New techniques get kids thinking critically

Even a letter to Santa can benefit from a dose of persuasion.

Earlier this week, students in Shannon Velotta's third-grade class at El Morro Elementary School went step-by-step in a writing exercise designed to wriggle their brains to produce thoughtful prose.

Velotta asked students to persuade Santa why they are the best animal for a certain job, such as pulling a sleigh, or placing presents under a tree.

Teachers throughout Laguna Beach Unified School District and the state are rolling out retooled lesson plans to prepare students for new testing standards, called Common Core, that will become official in the 2014-15 school year.

The standards are designed to fuel kids' critical-thinking skills while relying on more nonfiction texts to make a claim or argument.

"Do you think it would be important to tell Santa what type of animal you are?" Velotta, who has taught at El Morro for eight years, asked her students.

After class, Velotta explained the difference in how she structured the assignment from a year ago.

"Last year, it was more of a narrative. The kids didn't have a strong argumentative voice," Velotta said. "My big thing is supporting a claim, to go back in the book and use examples to support [an argument]."

Students in El Morro kindergarten teacher Tami Mays' class aren't writing reports, but they journal.

"The biggest change is bringing in more writing," said Mays, who has taught at El Morro for four years. "The more they write, the better they'll be at reading."

Mays's students will write about penguins when they return from winter break, she said.

They'll focus on nonfiction characteristics, such as habitat, and pull in fictional stories about the animals, according to Mays.

One advantage of Common Core is combining, to a degree, various disciplines, which Velotta did with English and science in the letters to Santa.

"They argued which animal is best for the job, which integrates with science since we're talking about adaptation and how different animals adapt to their environment," Velotta said.

Velotta is creating a writing workshop where students brainstorm, write a rough draft, edit and compose a final version.

Velotta's students focus on three styles of writing; narrative, persuasive and informational, she said.

Mays disagrees with critics who argue that Common Core dumbs down standards.

"It give teachers more freedom and power to teach the right way — fostering creativity and engagement," she said.

In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to end most of the California Standards Tests and other assessments that had comprised the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting program (STAR) for the past 15 years, according to the California Department of Education website.

Students in grades three through eight, grade 11, and a small sample from grades nine and 10, were scheduled to take either a mathematics or English-language arts field test.

Now, 95% of the state's students will take a sampling of test items for both areas, plus one performance task from one content area, the education department website said.

Laguna Beach Unified School District students are part of the 95%, said Darlene Messinger, Laguna Beach Unified assistant superintendent of instructional services.

The state made the change after hearing from local educational agencies of their interest to field test both content areas, according to the education department website.

"Expanding the field test for hundreds of thousands of students to take both sets of assessments will mean more hands-on experience for them and their teachers, as well as more opportunity to identify any technological needs," State Board of Education President Mike Kirst said in a news release. "All of that means that California will be starting from a solidly built foundation when these assessments become operational next school year — and that's good for our students, our schools, and our state."

Students will take field tests between March 18 and June 6, , the education department website said.

Mays can't help think how far students can go in their careers with the emphasis Common Core places on critical thinking.

"The kids now, when they graduate from college, will be doing jobs that haven't been invented yet," Mays said. "We're helping them think, get the big picture and come up with ideas on their own."

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