Los Angeles Unified School District

Unpacking Common Core in the Classroom

One day, about two years ago, a box was dropped in my classroom and a training session was scheduled to help me sort out what its contents were all about. That box and that one-day training were my first introduction to the Common Core. With such an abrupt beginning to a significant shift in education, it’s no wonder there has been so much pushback on the new standards.

Opening Pandora’s Box

After most states adopted Common Core, school districts started scrambling. As providers rewrote curriculum, district and school leaders searched for new materials. Meanwhile, teachers tried to decipher whether or not new materials were actually Common Core-aligned, or just old materials with a new Common Core sticker on the cover. Teachers were essentially charged with bringing new, more rigorous academic expectations into our classrooms without adequate time to become versed in new materials or understand methods for applying them to our instruction.


Despite the rocky start, teachers have made the most in the shift to higher standards by leaning on each other to ask questions and share ideas like my colleague, Rahnna Denmark. One day, I admired some amazing fourth-grade art hanging on the walls of her classroom. I stopped to compliment Rahnna on her students’ work. We started talking and she revealed that what appeared to be an art project was actually administered as a math lesson. She started her class by presenting her students with artwork by Wassily Kandinsky. Her class was studying fractions and she used Kandinsky’s concentric circle paintings to show how fractions are used in art, and asked her students to create their own versions. As the students got busy working, she walked around the room and asked questions: Why did you draw your picture that way? How many shapes did it take to make that? In their responses, they eagerly explained their reasoning, saying things like, “I drew four circles in eight boxes” or “One-third of my boxes have five circles while-two thirds of my boxes have four.” Without even realizing it, they were explaining how fractions work through art! Her lesson was a brilliant learning moment of my own. Now, I almost always open up my class with an anecdote or an analogy for my students to contemplate and explore, using connections to real life that help my students understand the lesson. The opportunity to bring real-life connections into my classroom is one of the greatest strengths of Common Core. My students need these types of learning opportunities just as I need real, tactile and engaging opportunities to practice Common Core.

A Call for Teachers

In the four years or so years since Common Core was adopted by most states, including my own (California), teachers have felt very lost. But together, we have been finding our way. We float ideas for lessons to each other and demonstrate methods of instruction. We share materials with each other and ask a lot of questions. My fellow teachers have been key to increasing my comfort with Common Core. So here’s a question for all of us to contemplate and explore: why not let teachers take the lead from here? This is not a new idea. Many schools and districts doing well with the new standards have given teachers some ownership in this work, or at least, time to collaborate. Formalizing teachers’ roles in the next phase of Common Core is gaining increasing support. From VIVA Teachers to Center for American Progress, education advocates are calling for teacher collaboration and leadership roles as investments in Common Core’s future. Alongside many of my colleagues, I echo that call. The last year marked a milestone in adopting Common Core standards with the transition to new assessments. In the many summer professional development days happening between now and the start of next school year, it’s time to turn the page on Common Core. Teachers are ready to make these standards the new normal and take ownership of their future. From supporting one another in our instructional practice to proposing targeted recommendations to education leaders on sharing best practices and resources, educators like my colleagues and I want to take the initiative in making Common Core a success in classrooms and schools. Setting high standards for all students will require multiple ways to integrate the Common Core across grades and subject. To find those ways, we will need teachers show us how.  
Jesse Balderas is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles Unified School District.
Jesse Balderas
Jesse Balderas teaches sixth grade at Para Los Ninos Charter School. He is in his sixth year teaching and has served as a facilitator, which involves providing personal development for other teachers. He is a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Los Angeles and co-author of One ...

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