Special to A+: The Voice of the Teacher on New Math Standards

A few days ago, my students and I had a golden moment during math. A child asked about a question on the homework page, and before I could even read it myself, several hands shot up–not to shout out the correct answer as would have been the case as recently as last year, but to offer explanations for how to get to the answer.

Pride swelled within me as the class and I listened to five different ways of solving the same problem. I just stopped and said, “I’m so proud of you all. Think of how far we’ve come this year…We all struggled with our new math in the beginning, including me, but now look at you! A few months ago, would you have thought about more than one way to solve a problem?”
I could see it in their faces. One by one, they began to grasp the vast distance they’d spanned over just a few short months, and little smiles began to appear. Looks of pride and faces that shone with a sense of accomplishment glowed all around the room.

That golden moment marked a clear milestone for us. We had all started with somewhat of a traditional mindset when it came to learning mathematics. Students and teacher alike were accustomed to a directed teaching approach: I showed how to solve the problems and students did what I showed them. The end. There was no real understanding of number sense, and mathematics was mainly a set of rules or steps to be followed. In my heart of hearts I knew there was more to it, and there had to be a better way, but I wasn’t equipped with the knowledge or tools to be a better math teacher.

Enter the Common Core, or as we call them in Alabama, the College and Career Ready Standards (CCRS). With the new standards came a new math program written around our standards. I’ll be honest. Even though I firmly stood behind our new standards and had hope for what the implementation would look like, at first it was very difficult. My kiddos and I were used to our school game. CCRS didn’t  play by our rules. No longer was it acceptable to just learn a few steps. No longer was math simply about numbers without meaning. CCRS forced us to articulate our thinking and actually write it down! CCRS forced us to apply our learning in rigorous ways that we had never even considered before. Reasoning, explaining, illustrating, distinguishing, and making connections were now just as important as actually solving the math problems.

We are less than 3/4 of the way through the school year now, but it is clear that the implementation of the CCRS in math has transformed the thinking and learning in my classroom. I see evidence of students using various strategies, choosing appropriate ones for particular tasks. Conceptual knowledge and number sense are growing in my students, and they’re becoming well-rounded mathematicians and really great thinkers. They’re excited and eager, and the thinking strategies they’re using are overlapping into other areas of the curriculum.

Finally, I feel like I’m doing what’s right for students when it comes to teaching math. Finally, my students are learning real world problem solving techniques that they’ll carry into the work force one day. Finally, I’m teaching critical thinking skills in a way that works. The CCRS are not evil, or an assessment, or some secret set of standards (you can find AL’s here). They are the tools that ensure Alabama students will receive the education they need to compete with students from other states and globally.

Farrah Kilgo
4th grade teacher, Ivalee Elementary
Etowah County
NBCT 2008