Pick your seat out of a big purple pumpkin, multiple numbers and the letter “i,” and find your table, which is music genre-themed.

Justin Burchett’s students knew last Friday’s college algebra class was not going to be normal the moment they walked in the door.

That day at Osawatomie High School, students didn’t open their textbooks and listen to Burchett give a lecture. They split into groups to conquer a project that required them to create scatterplots, research Billboard’s top 20 songs, use data analysis software and, most importantly, think about what the numbers and equations they’re using in class really mean.

This may be the math class of the not-so-distant future.

The rigor and approach of the Common Core standards schools are adapting to is requiring teachers to reexamine not just the content they teach but the way they teach.

“It’s such a big idea,” Susan Gorman, USD 367 director of improvement, said. “It’s not just ‘Here’s a new set of standards; go change your curriculum a little bit.’ What I like about Common Core is it’s focused just as much on how we teach as what we teach. It’s really asking teachers to think ‘How am I teaching? Am I using the best kind of instruction I can and thinking outside the box?’”

In anticipation of the first Common Core-aligned state assessment planned for 2015, teachers are spending this year working new projects into their old curriculums to ease into the new standards. These projects, curriculum directors say, are more hands-on, more interactive and more difficult.

And while teachers are having to step up and incorporate new methods into their classrooms, they’re also having to step back and let students figure out concepts on their own.

“I think your teacher will be more of a facilitator,” Pam Best, USD 416 assistant superintendent, said. “I would even hope that they would encourage the students to learn from each other. That’s the movement. That’s where we’re going.”

Giving students ownership

Ask one of the aforementioned college algebra students what they thought about their class project, and they’ll say “It’s hard.”

The students’ skepticism about this new way of learning math isn’t unusual. This is an advanced math class, past state-assessment age, who will have graduated by the time Common Core takes over schools. They’re the perfect test subjects.

“Math is probably the worst type of assignment,” Burchett said. “It’s just lecture, notes, assignment, lecture, notes, assignment. But that’s probably not the best way to be teaching, and we have to find ways to get away from that.”

While they certainly agreed this project was difficult, the students also admitted this was much more fun than copying problems from a textbook.

Burchett’s project had the students developing a clear, testable hypothesis about whether the length of a song is related to the number of words in a song – something they thought sounded more like science than math.

Under Common Core, these subjects blend together.

To test their theories, the students used their school-issued laptops to create a chart of time and word count data for the Billboard Top 20 songs in the genre their tables were assigned. To get it done by the end of class, they had to work as a team and plan – an aspect their teacher said can make a project more fulfilling.

“I could have just given them the data,” Burchett said. “But this way, they have some ownership.”

Burchett went from table to table answering questions, but the students had the responsibility of figuring most of the project out with the help of their peers.

After collecting the data, they had to use instructions from a website to create a scatterplot for their data in Microsoft Excel. They also had to know enough about trend lines to know which one would best fit their graphs – exponential, linear, logarithmic, polynomial or power.

In the end, they had a report to hand in with a chart and an analysis of their hypothesis. It’s the kind of thinking they’d be expected to use as engineers, researchers or marketing executives. It is a practical approach to assignments .

“I’m kind of excited to transition over,” Burchett said. “In some ways it’s really not that much different. It’s logic. It’s problem-solving. It’s just doing this in a way that blends this all together.”

Playhouses and punctuation

It will take close to 10 years for Burchett’s students to fully work into Common Core, but Callie Smail’s Cottonwood Elementary kindergarten class may only ever know this learning style.

Smail said the lower levels have absorbed more Common Core methods both out of necessity and because in some ways, they’ve already been teaching with Common Core activities.

“We feel like we can implement it easier down here, and they can build on it in those upper levels as they get older,” Smail said. “We do them without even thinking.” Kindergarten is so hands-on anyway, we do implement a lot of common core without even really focusing on the standards, which is good.”

Little activities in kindergarten can blend many skills together. After reading a book together about a playhouse, Smail had her students write a sentence about an ideal playhouse. The budding writers had to sound out words they’ve never spelled before, use the right punctuation and remember to use two finger spaces between their words.

They had to get very creative. Some playhouses included a hot tub and a pet shop or a dinosaur and a movie theater. And in the end, the students had to make a playhouse filled with all the necessities, like ice cream machines and swimming pools, out of craft sticks and markers.

“An activity like this, I feel like, it brings it to life,” Smail said. “Instead of writing a story about a playhouse, they can actually build it and imagine what it would look like.”

While the curriculum hasn’t changed much, she said the kindergarten teachers are trying to come up with more innovative ways to get the children to develop firmer foundations of learning.

“We have not changed our whole curriculum by any means,” Smail said. “We’re kind of enriching it with activities like this that we can go deeper with, add more to a lesson. I think as far as what the kindergartners are expecting, there are some changes there.”

In some areas, there’s more critical thinking expected of the students. But their innate talents would surprise most people, Smail said.

“These guys can learn anything,” Smail said. “But you’ve got to make it fun.”

“Another tool in our toolbox”

Some classes at Louisburg Middle School are evolving completely – in fact,they’re flipping.

LMS Principal Cindy Fouraker said teachers at the school did a book study on “Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day,” which is about the flip classroom movement. The book was written by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, teachers at Woodland Park High School in Colorado, who found themselves trying to keep up with the needs of students in a rural school setting, who frequently miss class due to sports and activities.

“The time when students really need me physically present is when they get stuck and need my individual help,” Sams said in the book. “They don’t need me there in the room with them to yak at them and give them content; they can receive the content on their own.”

The two science teachers found they could more efficiently illustrate concepts to their students with a 2- to 5-minute video they’d post online.

“The idea is that the student watches a short video for what you’d call homework,” Fouraker said. “Then when they come into class the next day, there’s a project that applies the concept they learned the night before. It’s getting into those deeper ways of thinking. They’re creating, they’re evaluating, they’re analyzing.”

Fouraker is referring to Bloom’s Taxonomy, which describes the depths at which people think. Currently, schools often focus on lower-order thinking, like knowledge, comprehension and application. What flip classrooms allow teachers to do is get into higher-order thinking – anaylsis, synthesis and evaluation – by engaging in interactive projects.

For example, in one seventh-grade science class, Fouraker said, students watched a short video about the classification of living things, then had to come to class the next day ready for an animal classification project. Some students, she said, struggled a little at first as expected. Others caught on quickly and were able to complete an enrichment project that allowed them to create a zoo.

Fouraker said the school has found ways for students without computers at home to easily complete their online watching assignments. Teachers have noticed improving results in the classroom with the unconventional method, she said.

Methods like the flip classroom, Fouraker said, aren’t going to dominate the teaching methods in all of the middle school’s classrooms. Instead, finding what works best for different classrooms and different districts is one of the biggest – and most rewarding – challenges of finding ways to teach the new Common Core standards.

“We have to show teachers the tools they can use to bring Common Core into their classrooms,” Fouraker said. “This is just another tool in our toolbox.”

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