Blog: The Educated Reporter

What Does Common Core Teaching Look Like?

Flickr/Laurie Sullivan

When the communications office in the Huntsville (Ala.) City Schools calls English teacher Stephanie Hyatt to say a TV reporter is coming to observe her class, Hyatt knows the drill. She’s expected to stand in front of the room and lecture at students in picturesque fashion.

“That’s my job — to look exciting,” said Hyatt. “They like me, because I teach with my hands.”

But the most picture-perfect (or video-perfect) shot isn’t necessarily the most effective form of teaching, Hyatt told attendees of EWA’s conference, Teaching and Testing in the Common Core Era, in Los Angeles earlier this year.

“What we are normally told when you come to visit us is, ‘What they want to see is you at the front, writing on the board, in action.’ In reality, that’s not normally good teaching practice. That’s not what we are supposed to be doing,” she said.

Framing the panel, “Demonstration Lab on Teaching to the Common Core,” moderator and EdSource reporter Theresa Harrington admitted that classroom-reporting visits aren’t the most functional arrangements. And reporters who cover the Common Core typically do not get to spend enough time in classrooms.

“A lot of times they just try to whiz you through, and you don’t get to really sit there for the whole lesson,” she said.

Hyatt filled in some of the gaps by sharing videos of classroom instruction, highlighting the ways teachers can and should — but don’t always — encourage students to think creatively about texts and ask their own questions in their own words. Lessons, she said, should be conversations rather than one-way lecturing — the sort of thing she is told that TV reporters crave.

Take “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“You should not have a question that says, ‘What color was Daisy’s dress?’” Hyatt said. “What’s much more interesting, and what gets us to a discussion of culture and issues in reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ is, ‘Why is wearing the color white significant within these social classes? What does it establish about social class?’”

As one of the teachers in a video that Hyatt showed put it: “Today’s lesson was primarily a discussion, and in preparation for that lesson, students created questions. Each student used the technique that worked for them in order to create the questions.”

“What I want you to recognize she’s done,” Hyatt said, “is she is scaffolding the instruction.” The teacher starts with text comprehension, and then helps the students move to the next level, which involves analysis in students’ own words — rather than the language of the text.

To prove that complex ideas and themes embedded in texts are more important than over-focusing on the language and plot of the text, Hyatt asked rhetorically how many people in the room remembered all the characters in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

The teacher’s job, she said, is to make students talk.

“Kids aren’t wired to just sit still and have us pour knowledge into them,” Hyatt said. By giving students “pride of ownership,” teachers are effectively telling students that their work is valid.

Conversational learning benefits math students as well, said the other panelist, UCLA education professor Megan Franke. Studies show that math students do better when they listen to other students’ ideas, and when their classmates also listen to their ideas, she said.

“When the teacher shares an idea, it becomes the idea. You kind of have to say, ‘That’s the teacher’s. It must be right. I have to do that,’” Franke said. “When peers share with each other, they’re much more willing to question each other, to reject somebody’s idea, to build on somebody’s idea, because it’s a public idea rather than the teacher’s idea.”

Franke was asked how beneficial it is for students to hear their classmates’ explanations when they are explaining things incorrectly.

“What we know is that if we can get kids to explain in enough detail, even though it’s wrong, that that detail allows other kids to say, ‘Oh wait. This part of it isn’t right.’ Or, ‘This part of it doesn’t make sense.’ Or, ‘I’m not following you. Why did you do it that way?’” Franke said. “Explaining in detail allows other kids to engage with your idea, to build on it, and to help you make it better.”

“We don’t want a whole class of all wrong explanations,” Franke said. “But if you don’t let kids explain at all, then they’re going to stop talking.”