Teacher Karen Hazlett’s fourth graders spent much of this fall learning about child labor – during English class.
Hazlett teaches in Akron’s Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. This is her 34th year in the classroom.
And until recently, child labor probably would not have been a central topic in fourth grade English. Instead, Hazlett’s students would have read mostly fiction, and answer questions about their opinions on plot and characters.
But Hazlett says one of the biggest changes with the new Common Core English standards is a greater emphasis on non-fiction material.
“It used to be maybe 20-30 percent of our teaching was non-fiction and now it’s 50 [percent] or more,” she says. “That’s a huge difference.”
The new standards are tougher than Ohio’s old standards, Hazlett says, and they require students to analyze writing more deeply.
She has the Common Core standards for today’s lesson posted on her chalkboard and reads them aloud to me:
“Integrate information from two topics, explain the reasons using evidence, looking for details, drawing inference, drawing conclusions, main idea…”
Hazlett’s students have already read a series of articles about child labor, written at perhaps a sixth or seventh grade level – higher than what they would have encountered a few years ago.
Today, she has them work together in pairs to draw some conclusions from what they’ve read.
As she talks to her students, the phrase you hear over and over again is “cite evidence.”
“You are going to use the text and support your answer with evidence,” she tells them. “Where in the text did you get that idea what is one important new thing you have learned from reading these texts? Why is that information new? What is one thing you think differently about how that you have read these texts? Cite evidence.”
Pairs of students pore over the photocopied articles.
Teaching these young kids to work with factual evidence, to find specific facts to support their opinions, is a big change, Hazlett says.
“I’ve been teaching a long time, and I was like why didn’t we think of that before? It helps them focus on the text,” she says.
Other English classes in Akron are studying topics like CSI-style forensic anthropology, space exploration and food safety. The lessons are part of Common Core-aligned units developed by the University of Pittsburgh.
Akron teacher Anna Panning’s fifth graders are learning about space exploration.
“It’s really rigorous,” Panning says. “I sortof have them pumped up with, ‘This is going to be tough but we can do it.’ But they’re really enjoying it. And they love the topic.”
Bills to void Ohio’s adoption of the Common Core are pending in the Ohio House and Senate. But Akron English curriculum supervisor Toan Dang-Nguyen, says she hasn’t heard any complaints from parents.
Dang-Nguyen began introducing the Common Core to Akron teachers three years ago.
Since then, Akron has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on things like new materials and substitutes so teachers can attend Common Core training.
“It’s here are the standards, here’s a model unit, here’s some training to see what you can do with those standards,” she says. “We’re not just sending them off and saying good luck.”
Dang-Nguyen says the long phase-in has meant that teachers and students will have fewer surprises when the new Common Core-aligned tests start next spring.