“Stupid” Standards?

For the past few years, teachers have been collaborating and sharing resources for how to best teach to the Common Core standards. But, how much of that information has been shared with parents…or with students themselves?

One evening this past summer my husband was out of town, so my third-grade son had the “privilege” of joining me for a parent information meeting on the Florida Standards sponsored by my school district.

During the presentation, Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia shared an example of a first grade math problem under the new standards:

For a brief moment, my son looked up from his tablet, listened to the superintendent read the question, and answered, “Eight.”

“That’s not the right answer,” I whispered. “Try again.”

“Seven?” he asked.

“No, but we’ll discuss it after the meeting,” I said.

That was not the answer he wanted to hear. He put his head back down toward his tablet, pushed out a loud “Hmph,” and muttered,  “I think the standards were just designed to make me look stupid.”

“I assure you that you’re not stupid, Nicholas. This is just a different way of learning and thinking about how we teach math,” I said.

But an eerily similar moment happened after the presentation during the Question and Answer session. A parent, who identified herself as an engineer, expressed her concerns about the new math standards.

She admitted having trouble helping her seventh grader with his math homework. She told the audience, “I’m not stupid!” but admitted she was unable to understand the multiple ways that her son had been taught to solve the problem. She eventually told him to “ignore your teacher” and showed him how to solve the problem the way she had learned to do it when she was a student.

On some level, both my son and this parent felt stupid when facing the standards— and, in defense, pushed back against them. Finding themselves unable to do what they’ve always done quickly and correctly was embarrassing for them, and they felt the need to defend their intelligence. I can’t say that I blame them.

In the many conversations I’ve had about the new standards, this is not an uncommon response. Both parents and students are experiencing the sometimes-uncomfortable process of growth—of being forced out of your comfort zone and doing things a new way. This process can be challenging, frustrating, and even embarrassing.

Over the last three years of standards implementation, I will admit to having my own moments of questioning my intelligence. I have been challenged not by what I teach but by having to think consciously about how I teach my students.

Guiding students to develop their own understanding of stories, especially in kindergarten, is an act of patience and resilience. I’ve taught several lessons in which the outcome did not meet my expectations, and it would have been easier to just give students the answers. But I realized that this would have been a disservice to my students. Now I’m working harder than ever to help them take ownership of their own learning.

For the past few years, teachers have been collaborating and sharing resources for how to best teach to the standards. But, how much of that information has been shared with parents…or with students themselves?

Not enough. While the debate continues about how (or whether) the standards will be taught, teachers are already engaged in the process. And while we do a pretty good job of sharing content and curriculum expectations with our students, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by not making that process a bit more transparent.

As teachers, we need to do a better job of modeling the learning process for our students and parents. We need to provide them with information about not just the what—but the how—of learning. Parents and students need to see comparisons of how they learned before and how they will be taught now. They need opportunities to talk about these changes and ask questions. They need to be invited in to the classroom to experience this new teaching.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to give them permission to make mistakes—to know that they will not be expected to do everything correctly the first time. They need to hear from us that we’re learning these new processes together.

In a way, that’s what the superintendent’s meeting was all about. In addressing parents, Superintendent Elia told them that implementation of the standards would take time, and it “was not going to be a cake walk. Our students and teachers will need our (parents and administration’s) support.” It was reassuring to hear that I not only had the support of superintendent, but that she was advocating very publicly on my behalf.

After the meeting, as I walked back to the car with my son, we revisited the math problem. I coached him through the problem-solving process, and he was able to find the mistake in his thinking and give me the correct answer.

He thanked me for helping him and assured me that he no longer felt stupid. I thanked him for giving me a teachable moment to share in my blog. And all was right with the world again.