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How Common Core Is Changing Classrooms Across San Diego

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

— Christy McAloney’s sophomore geometry students at Monte Vista High School were sitting at small groups of desks, turned in to face each other one recent Thursday morning. They won’t be listening to a lecture today.

Major changes are coming to classrooms across San Diego County and California this year. Schools are switching to new math and English standards that promise to improve students’ critical thinking and to better prepare them for college and career.

Special Feature What Is Common Core?


Nancy Rojas, is a 3rd grade teacher in the Chula Vista Elementary School District. She's taking a break from the classroom to train other teachers to use the Common Core curriculum


“We talked about linear pairs, we talked about complementary and we talked about supplementary," McAloney said, reminding them about the previous day's lesson. "So your job in your team right now is to have a discussion.”

Discussing what they’re learning with classmates is one thing students in the Grossmont Union High School District and across California will be doing a lot more. Explaining conclusions and reasoning their way to answers are just a couple of skills at the heart of new state math and English standards called the Common Core. California is one of 45 states and Washington, D.C., that have adopted the voluntary, national standards. While California has been gearing up for the standards change since 2010, this is the first year those changes are hitting most of the state's classrooms.

From now on, it won’t be enough to memorize and repeat facts.

“You do not only have content standards, you also have mathematical practices," Mc Aloney said. "So you have to teach students how to reason, to critique the thinking of others. They have to problem solve and persevere through difficult tasks they aren’t used to doing.”

McAloney is part of the district’s team of teachers designing new lessons that meet the Common Core’s requirements. But she and Monte Vista High School Principal Randy Montesanto agree the switch is going to be a challenge for students and teachers.

“They’ve got to do the work to figure it out to a certain extent and teachers want to give kids the answers when they struggle because they want to have the kids learn," Montesanto said. "Well, if the kid’s struggling and it’s taking him awhile to get to the answer, that’s where that collaboration comes in with the kids having those valuable conversations.”

Back in McAloney’s classroom the conversations were about different kinds of angles. She wasn’t telling students which questions they had answered correctly or incorrectly, but she was redirecting conversations.

For 15 year old Angel Maurin, talking problems over with his classmates is an improvement over his previous attempt at geometry.

“It was more independent. This is a little better, honestly," he said. "It just helps you understand, like knowing, like seeing everything from other peoples’ point of view. I just think it helps really.”

Talking with classmates leads right into another big focus of the new standards: writing.

On McAloney's students' worksheets the last question is a writing prompt. They have to write out everything they know about a set of angles.

Under the guidelines set by the Common Core, students will have to write not only in English courses, but in math, science and other classes. They'll be asked to explain what they understand and how they arrived at their answers.

“It’s something I haven’t had to do before," said Jeahna Kertzman, who is also 15. She said math has never been her favorite subject, but she doesn't mind the added writing this year. "It’s cool, I like it because it helps me understand it.”

Kertzman and her classmates weren’t immediately enthusiastic about giving up the old approach of listening to lectures and completing worksheets silently, on their own.

“In the beginning they were very reluctant, they would just sit there and say ‘I can’t do this,’" McAloney said. "And now, when I give them a task they start on it and they try and they have discussions and they work together. And they know I’m not going to give them the answers, so they have to talk to each other.”

Being comfortable with tackling problems they don’t totally understand at first glace will translate into more real-world preparedness if the Common Core lives up to its promises, according to Principal Randy Montesanto.

“We need to get our kids to a point that when they’re leaving high school, going into college, they're ready to create new, innovative programs, ideas, thoughts, whatever it might be," he said. "And I think to keep our country competitive from a global perspective, we need to be the innovative country. Well, it’s tough to do that when your kids aren’t thinking creatively.”

But Montesanto thinks it would be overly optimistic to expect high school grads to have radically different skills three or four years from now. He expects to see more of a difference in students who are just starting school now – because the only kind of education they’ll know will focus on thinking creatively, making predictions based on evidence and collaborating with their classmates.

Students are just getting their first taste of Common Core in the classroom. They can count on more changes to come.

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