Better Lessons, Better Outcomes with the Common Core: An Interview with Master Teacher Diane Siekmann

By Anne O'Brien

To get Common Core implementation right, educators must be truly engaged in the effort. Teachers are on the front line, charged with ensuring that our nation's students are prepared to be successful in the global community in which we live. But in debates over the standards, they are often overlooked in two very important ways: As advocates, and as practitioners with valuable expertise who need time and resources to align their work with the vision of college and career readiness for all that the Common Core embodies.

To help elevate the voice of teachers on this issue, as part of our continuing series of interviews on the standards, we are thrilled to highlight the perspective of Diane Siekmann, a National Board Certified Teacher at a Title I elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. She has experience teaching first and third grade, including six years in a self-contained ELL classroom. And in addition to her current responsibilities as a third grade teacher, she is working with the National Education Association's Master Teacher Project with Better Lesson, an effort to highlight and share the best teaching practices around the Common Core.

In a recent email interview, Siekmann shares her thoughts on teaching under new college and career ready standards and the supports needed to get it right. What I found most encouraging: The changes she has seen in students under these new, higher standards. To quote: "The most exciting thing about the Common Core is witnessing the critical thinking by students. Their knowledge and skills are so visible, and they really enjoy explaining their thought process. The students have become great problem solvers with analytical skills that I have not experienced previously with my students. They truly enjoy the challenges placed before them....”

The complete interview is below.

Public School Insights (PSI): As you’ve transitioned to working under new college and career ready standards, how has your teaching changed?

Siekmann: The biggest change has been on the amount of reflection that takes place for my practice. As teachers we save and hold on to resources, worksheets, and “stuff” from year to year. This year with the change to the new college and career ready standards, I have changed by rethinking everything that is being presented in my classroom. Most of the resources I saved have now been replaced with new lessons and new approaches to teaching the standards. I’m always thinking about

the real world application of the subject or topic in the classroom to a student’s life. This results in some amazing discussions and conversations with students as they make connections to their own experience as a third grader. I’m more focused than ever on thinking about my teaching and why or how I teach a specific standard.

PSI: To get a bit more specific, through your work with Better Lesson, you’ve shared a number of lessons that you’ve created – and taught – that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. How are these lessons different than those you used under previous standards?

Siekmann: These lessons are different because they all include a focus on depth of learning and the real world connection. These two areas within the Common Core Standards support the important practices of rigor, student ownership, and perseverance. I have found that some of the most successful lessons with my students were those that include real world tasks, rather than just teaching an isolated skill. For example, teaching the multiplication skill of area was more successful when my students built bird nest boxes, rather than completing worksheets as was common in the past. Additionally, my lessons are different because they also include my personal reflections on many different aspects including organization, classroom management, lesson design, evidence of learning, and developing a culture for learning within the classroom. The lessons I have been writing for Better Lesson have all been taught in my classroom this year, and I’m proud to share my experiences through this format.

PSI: What are the biggest challenges that you as a teacher have faced in shifting to the new standards? What has been the biggest challenge for your school as a whole?

Siekmann: The biggest challenge with the shift to the new standards has been with understanding what the new standards are really asking students to show, determining how to measure students’ achievement of the standard, and then in planning the lessons to reach that goal. I would say the biggest challenge is taking myself out of a routine, and making changes within my own thought process for teaching and applying them to my practice.

I asked my principal about the biggest challenges the school is facing. His response, “I think the challenges of the school mirrors your challenges as an individual teacher. As every teacher in our school works on these big shifts in teaching practices, we have relatively limited time to collaborate with one another. Another challenging aspect is helping our parents understand the shifts that CCSS brings.”

PSI: As you’ve gone through the standards, do you get the feeling that they are “fully baked,” so to speak? Or do you think that there improvements that need to be made?

Siekmann: I believe the standards have been well thought out especially with the alignments across grade levels. They are thorough in their development of learning and emphasize the depth of knowledge. I also believe there is always room for improvement, and I think as the standards are implemented there should be review and feedback from all stakeholders about suggested improvements.  

PSI: One concern about the Common Core is whether the standards for younger students – particularly kindergarten through second grade students – are developmentally appropriate. As someone who has both studied the standards and previously taught first grade, how do you respond to that concern?

Siekmann: Yes, I do think the standards are developmentally appropriate for the primary grade students. When educators offer support with appropriate, systematic lessons and activities for learning for these standards, the students will succeed. It requires teachers to engage students through active teaching and learning with meaningful lessons, experiences, and thinking. Children have the ability to meet and exceed expectations when they are given support, encouragement, and develop a sense of ownership in their learning. Students in early primary grades are incredibly flexible with their learning, and they are very willing to take on complex and rigorous tasks. The most amazing part of being a teacher is when you can see a child recognize their own learning and accomplishing a goal.

PSI: What supports do teachers need – from principals, superintendents, parents or policymakers – to ensure a successful transition to the Common Core or other college and career ready standards? 

Siekmann: Teachers need meaningful collaboration and professional development to transition to the new standards. Teachers should be included in developing these trainings to make them truly meaningful to their classroom. When teachers create their own learning, it is more likely that it will be applied in their classrooms. There needs to be collaboration with peers to discuss lessons and strategies, and also to see real time lessons with students.

Parents supporting their students and learning about the standards and strategies themselves will help with the standards. Realizing that just because they learned it one way, or that there are shortcuts, tricks, and rhymes actually works against the rigor and critical thinking emphasized by the Common Core Standards.  

Underlying this transition is the support from state legislatures for public education through the funding of public schools. Without the support for public education and students, the implementation of the Common Core Standards will be challenging for everyone.

PSI: What resources are available for teachers who are looking for help in implementing these standards?

Siekmann: I look for the resources that are developed through leading teacher organizations. My involvement with my local association and the NEA brought me to Better Lesson. These lessons are being taught and written by teachers currently teaching in the classroom, and offering reflections about their teaching. Each lesson is reviewed by a mentor coach and curated to the standards. All lessons include videos, photos, and resources free of charge to all teachers. Better Lesson excels because it moves beyond a textbook with a label saying it aligned to the Common Core or a design being sold for personal profit. The doors of the classrooms have been opened for everyone through Better Lesson, and it is exciting to see how so many different teachers teach the same standard with their own different style and resources. Yet these lessons all address the Common Core Standards.

PSI: What excites you most about the Common Core? What is your greatest concern about it?

Siekmann: The most exciting thing about the Common Core is witnessing the critical thinking by students. Their knowledge and skills are so visible, and they really enjoy explaining their thought process. The students have become great problem solvers with analytical skills that I have not experienced previously with my students. They truly enjoy the challenges placed before them because it is not rote rehearsal and practice of a skill.

My greatest concern is that teachers may feel as though they are teaching the standards, but miss the essential practices including the real world applications, problem-solving, and engaging in complex tasks. I hope educators will move away from the routine and realize the joy of teaching with Common Core.

PSI: Are there any other questions I should have asked you, but did not?

Siekmann: The link to Better Lesson is cc.betterlesson.com

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