The shift from Arizona’s former content standards to the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards has been an exciting journey for me. As a first-grade teacher, one of the things I first noticed was a shift in focus from wide to narrow. These new standards are fine-tuned to what is most essential for students in each grade level, K-12, to master before moving on in their educational careers. In number, the standards may be fewer, but in depth, complexity and content they are far more substantial. This is something I see proof of daily when I observe my students tackle concepts and learn new skills that a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought possible. To illustrate what this looks like, I am going to tell you a story about myself. You see, I’m not stellar at math. As long as I can remember, math has been an anxiety-provoking activity. I’m sure I’m not alone. You may be like me: a product of mathematical instruction in which the process of how to solve a problem was put in front of understanding what was taking place within the process. I remember simply learning a series of steps that led to an answer, but I never truly understood why those steps were necessary or what I was really doing. Therefore, I never really retained what I’d learned and I had a broken and unstable mathematical foundation that was useless to build upon in later years. It simply couldn’t support a deeper level of understanding necessary to tackle higher-level mathematical concepts. The Arizona College and Career Ready Standards have made it possible for me to teach in ways that I was never taught. You can understand, then, why when exploring these new standards, I became a fan from the beginning. In math, we are no longer just teaching the steps, but rather have a focus on why we need to know this in addition to the processes necessary to be successful. Students are learning what is happening within a mathematical algorithm, not just how to solve it. Teaching to this level of understanding creates a rock-solid foundation upon which they can build a strong mathematical tower of understanding necessary for success in later grades. You can’t teach students to regroup when adding if they don’t have a solid understanding of tens and ones, otherwise you’re just teaching steps. Teaching how to tell time to the “half-hour” doesn’t make much sense without an understanding of parts and wholes. Without that background knowledge, it’s just vocabulary.
These standards have refocused my teaching on what’s most important: teaching and reinforcing concepts that will apply to future learning. These standards aren’t just for math, though. The bar has been raised in reading and writing as well. I heard once that almost all of the comprehension questions being asked of students after reading a book could be answered just by looking at the pictures. The problem with this is that throughout their educational career, we will expect our students to read increasingly complex text to gain information. Whether it be the morning newspaper or a particularly entertaining Facebook post, we read to gain information and unfortunately, there aren’t always pictures. Students now are being asked to explain and justify their answers with evidence from the text itself. Students are now asked to compare and contrast characters and texts, using complex vocabulary to explain their thinking. As a teacher, I am challenged to continually integrate reading and writing into other areas of study, like science and social studies. Being literate isn’t confined to an hour-long block of an adult’s day and that is now reflected in our school day. I am a teacher who only wants what’s best for my students. I’ve seen what these standards have done for my students’ achievement and my awareness as a teacher. They have allowed for me to better do what all teachers want for their students: To prepare them for what’s to come.
Dayna Burke is a 2014 Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence for the Arizona Educational Foundation. Burke teaches first grade at Sahuarita Primary School in the Sahuarita Unified School District.