The Common Core, an Uncommon Opportunity: Redesigning Classroom Instruction


Judith K. March & Karen H. Peters

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  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to the thousands of people with whom we have had the pleasure to work over the last three decades. We salute all of the people who gave us opportunity to promote our thinking and to work in different settings—individual school districts, Educational Service Centers, and our University colleagues. To have worked in all types of districts in seven different states and Canada has been amazing!

    Specifically, we extend this dedication to the teachers and administrators in our client schools. Each district has provided its own distinct contribution to our work and has given us a unique array of insights to share with others. Our work reflects the impact of different groups from urban, suburban, and rural districts, and all of you have had a unique influence on the work that we do. The various partnerships with districts and teacher teams set the stage for the next school we would serve. Each of you made us smarter for having worked with you. Thank you for that, and know that some piece of each of you is represented in this book. As you read the examples and explanations, you will find yourself saying—“Hey! They did that when they worked with us!” Yea, for you, and yes we did!

    To our families who have made the sacrifices of allowing us to be gone and do “our thing,” we thank you so very much. Without our huge support teams behind us, we could never have put any of these ideas into practice. You made that possible, and we appreciate your continued support.

    —Judy and Karen


    View Copyright Page


    By the time this book is published, the Common Core and newly approved content standards in Social Studies and Science will have become the new normal in most school districts across the nation. As approved providers for the Ohio Department of Education, we are currently working with several districts attempting to transition to the new standards. And despite the flurry of attention being paid to the new standards in every education journal and at virtually every conference, the truth is that most districts are not ready!

    Like buying a flat-screen TV without new operating software, the mere adoption of new content standards without proportionate improvements in classroom instruction is relatively useless. Because the new standards are so different in scope and depth from the prior standards, districts who attempt to implement them without redesigning their instructional delivery systems accordingly are experiencing failure and frustration. In contrast to the current standards—many of which are isolated skills, knowledge, and ideas that could be taught and measured in relative isolation—the new standards are an interconnection of skills and require a deep-level understanding of complex relationships among several concepts and ideas. Those who crafted the new standards proudly hail them as essential to college and career readiness for life in the 21st century.

    The Common Core in Math and English Language Arts are the kick-off to what may become a national curriculum and assessment system in all four major subjects. And with so much negative press about America's education system, the last thing school districts need is to fumble on their first possession. We wrote this book to help schools and school systems successfully adopt and implement the new content standards.

    We designed this book as a process guide for districts who are sincere about adopting the new standards and realize they are embarking on what is essentially the systematic redesign of classroom instruction. Because it contains suggestions for how to accomplish this goal—accompanied by actual examples, as well as quotes from practitioners who have been directly involved—the book offers an authenticity and relevance that are absent from more theoretical publications.

    With so many similar books out there, why should readers buy THIS one?

    • It addresses all four core content areas, K–12, rather than only one subject or only one grade range (e.g., elementary, middle school, or high school).
    • It shows districts how to translate the new standards into a holistic, comprehensive instructional delivery system—not just a piece of one or a single component; it includes both the content and the cognitive demand of the new standards.
    • It helps teachers develop an entire suite of course tools for each grade level and subject, including curriculum maps and unit plans; daily lessons are easily derived from these unit plans and are flexible to permit differentiation as needed. In addition, the book addresses assessment of the standards through various strategies that help teachers adjust their teaching to be sure that they are truly meeting the rigor of the standards.
    • It accommodates the reality that a transformed curriculum—enriched by the new content standards and the 21st century skills—cannot be taught with traditional classroom strategies. It incorporates the best-practice techniques to deliver and assess classroom instruction, taking it to the level required by the new standards.
    • It is based on several years of experience in districts of various sizes and demographics (rather than only one district or only one demographic group).

    Our book is equally appropriate for administrators and teachers. For administrators, the book offers both wide-angle and close-up advice about districtwide readiness; adjustments in the infrastructure; and the role of principals, coaches, and grade-level teams to launch and then sustain the new instructional program. For teachers, the book provides evidence-based, best-practice approaches to the delivery and assessment of classroom instruction and includes proven examples of specific techniques.

    To allay the understandable skepticism of many readers, the messages from practitioners throughout the book are a testament to the processes described and the positive impact of these processes on staff and students. As educators, we must be willing to continue to grow and learn as the expectations change for our students. The following quote, from one of the people with whom we have worked, says it best.

    With the commitment to being life-long learners, we hope that you enjoy the book as the tool to help you accomplish that goal.

    Judith K.March and Karen H.Peters


    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance.

    • Deanna Brunlinger, Science Department Chair
    • Elkhorn Area High School
    • Elkhorn, WI
    • Robert A. Frick, Retired Superintendent
    • Lampeter-Strasburg School District
    • Pennsylvania, PA
    • Jane Hunn, Sixth-Grade Science Teacher
    • Tippecanoe Valley Middle School
    • Akron, IN
    • Susan N. Imamura, Retired Principal
    • Manoa Elementary School
    • Honolulu, HI
    • Katherine M. D. Lobo, ESL Teacher
    • Chenery Middle School
    • Belmont, MA
    • Lynn Macan, Superintendent
    • Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District
    • Cobleskill, NY
    • Lauren Mittermann, Social Studies Teacher
    • Gibraltar Middle School
    • Fish Creek, WI
    • Jeanine Nakakura, STEM Resource Teacher
    • State of Hawaii Department of Education
    • Honolulu, HI
    • Dana Sanner, Middle School Science Teacher
    • Sanibel School
    • Sanibel, FL
    • Belinda J. Raines, Administrator
    • Northwestern High School
    • Detroit, MI
    • Bonnie Tryon, SAANYS Representative
    • NY State Education Department's NCLB Committee of Practitioners
    • Albany, NY
    • Betty Brandenburg Yundt, Curriculum Coordinator
    • Walker Intermediate School
    • Fort Knox, KY

    About the Authors

    Judith K. March and Karen H. Peters are senior consultants for EdFOCUS Initiative, a nonprofit consulting group that provides customized services to schools and school districts. Dr. Peters and Dr. March have worked in school reform for more than two decades in Canada, California, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio.

    Dr. March taught high school English, speech, and drama and served as a high school assistant principal. She has also been a curriculum supervisor, curriculum director, and assistant superintendent for an Educational Service Center. In addition, she was the director of Developmental Education and an associate professor at Ashland University; Dr. March has also served on the graduate faculty at Kent State University. Dr. March continues to serve as an adjunct member of the graduate faculty of Ashland University. Her special areas of focus are (a) standards-based curriculum redesign; (b) the Best-Practices research for classroom instruction; (c) assessment and accountability, including the construction of diagnostic and benchmark tests; (d) long-term and short-range planning; (e) capacity building for continual improvement, featuring Collaborative Observation; and (f) data-based decision making.

    Also an experienced educator, Dr. Peters has taught at the elementary and middle school levels in Ohio and Florida, focusing on math and science. In addition, she has served as an elementary principal, curriculum supervisor, and director of curriculum as well as a member of the graduate faculty of Kent State University. Dr. Peters is currently an adjunct member of the graduate faculty of Ashland University. Her special areas of focus are (a) standards-based curriculum redesign; (b) the Best-Practices research for classroom instruction; (c) assessment and accountability, including the development of diagnostic and mastery tests; (d) the training and development of principals; (e) capacity building for continual improvement, featuring Collaborative Observation; and (f) data-based decision making.

    While at Kent State, Drs. March and Peters operated an outreach center for school reform and developed the Instructional Design process to integrate standards-based reform with the Best-Practices research to deliver and assess classroom instruction.

    Both Drs. March and Peters are approved providers for the Ohio Improvement Process, and as such are authorized by the Ohio Department of Education to provide consultation to schools and school districts to improve their standing. Drs. March and Peters have worked in school reform for more than two decades, providing services to school districts in Canada, California, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Ohio. Their work has included urban, suburban, and rural districts. In addition to their current status as Ohio Improvement Process providers, both Dr. March and Dr. Peters have served as providers for federally funded Comprehensive School Reform projects. Further, March and Peters have been contracted by the Battelle-for-Kids Division of the Battelle Institute to work in with various research initiatives with Value-Added. In addition, March and Peters have served as consultants in formative assessment to the CTB/McGraw-Hill Corporation.

    The secret to their consulting work has always been that they work directly with teachers and administrators in the redesign of classroom instruction and assessment. They are “hands-on” consultants who admit that their job is to build capacity among the school staff members with whom they work to sustain the reforms put in place. By developing their own leadership capacity, the districts can continuously examine and adjust their curriculum, instruction, and assessment programs in the light of student and staff performance.

    Dr. March earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in arts from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Toledo (Ohio). Dr. Peters earned her bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida, her master's degree from Youngstown State University (Ohio), and her doctorate in educational administration with a minor in curriculum and instruction from Kent State University (Ohio).

  • Appendices

    Appendix A: Goal-Setting Examples

    Energy (Grade 9 Science)
    Academic/Content Goals
    • explain the difference between energy and work and give examples
    • distinguish between conductors and insulators
    Personal Goals
    • do an energy analysis of my home or some other building
    • be able to propose ways to conserve energy in my home
    Civic Involvement (Grade 11 American Government)
    Academic/Content Goals
    • pick a civic issue that I support and say three things I could do
    • summarize what the Democrats say about civic responsibility compared to what the Republicans say
    Personal Goals
    • take notes each day and ask a peer to check
    • avoid being tardy at least 95% of the time
    Theorems About Lines and Angles (High School Geometry)
    Academic/Content Goals
    • prove theorems about lines
    • prove theorems about angles
    Personal Goals
    • learn to use the TI-Nspire technology
    • write vocabulary for the unit in my journal

    Appendix B: Questioning

    Some Strategies for Better Questioning
    • Plan ahead. Although many of the best questions are spontaneous, it is silly to rely totally on spur-of-the moment inspirations to decide what to ask. The most effective questioners plan ahead, devising substantive prompts that tap into students' deep-level understanding and encouraging reflectivity. [Be sure to include an effective balance of Is, IIs, and IIIs.]
    • Redirect.
      • Ask a second student the same question, then have a third student compare the two responses. This can be expanded to several students at once if the issue is a debatable one and it appears that students are taking sides.
      • Ask the same student a related question, such as: “So, what would be an example of such a thing?” or “So then what would the opposite of your point be?” or “How might an opponent argue with you about that position?”
    • Avoid multiple questions without adequate think time. Students learn quickly whether you will forget about the earlier questions you asked. They soon know whether you'll tire of no hands going up and answer the questions yourself. Finally, they quickly discern whether you will only call on students whose hands are raised.
    • Probe or delve. Incorrect or incomplete answers should not be overlooked or simply passed over. The correct answer must be obtained from the students or provided by the teacher. But the students who gave the incorrect answers should not be embarrassed at having taken a risk. Give dignity to the response by “winding him or her back through” the line of reasoning. For example:

      Q: Which President is considered the father of our country?

      A: Ben Franklin

      Q: What made you think of him?

      A: I read somewhere he had a bunch of illegitimate children.

      [Ride the laugh; join in; say you hadn't heard it put that way before]

      Q: When he wasn't having children, what else does history say he did?

      A: Flew kites ‘n stuff—invented things.

      Q: Tell us a couple things he did invent.

      A: [silence-pause]

      Q: Jonas is absolutely right; he did invent several things. Who can help us list some to those things? [Getting back to the “father of our country” will take a few more minutes, but it can be approached by Washington's affiliation with Ben Franklin, Franklin's support of Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary forces, etc.]

    • Encourage an answer, even if student claims not to know. If necessary, ask an easier question via redirect. The idea is that the student neither look like a failure (thereby reinforcing his or her reluctance to take a chance), nor “get by” with refusing to make an attempt. Giving dignity to reluctant responders should not be contrived or patronizing. Make it clear you've reserved the option to ask that student another question and have left the door open for him or her to offer an answer.
    • Ask the same student a follow-up question. One of the things students often count on is that once they have answered, they're off the hook and can tune out. Develop the habit of doubling back—unexpectedly—so that students must remain engaged. Never, never fall into the 1950s trap of the “round-robin” approach.
    • Coupling or building-on. Ask students to paraphrase each other's responses; then ask the original student if that's close to his or her intent. Ask students to redirect questions to each other, paraphrase, compare with intent, and so on. This can chain several topics together and engage several students at the same time.

    Appendix C: Categorization Activity

    Appendix D: Critical Attribution for Similarities and Differences

    We use three approaches to applying the critical attribute method as a learning construct with students:

    Approach 1: The Concept is not Announced; Examples and Nonexamples Given Separately. The teacher does not announce the concept but provides clear examples and asks students to describe the attributes of each. This initial list is followed by additional examples, and the teacher asks students to be sure their attributes still hold. Any criteria that do not hold for the examples are dropped. The teacher then poses nonexamples to compare against the examples, describing how they are different. The following is an example from a Grade 5 class studying fruits and vegetables.

    A variation of approach 1 is to provide students examples through pictures, illustrations, and so on—both as line drawings and as they appear in the environment—one at a time. For example, if teaching four types of angles (acute, obtuse, right, and straight), the teacher might show students one or more samples of an acute angle and ask them to identify the attributes. These are recorded on a piece of wall chart paper. Before going to the next drawing(s), the teacher would affix the first picture(s) to its attributes. This continues through the four types of angles. Once finished, students note the lists and attempt to identify similarities and differences, moving to the distinguishing attributes of each type of angle. Finally, students should be able to cite examples of how each type of angle appears in the environment.

    A variation on the use of drawings or physical models is to use landforms on a map. By circling the Yucatan, Florida, Cape Cod, and so on, students get the idea that they are all land connected to a larger piece of land, jutting into an ocean or bay, surrounded on three sides by water. Putting the technical label on the concept is not as important as students showing they can identify others on the map and that they can distinguish them from other land-forms. The name “peninsula” is not as important as the concept.

    A more challenging approach is to allow students to predict the concept from the examples. If students are given the following list of words:

    most will get to the notion of compound words. When asked to identify the attributes of compound words, they typically say two words joined to make one word. But when students are shown this next group:

    they are perplexed, because these words fit the definition, but they know that this group is different from the first group. Eventually, students get around to the core attribute of compound words: two words joined together to form a word that retains part or all of the meaning of the original words.

    Approach 2: The Concept is not Announced; Examples and Nonexamples are Mixed. A second approach is to provide a list that contains both examples and nonexamples, and—without revealing the concept—ask students to separate the items. In so doing, they reflect on what distinguishes the two groups. An example of this approach to teach the concept of complete sentences is shown here.

    Most students can see that the list contains complete and incomplete sentences. The next step is to ask students to distinguish between them; most eventually see that there must be an “actor” and an “action” for the sentence to be complete. They can deconstruct each of the items to discover that 1, 3, 6, and 8 are complete sentences, and the others are not. As a test of mastery, students should be asked to revise the incomplete sentences to make them complete and to provide complete sentences of their own.

    A variation of the approach 2 is to present the items already labeled as Yes or No, asking the students to identify how the “Yeses” differ from the “Nos.” This removes the need for students to do the initial sort, making it a bit easier to focus on the distinctions.

    Approach 3: The Concept is Announced; Examples and Nonexamples Mixed. A third approach is to announce the concept at the outset (e.g., the relationship between fact and inference), and provide students a combined list of examples and nonexamples for facts and inferences that address a common topic. The students must separate the facts from the inferences, identifying the critical attributes that distinguish one from the other while identifying the linkage between them.

    Students typically realize even though facts and inferences are separate ideas, they are related. A valid inference is built on a verifiable fact. However—and this may be the tricky part for some students—facts do not necessarily “announce” their own inferences.

    A variation in the approach where the concept is announced is to show students separate lists to illustrate the concept. For example, the commutative property of addition and multiplication might be shown as follows:

    Students can see that the problems deal with addition and multiplication and that the answers are identical on both sides of the equal sign. No matter what the order, the answer is the same

    Students can see that these problems deal with subtraction and division. By contrast, the answers are NOT identical on both sides of the equal sign when the order is reversed.

    When students have truly internalized this concept, they realize that the “order” property holds for addition and multiplication, but it does not hold for subtraction and division. Students can identify their own examples and nonexamples, even to the point of creating word problems to illustrate their mastery. As students get older, they use the property to simplify computation with more complex numbers.

    The entire point of the critical attribute method is to give students prompts that exemplify a concept, and—with the help of some nonexamples—assist them to deduce the concept for themselves. It's almost as if the concept is actually clarified by what it is NOT.

    Appendix E: Teaching the Metaphor for Similarities and Differences

    Appendix F: Math Problem Solving

    Appendix G: Vocabulary

    Syntax or the Function in a Sentence. Most adults learned the parts of speech as grammar and spent countless hours completing worksheets to label each word in a sentence—more like 10 sentences—according to its part of speech. In our work with teachers, we are helping them correct this misapplication by shifting the focus from the label to the function of the word in the sentence. For example, depending on the context, the word base can be a noun, a verb, an adjective, or an adverb. But that's not the important point; what counts is how the words are USED in the sentence, or the syntax.

    We have had great success showing teachers how to introduce new vocabulary words in “nested” sentences that actually illustrate their meaning in a real-world context—this in sharp contrast to a list of isolated words. Here are a few examples, using words taken from the SAT lists.

    • Several flags were thrown after the play, and it took several minutes to sort out who committed the blatant penalties.
    • The Hindenburg debacle prevented the airship from becoming a major weapon in aerial warfare.
    • Although spiritual beliefs are based on faith, an important part of worship centers around religious icons.
    • The treasure was divided proportionately among the families who found it.
    • Judges often sequester the jury for high-profile cases that have created strong public feelings.

    Many students can use a grammar template to replace the bolded words and thus decide how the word is used in the sentence. For example, students know that car is a noun, fits is a verb, blue is an adjective, and perfectly is an adverb. To be sure, they know the various “parts” of speech of “The blue car fits perfectly” and can add prepositional phrases such as “into the parking space” or “with the red truck,” or “inside the garage.” Once they become facile at this template sentence, they can make substitutions in the previous sentences.

    • Several flags were thrown after the play, and it took several minutes to sort out who committed the blatant penalties. [In testing each word, the student quickly realizes that “… blue,” the adjective, can be substituted.]
    • The Hindenburg debacle prevented the airship from becoming a major weapon in aerial warfare. [In testing each word, the student quickly realizes that “… car,” the noun, can be substituted.]
    • The treasure was divided proportionately among the families who found it. [… perfectly, or the adverb, can be substituted]
    • Judges often sequester the jury for high-profile cases that have created strong public feelings. [….“fits,” or the verb, can be substituted]
    • Although spiritual beliefs are based on faith, an important part of worship centers around religious icons. [… the plural of “car” or cars, the noun, can be substituted].

    One foolproof way for students to remember syntax is to use their own names in the teaching sentences. As an example, each of the eight sentences below includes the name of an actual participant in one of our training sessions. Again, the bold words used are from the SAT lists.

    • When you see her positive intervention with autistic children, it's clear why Karen is known as an advocate of students with special needs.
    • It's a good thing Andrea is so gregarious; she didn't know anyone on her staff in September, but now you'd swear she's known them all for years.
    • In the dictionary under the word camaraderie are the pictures of Kathy, Amy, and Becky; no wonder they're called The James Gang.
    • Dismayed by the lack of dollars to take students on field trips, Cindy began calling several philanthropic organizations to support her “Medieval Feast” campaign.
    • Hearing about a colleague's struggle with small groups, Jennifer offered her services as a way to ameliorate the situation in that classroom and preserve the teacher's dignity.
    • As the consummate sports mom, Darcy makes all sorts of sacrifices to attend every event where her children participate.
    • Sensing that not everyone on the team agreed, Chris sagaciously walked them through the material and made adjustments that would meet everyone's need.
    • Being accustomed to conflicting directives about planning, Jennifer has a special bent for clarity and consistence.
    • With Emily's flair for insightful creativity, there's no excuse for prosaic writing among her students.

    Appendix H: Collaborative Observation Samples

    Action Plan Strategies for “Stars” (Teachers Who Are Already Highly Skilled)

    We operate under the premise that all of us can be better at what we do. Therefore, even the strongest teachers are encouraged to “grow” in some capacity. What we find, is that the strongest people usually have a list of things they want to work on to make themselves a better educator.

    • Attend a professional conference (local is fine!); share findings among peers.
    • Present at a professional conference; present a program/materials developed by you and/or peers, and invite feedback from attendees.
    • Work with building leadership team (BLT) to devise a strategy to solve a particular schoolwide or grade-level problem (e.g., a report card that reflects differentiation strategies; student-led parent-conferences; a “reading list” that reflects a balance across all genres and cultures, including classical as well as contemporary pieces; increasing levels of student engagement; incorporating levels of thinking—e.g., Bloom—into teaching, etc.).
    • Interview (via e-mail, telephone, etc.) an educational “hot shot” (e.g., the state Superintendent of Instruction, Larry Ainsworth, Mike Schmoker, Richard DuFour, Rick Stiggins, Robert Marzano, etc.); ask advice about specific classroom or building-level issues; disseminate the results of that exchange to members of the BLT.
    • Identify a particular topic of interest (e.g., gender issues for math; collaborative learning; differentiation among special needs students; ability grouping; student motivation; etc.); read three research articles, at least one of which includes the results of an actual study in a school with a population similar to ours, and formulate a viable recommendation for the building.
    • Find articles written by teachers about successful classroom strategies that would be helpful in this building; disseminate among staff. [NOTE: Sources might include ASCD SmartBriefs, EdWeek, Ed Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan magazine, etc.]
    • Conduct an “action research” project in your own classroom, trying out a specific technique to meet a specific need for your students; keep track of the impact, and determine if it would have implications building-wide.
    • “Exchange places” with a teacher at another grade level (and/or subject area) to experience working with students at another developmental level or to see one's own students in another setting; meet with exchange teacher in advance to discuss lessons and swap plans.
    • Initiate a mini-project with other teachers in the building (department, grade level) to improve grade-to-grade articulation re: curriculum, assessment, differentiation, literacy, etc.
    • Take a professional day to observe in (and then meet with teachers) a school that is rated as Excellent. See what they are doing with their students that would be meaningful for your students; share with teacher-based team or BLT, and set a course of action for your department or school.


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