Learning First Alliance

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Louisiana Teachers Show How Common Core Advances Classroom Learning

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Rhea-Claire Richard and Bailey Debardelen, fourth-grade teachers at S.J. Montgomery Elementary School in Lafayette Parish, La., share how the Common Core has encouraged deeper learning in their classrooms. Both teachers began their careers about four years ago, when the state switched to the Common Core, and both appreciate the in-depth learning the standards have brought to their classrooms.

For example, Ms. Richard notes that the previous English/language arts standards might have asked students to identify a main character in a story. "Now, I may ask my students, 'How do the actions of the main character affect the plot of the story?'" she said. "They’re going so much deeper. They’re having to look at the author’s craft, how the author wrote what they did and why they chose the words they used." 

Should political forces in the state force teachers to revert back to lower-level standards, these teachers say they will still continue to teach Common Core's higher-level concepts because they have seen the advantages for their students. Listen to the podcast, or read the transcript below for more information.

Following is an edited transcript:

LFA: Welcome to Get It Right, Common Sense on the Common Core, a podcast series from the Learning First Alliance. Across the nation, we’ve embraced the possibility of college and career ready standards and their potential to transform teaching and learning. In community after community, we see the potential these standards offer to helping all children gain the knowledge and skills necessary for success in the global community.

As these standards come online, we see teachers, administrators, parents and communities working together to align the standards with curriculum instruction and assessment, and we see some communities struggling to move these standards into practice, focused almost exclusively on testing and on the high-stakes decisions tied to it. The ultimate success for college and career ready standards requires that states and districts work together with principals, teachers, students and parents as the work progresses.

We know this collaborative implementation process doesn’t happen overnight. It requires time, time to align the standards with teaching, curricular materials and professional learning opportunities, time to engage parents and community leaders to understand why these changes are so important, time to get it right to help those committed to the standards ensure their proper implementation.

The Learning First Alliance is spotlighting communities and individuals who are working hard to get Common Core implementation right. Today, we are speaking with Rhea-Claire Richard and Bailey Debardelen, fourth-grade teachers at S.J. Montgomery Elementary in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. Rhea-Claire teaches English language arts, and Bailey teaches mathematics. Thank you both for being with us today.

MS. DEBARDELEN: You’re welcome.

LFA: So you both teach in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, and Louisiana has been a state that has had a good amount of political debate about Common Core. Just as the Common Core came online in 2011, seems like you both started teaching right about that time. So Rhea-Claire, I’m going to start with you, and then Bailey, feel free to jump in, talk a little bit about the training that you received to help you teach students in this new framework.

MS. RICHARD: When I started teaching, Lincoln Parish was the parish I was teaching in at the time, and they had already decided to implement the standards, even though the state test at the end of the school year would be on our old standards, called the GLEs. So my students were beginning to be exposed to Common Core, even though it wasn’t mandated across the state, and so we did need quite a bit of training, and we did training through a program called “Laying the Foundation,” and we had several days before school, several days during school. I found they were very willing to give us the time that we needed to truly dive in and understand the standards so that we were better able to teach the standards.

We also had vertical alignment meetings among the English department at our school and across our district, and those meetings were very helpful in seeing how the standards truly do build upon each other as we go from grade level to grade level.

LFA: So as you teach day-to-day within the school system and there’s this conversation going on statewide, or debate about the standards, is that something that you hear day-to-day, or how does that affect your lives as teachers?

MS. DEBARDELEN: Rhea-Claire and I both feel very lucky to be part of Lafayette Parish schools. It’s really not something that is in our day-to-day teaching at all. Lafayette Parish has really jumped onboard with Common Core as a district and as a central office. In all of our professional development, we’re past the point of the opposition. As a teaching staff in Lafayette, we have very much accepted the standards, and we are beginning to see the growth in our students. And locally, we feel a lot of support with the standards.

LFA: Rhea-Claire, what’s been your experience there?

MS. RICHARD: When I first moved to Lafayette Parish, it was quite interesting, because they were making the change from GLE to Common Core State Standards. So I think then, in 2012, there was some opposition, especially as I was presenting to teachers. They were concerned that their students wouldn’t be able to do this rigorous work. They were concerned that they would be held to a standard that was unattainable, for them and for their students.

But I think in the professional development that the Parish had developed and given and as they see that their students are able to be successful in this, the teachers don’t feel that pushback anymore. They don’t argue. They don’t wonder whether these are the best things for them to do or not. They see that the standards are the best way to get our students to think so much deeper in their learning, and they see that their students are being successful, and so the buy-in has been tremendous since we have started the Common Core State Standards.

LFA: So what is the experience when you hear folks at a state level debating whether the state should buy in or opt out of speaking against Common Core? What’s the reaction that teachers or parents in your school have?

MS. DEBARDELEN: It’s not a conversation that is had often at our school. All of our teachers love Common Core. All of our teachers feel supported. All of our teachers believe that our students can meet the standards. So I feel like, locally, at our school, we, we don’t I guess let ourselves get overwhelmed and concerned with the controversy that’s happening at a state level.

And then as far as parents go, I actually feel the same way. We had some parents concerned at first, and they’re concerned that they can’t help their students with their math homework because it’s not the way that they learned math. But in the past two years, I think our parents are starting to see the improvement in our students. They are, they are being provided with resources from me, as a classroom teacher, and as well as from Lafayette Parish, provides wonderful math resources for the parents.

And the pushback really hasn’t been that bad in the last two years. I think that our community is coming around to it.

LFA: Let’s talk about math instruction and how that’s changed over the course of the past few years. So as you’ve, you know, come into the district along with the changes in what the standards are, how has math instruction changed? How does it look different than it might have looked two or three years ago?

MS. DEBARDELEN: The main idea is that our math is presented in a very conceptual, rigorous way so that our students can have a real deep understanding of numbers and what numbers represent and how numbers can be broken apart and moved around. We use the word “decompose” a lot. We decompose whole numbers. We decompose fractions. We decompose decimals, meaning we break them down into smaller pieces and make them easier to work with for us.

LFA: So as that math instruction changes a little bit from what parents might have been used to and as you, as you’re saying, the parents might be a little bit uncomfortable with the higher level of expectation—it has for kids—


LFA: How have you gone about communicating with parents about not just the instruction itself, but communicating to parents how that instruction is changing and helping them to understand it?

MS. DEBARDELEN: One way that I communicate with my parents directly is I have a class website that I keep updated pretty regularly—just like many other teachers—with lots of videos, with extra help and support, lots of extra work, worksheet problems that are aligned with the Common Core standards. We have videos that our district has put out that actually talk. They are linked to YouTube videos, but they actually talk through the entire lesson that their students received at school that day. We have so many resources that are all posted on my website for my parents to see.

LFA: Rhea-Claire, what about you, in English language arts? How have you seen the instruction change over the past couple of years? Or what are you seeing kids able to do that they may not have been pushed to do or had been doing two or three years ago?

MS. RICHARD: Absolutely. I see rich discussion in my classroom. I see deep thinking about what they’re reading or concepts that they’re learning, and I see that they are able to form their own validated opinions based off of what they read. They can articulate their thinking using evidence, and I’ll give you an example. One of our old GLEs used to be “identify a main character in a story.” That’s a very low-level thinking standard to just identify something, whereas now, I may ask my students, “How do the actions of the main character affect the plot of the story?” Well, they’re going so much deeper. They’re having to look at the author’s craft, how the author wrote what they did and why they chose the words they used. They’re evaluating the craft of the literature that they’re reading so that they can form these opinions and think deeply about it.

And I find that not only do they see it in published literature, but they’re studying the craft so that they can then turn around and do it in their writing. So as where before, they never made that connection because the thinking wasn’t deep enough to lend them to that connection, and I see their confidence. I see that at the beginning of the year they look at these long, difficult texts and they think, I’m never going to be able to do that. But their confidence grows throughout the year, and at the end, they are so proud of, of the success that they have in doing this.

And I really believe that when my students leave my classroom, they can read something that happened on the news or watch something on TV or read a book that they got at the library, and they can maybe annotate it or read it and be able to speak about it knowledgeably, and I think that’s a big deal, to be able to say that a fourth grader can do that.

LFA: What if, over the course of the next couple years, the state were to abolish the standards or, or dissociate from Common Core? What would happen to teaching and learning in your school? Would it retreat back or what do you think would happen?

MS. DEBARDELEN: That’s a really good question, and I think that’s a realistic possibility, that our state’s going to drop Common Core and adopt their own standards. I think that within our school and within the four walls of my classroom and Rhea-Claire’s classroom, there are aspects of the Common Core that I don’t feel like I will ever stray away from. The rich learning and the deep way that students can think about numbers and interact with their numbers and just manipulate their math is something that I will never ever let leave my classroom.

LFA: Rhea-Claire, what’s your take on that?

MS. RICHARD: I agree with Bailey. The deep level of thinking and the success that we see in our students I would never stray from, and earlier I mentioned to you that in Lincoln Parish I was teaching the Common Core State Standards even though they were still testing on the less-rigorous GLEs. Well, in February of that year, I knew that testing was around the corner, and I remember getting out those old GLEs and checking off every single one that my kids had already mastered, all of those standards. Even though I wasn’t necessarily trying to teach them, the Common Core State Standards that I had taught them previously in the year had covered every GLE that I needed to.

            And I think that if our state or district ever went back to the lower-level standards, we would continue teaching at the high level of rigor, and we would easily cover whatever standards were taught.

LFA: So the question that pops for me there is whether the professional development or the conversations and the deep learning that’s happening, not just with kids, but among teachers, has it gone far enough do you think across your school or across the parish that others would react the same way? Have they had enough time in some ways to kind of pick up new teaching habits themselves or new ways of doing business that, again, if the state backed away from Common Core, that they also would feel the way you guys feel? You think the training has gone deep enough yet?

MS. RICHARD: I hope so. I think that there’s always room for growth. I think that teachers should be reflective practitioners. I think that we always should continue learning. But I would hope that at least some of what has been taught has stuck with them, even if it’s just the idea that my students can achieve more, that if we set high standards, they can reach them. Even if that’s the only thing that’s held onto, I think that’s worth it.

LFA: Thank you very much for sharing your insights and your, and your stories with us. We really appreciate the time you took today.

MS. DEBARDELEN: You are very welcome