Kindergarten teachers use collaboration, research to teach Common Core standards

Ready to learn

Addi Gibbons works with the “Teach Me Kindergarten” app on an iPad at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School. Teacher Cindy Coons said the device is ideal for her students because it helps them learn at their own pace.

Ready to learn

The ABCs of kindergarten

The following are some of the skills children should know when they enter kindergarten

• Saying his/her first and last name

• Printing his/her first name, beginning with a capital letter and the rest lower-case

• Holding a pencil correctly

• Holding and using scissors

• Sitting quietly for 10-15 minutes

• Naming the four basic shapes: Circle, square, triangle and rectangle

• Naming the eight basic colors: Red, orange, yellow, blue, green, purple, brown and black

• Begin recognizing letters of the alphabet

• Begin recognizing numbers 1 to 10

• Saying the alphabet

• Counting to at least 10

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Grass Valley Elementary School kindergarten teacher Ellen Keller works on a reading and writing exercise with students. “We want them to read before they leave kindergarten, but with (Common Core) standards, now we expect them to write as well.”

However, in today’s kindergarten world, the list would also need to include writing, reading and math comprehension.

When Cindy Coons first began teaching kindergarten at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary School, she was thrilled if students came in knowing how to spell their first name and recite the alphabet.

“Now, I need them coming in knowing all the letters and sounds, the numbers one through 10 out of order, spelling their last name and finding it in a mix of others.”

The change is due to the Common Core Standards, part of a nationwide effort to align curriculum. Although it won’t be officially implemented in Washington state until the 2014-15 school year, teachers in Camas and Washougal are getting a head start by developing curriculum which aligns with Common Core Standards.

Common Core is described as a real-world approach to learning and teaching. It was developed by education experts from 45 states, and the K-12 learning standards go deeper into key concepts in math and English language arts. The standards require a practical, real-life application of knowledge that prepares students for success in college, work and life. New state assessment tests, aligned to these standards, will begin in the spring of 2015.

In Washougal, the district has adopted Common Core standards in kindergarten through second-grade. Teachers at all grade levels are implementing the mathematical practices.

“For English Language Arts, we are focusing on the role of argument in reading, writing and speaking and listening instruction, with particular emphasis on incorporating text- based questions and writing using evidence from sources,” said David Tudor, curriculum director. “Our teachers are also intentionally addressing academic vocabulary and its role in reading comprehension and written and oral language production. Finally, we are developing, enhancing, and integrating literacy skills across social studies/history, science, and other technical subjects.”

The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction provides transition documents to help districts implement the new standards.

Coons jokingly refers to the documents as her “bible.”

“I am always referring back to these,” she said.

She added that a few years ago, she was happy if students could add 2 plus 2.

“Now, with Common Core, they need to explain how they got the answer,” she said.

Students are also expected to learn how to read and begin writing before finishing kindergarten.

“They can do it,” Coons said. “They’re so eager to learn and like an untapped resource. They’ve been handling it just fine.”

Struggling students receive extra assistance from an on-site reading specialist, parent volunteers and by using iPad applications that are designed to improve their skills and comprehension.

Coons said the change to Common Core has been a positive one, overall.

“This lays out where they are going to be through eighth-grade,” she said. “The concepts build upon each other. Common Core is uniform. It will be nice for students to be able to go to any school and know what the standards are going to be. Preparedness is the best advocate. The hardest thing is we don’t have textbooks for it yet. You have to piece together things on your own.”

Another difficulty is that at the kindergarten level, there is often a big gap in student knowledge: Some come to school knowing the entire alphabet and reading, others cannot write their first name yet. However, Coons uses small group activities and the iPads to help close that gap.

“We break into groups by levels,” she said. “And every kid seems to have something of an electronics background. I also have great parent volunteers who work with the kids, as well as a reading specialist.”

Coons advises parents not to be too worried if their kindergartner seems to be slower to catch on.

“They all learn at their own pace,” she said. “We need to teach to the whole child and see what makes them tick.”

Principal Mary Lou Woody said Coons often works with the preschool teachers at Cape Horn-Skye, to help incoming kindergartners be better prepared.

“They are eager to have Cindy come to the classroom, so it is professional development for them,” she said. “With Common Core, we have to be vigilant. It’s really changing what we used to do.”

However, some things remain the same.

“Every year, I really enjoy watching kindergartners turn into students,” Coons said. “They become big kids right before my very eyes.”

Grass Valley Elementary in Camas has taken the lead with implementing Common Core in the classrooms. Last summer, 12 teachers participated in an online book study called, “Pathways to the Common Core.”

District wide, approximately 50 teachers and principals participated.

“We are currently in the ‘Awareness & Building Capacity Stage,’” said Jeff Snell, assistant superintendent. “This means we are identifying leadership and utilizing professional development opportunities around the region to get ready for implementation. A lot of the (Common Core standards) are aligned to current Washington standards, so at some level we are already implementing them at each of our schools.”

Patricia Erdmann, Grass Valley principal, said teachers are enthusiastic about the new standards.

“It really fits our staff and there’s a real positive buzz here,” she said.

At the kindergarten level, teachers Ellen Keller and Christine Young prepare the school’s youngest learners.Young, who has taught kindergarten for 19 years, has the Common Core Standards on her classroom walls as a reminder.

“We felt that since they would apply to the kindergartners later on, we need to teach it now,” she said. “The standards are there, it’s just how we can adapt them to the kindergarten level. The internet is very helpful in this area, and a lot of teachers are working under Common Core here at Grass Valley. We share fun ideas to try.”

Young said that when she began teaching kindergarten in the Camas School District, it was more of an introduction to school.

“The expectation was let’s work on our social skills and following directions,” she said. “There is still a huge gap between kids. Thankfully, we have a lot of helpers in kindergarten. They’re aware of our difficulties and try to help us as much as possible.”

Keller said as far as the Common Core standards go, the reading hasn’t changed much.

“The biggest change is with the math expectations and that we want them to write as well as read,” Keller said. “This is where we’re seeing the biggest discrepancies (between kids).”

Grass Valley kindergartners receive extra help from the school reading specialist when needed, as well as parent volunteers.

“As kindergarten teachers, we collaborate together often as well,” Keller said. “There’s a lot of sharing ideas, taping notes to each other’s keyboards and talking. I think that’s the best part of my job. Working together with other teachers is powerful.”

Erdmann agrees that collaboration is an important aspect of teaching Common Core standards.

“The biggest thing we have going is that we have fostered PLC’s (professional learning communities) as a way for colleagues to work together,” she said. “It’s a way to help them share the load. We try to provide as much support as they need.”