade class at Newport Elementary.

Unbeknownst to them, the lessons Clarke is implementing will have a profound effect on the way they are taught for the rest of their time in public schools.

Common Core places an emphasis on big-picture, conceptual understanding and collaborative learning with peers, moving away from rote memorization, proponents say.

"We're passionate about this curriculum," Clarke said. "It's what's best for the students, but it still adheres to the state standards."

Tiffany Lewis, a former Newport Elementary teacher, is on special assignment developing the Common Core curriculum for the district.

While Common Core features 30% fewer standards mandated by the state, those standards are based in learning skills, making the curricula more difficult, she said.

"It's a college and career readiness curriculum that prepares students for the real world," she said.


What is Common Core?

The new standards emphasize real-life applications of classroom material and encourage students to think critically about what they're learning.

Common Core, which was adopted by 45 states, including California, replaces previous federal standards, which opponents say was simply teaching to the test. Along with other districts in the state, Newport-Mesa Unified began developing teachers in Common Core standards last year and started phasing the standards into classrooms this year.

Unlike other districts, Newport-Mesa has involved teachers in the process of creating lessons that adhere to the new standards, Lewis said.

At the elementary level, each grade has a team of six to 10 teachers who design and implement the curriculum in their classes. After the lessons, the teachers meet and discuss what worked and what needs to be improved.

"It's unique that all of this is done by teachers and their utilizing the resources they have," she said. "As a teacher it feels great to be validated. It's invigorating and motivating to be respected and valued."

At this point, students will mostly see changes in their math and English classes. The state is in the process of refining standards for science classes, which will likely take a few years, Lewis said.


Common Core in the classroom

One of the English-Language Arts units Clarke is piloting in her classroom emphasizes writing skills, reading comprehension, critical thinking and public speaking. It also exposes students to handling criticism from their peers.

In the exercise, the students read a book of their choice and write a review, including a short summary, the lesson they took away and how they connect the story to their own lives or an aspect of the larger world.

Clarke played a video of a student reading his report aloud on YouTube to give her students an idea of what was expected. When Clarke asked them what they thought of his speech, several students offered constructive criticism, like "he should slow down when he is talking" or "he gave away too much of the story," statements Clarke calls "growing" comments.

Several students also offered up what Clarke calls "glow" comments, paying homage to her star-themed classroom.

As the lesson continued, Clarke said she was concerned if students would feel comfortable reading their work aloud and critiquing their own classmates.

Fortunately, when she asked for volunteers, she was greeted with a sea of waving hands from her enthusiastic second-graders.

The students had no idea that their classroom activity was the first of many to incorporate the new state standards.

They saw the exercise as a way to share some of their favorite books with their friends and eagerly volunteered to share their work.

"I got to work with my friend, and I got to write in my new reading response book," said 7-year-old Brooke Allen. "It was fun."

Ty Hansberger, 8, volunteered to read his report on the book, "The Night Before Halloween."

The most difficult part of the activity for Hansberger was deciding what to write about, he said, adding that he selected the book because it was about Halloween and it reminded him of his trick-or-treating experience last year.

"It's interesting to read books and think about myself in the story," he said.

Encouraging students to relate to the books they read in class is exactly what Common Core is designed to accomplish, Clarke said.

"Making connections to their own lives instead of just focusing on the story is how they comprehend the material," she said.


A new math method

The district recently purchased a method and its curriculum called Swun Math, named after the teacher who designed it. Newport-Mesa plans to spend more than $900,000 this year on the new teaching method, according to budget documents.

The method encourages students to collaborate, and the lessons are focused on real-world applications of knowledge instead of simply searching for an answer.

In addition to performing accurate calculations, students must also be able to articulate their math reasoning, according to the district website.


Statewide testing changes

Newport-Mesa schools will not be rated on students' performance on standardized tests this year, as California transitions away from STAR testing to new assessments.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 484 into law this month, paving the way for tests that align with the new standards and focus on critical thinking, interpretation and writing skills.

The law suspends most STAR tests to allow districts to transition to the California Measurement of Academic Performance and Progress assessments, set to go into full effect in the 2014-15 school year, according to a California Department of Education news release.

This year, the majority of students will be assessed on computers through a system called Smarter Balanced, which customizes questions based on student performance and will involve more writing.

The district also has the option to continue paper-and-pencil testing for three years while it purchases more computers and software, Lewis said.

While schools will not receive an Academic Performance Index ranking this year, the assessments will establish a baseline for future years.

"The previous California standardized tests basically focused on getting students to tell us the right answer," she said. "Common Core testing will be more about creating, analyzing and synthesizing information."

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