The Center for Educational Improvement

  Embracing the Common Core,

Embracing Deep Learning

In This Issue
The Common Core
the World of Literature
STEM in Alaska
Common Core and ECH
Current Events

Interested in preparing teachers for the Common Core Standards? Dr. Mason and colleagues are available to lead  discussions about effective ways of introducing and including the common core standards.   Mason, along with Dr. David Silverberg and Kathy Ward-Cameron are making arrangements with school districts to provide 21st Century Institutes on "STEPS to the Common Core."  See CEI's website for details.

CEI now has a team of 40 professionals available to meet your needs. Please visit our website for more information.
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CEI implements our unique "WOW! Factor" presentation style for interesting and vibrant workshops. We have just added "Facilitating Deep Dialogue."

We also provide over 40 different training modules that can be formatted to fit your school's needs. Among these are workshops on: co-teaching, closing achievement gaps, global education, and the Response to Intervention model. We provide both live, in-person and web-based workshops.

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CEI can assist teachers and adminstrators in training and implementing DDI programs into their schools. We do this with wow! by incorporating a multi-media approach and relevant group exercises into this training.

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Carolyn Lieberg
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Dear Readers,


The Obama administration is pressing Congress to revise "No Child Left Behind" to improve education--the message is that we must leave "No Child Left Behind" behind in order to advance. Internationally, some of the countries with the highest educational scores, such as Finland, are giving teachers more academic freedom and expecting less conformity to teaching a common curriculum. Bill Daggett, among others, is suggesting that "rigor and relevance" are measured by authentic assessments that include curriculum-based measures, student work samples, and student projects rather than simply measuring standardized test scores.


The latest thinking among many educators is that rather than focusing on "all of the standards," we should focus on "higher expectations" in fewer areas. So what would that look like?   

  •          How would classrooms change tomorrow if common standards were implemented with a concern for high expectations?
  •          How would achievement be measured?
  •          Could it be that we will assess students' demonstrations of critical thinking by measuring their engagement with the topic and their communication with others about important topics? 
  •          How could we set up a system whereby we record how students demonstrate a deep understanding of what they know about critical areas?  

With the Common Core, perhaps students will focus on specific topics that are representative of broader domains. If this were possible, the task shifts away from: "How to plan for and measure how students demonstrate their skills and abilities in 600 areas." Rather, the lens will be focused on a much smaller number of areas, where strategies would be devised that allow students to demonstrate their critical thinking skills across topics.


In this newsletter Jacque Hayden, Curriculum Specialist at a charter school in Washington DC, describes how she brings Wow! to her
urban high school English classes. Carolyn Lieberg and David Silverberg describe the Core Standards and some developments to assist in their use.
Kathy Ward-Cameron, Founding President of the Early Literacy Institute, explores the ways that Core Standards will be integrated into early childhood education. Finally, Mike Fenster, STEM Coordinator with Anchorage School District, explains the ways that STEM is taking a stronger hold in their schools.  


 As we approach the summer, a time commonly reserved for reviewing curricula and preparing "curriculum pacing guides," an interesting question is: "How do we help teachers prepare for instruction of the common core standards?"  We urge you to keep the end in mind as you plan for students who demonstrate the 4 C's (critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity) even as you consider how to pace the common core curriculum.

The Common Core:  

Fewer Standards and More Depth

David Silverberg

Carolyn Lieberg


In this season of basketball fever, the familiar March Madness graphic will be taped to refrigerators and office cubicles all over the country. The long list of lines on the left cannot help but provoke questions about who, how, and why. The many-to-few-to-one graphic represents an interesting idea about the multitude of skills and experiences and fields of knowledge that feed into an educated mind. Questions about how best to teach, to learn, and then to assess those activities will continue to be addressed by educators and researchers.


A new and hopeful result of recent developments in education is embodied in the Common Core State Standards. The CCSS were developed over many months with the involvement of teachers, parents, administrators and others. The standards are to be implemented by spring of 2015. While providing states with standard learning expectations, the CCSS has as one of its key goals the task of highlighting fewer topics for assessment-think the mid-way point of the Madness graphic. Part of the logic for the shift in assessing standards holds that in order for a student to know a great deal about one thing, that student will have inevitably learned a great deal about other things in that class or topic or subject-vertically and horizontally. 


Bill Daggett, president of the International Center for Leadership in Education, summarizes the challenge and opportunity raised by the CCSS (from the ICLE home page):

  • Fewer but higher standards and grade level expectations
  • Focus on both college and career readiness
  • Learner expectations that are academically rigorous and also emphasize application and performance
  • Assessments that are more open-ended and authentic indicators of what students know and can do with knowledge acquired.


The "challenge" aspect of the CCSS involves not only the inspiration they serve for the development of new teaching plans but the need to understand how former standards are or are not reflected in the new ones. The "opportunity" aspect of CCSS is signified by fresh ways of pacing the curriculum and assessing student progress. 


An innovative tool for integrating the standards into teaching has been developed by David Silverberg, who calls his programs STEPS, Standard Themes for Educational Progress. Silverberg has taken the longitudinal look at student learning in each area and inserted the appropriate standards into manuals that hang on the wall like calendars, offering graphic tables that display a child's K-12 educational experience. This vertical alignment gives an "instant" view on the standard's trajectory for students from K-12. The tool accessibly provides a wealth of information for teaching and curricular decisions and is particularly useful for differentiation. 



The Common Core State Standards are impacting innovations and best practices across the curriculum and across grade levels.  

Following are three articles that discuss considerations for:


English --Teens reading and loving Dante's Inferno!

STEM--Expanding math and science in Alaska

Early Childhood--CCSS are forthcoming for pre-K 

Drawing Students into the World of Literature

Jacque Hayden M.Ed.

Curriculum Specialist

Hospitality High Public Charter School

Washington, DC 


As a teacher of urban youth, I have often been challenged with getting my students to read literature that they may not have been exposed to or may initially feel intimidated by. Building excitement, making real-world/life connections, and offering meaningful projects with a range of options has been the key to getting my students to buy into literature of all types. With this approach I am able to open the world and the world of literature to my students in ways that they may otherwise not be exposed to.


I Had to Become an Actress  

My students are as excited about the class content as I am. In my early years of teaching I realized that my fear, boredom and even intimidation was as contagious to my students as was my joy, love, passion and excitement. I decided then that part of my job as a teacher was that of an actress. If my students are going to be influenced by my attitude and outlook then I had better be sure that I communicate what I truly want them to feel about the world of literature. When I introduce a work of literature I am excited. I love it! My students say, "Ms. Hayden, you love everything we read. Why do you love books so much?" This lets me know that I am achieving the intended effect.  


Great Reactions to Historical Contexts  

No matter what we are reading I always bring in background information about the historical, political, and religious influences during the time that the literature was written in the form of news clippings, pictures, artifacts or even food. I have the students make connections between what was going on in the world during the time and the piece of writing. This helps them see into the world of the author and to understand the motivation and purpose for writing. I also have students compare and contrast the historical, political and religious influences of the time of a work of literature with their world today. This helps them to make personal connections. When students can connect with personal experiences, it draws them in.

                                                    Scarlet Letter Book Cover  

My classroom comes alive during conversations in which we look at the world now vs. then. I recall teaching the Scarlet Letter. Students were outraged by the unfair treatment of women. They also came to the conclusion that even though official laws have changed, there are still double standards today for the sexual desires and behaviors of men and women. When discussing the role of women and men in the novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, my students were able to compare their own family expectations and traditions and compare those to the experiences of the Garcia sisters. They also had deep discussions about staying true to your culture as well as how the way in which people came to the United States influenced cultural awareness, pride, and expression of both.


There is no new literature. It is all influenced by human experience, which, while it may evolve over time, is inevitably linked to basic human needs, experiences and emotions. This is the message that I challenge my students to prove wrong time and time again. They have not proven me wrong but their desire to explore humanity and to make connections keeps them deeply engaged.  


When Students Astonish Themselves and Me 

Projects are frequent in my classroom. I know that students understand the literature when they can write and argue passionately about it. You cannot make valid arguments and speak and write articulately about that which you do not understand. I give general comprehension tests to gauge that my students are reading and generally understand what they are reading, but the projects challenge them and require them to go beyond the surface to the depths of literature and human experience.  


                                        Dante's Inferno cover 


When reading Dante's Inferno, part of the literature project required students to take a test based on their own life choices. Their project also included a paper in which they had to create their own "Hell" using Dante's Hell as a model. Their hell had to have a guide just like Dante and it had to include levels. Having my students complete this project let me know that they not only understood Inferno, but they were also taking a good look at themselves and their life decisions. They were completely engaged during the entire experience. Instead of whining about taking a quiz or answering comprehension questions, they came in, grabbed their laptops, took out their novels and literature journals, and got to work. The classroom discussions about Inferno and this project were some of the most passionate that I have witnessed in a high school literature classroom.  


My point here is that urban learners can and will read any literature that any other student can and will read. The key is that you must draw students in and make connections. Once you start this process for students, they will take over and push themselves deeper and deeper into the discussion and analysis of literature and human experience.



STEM Advances Farther North


Mike Fenster

Anchorage School District

STEM Coordinator


Gordon Moore in the 1960s described a pattern of accelerating technological change. This pattern,  known as Moore's's Law of exponential technological growth, is an apt description of the expanding need for students who are prepared for the STEM careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.


Recognizing the opportunity and need to promote the sciences, and thanks to grants with partial funding from Siemens, Inc, the cross-discipline blend of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics called STEM  (visit CEI's newsletter archives at for additional information on STEM) is extending deeper into the Anchorage School District in exciting and exemplary ways.


In March 2010, the Anchorage School District Board voted to merge the separate mathematics and science curriculum departments into a single STEM department. With the awareness that many schools and districts are doing well at individual curricula, the connections needed for the students to use the science and mathematics in solving larger scale problems was not happening to a sufficient degree. A STEM curriculum approach more readily prepares the students for the unknown world for which they must be prepared. 


Suzan Mullane, who serves on two STEM committees at South Anchorage High School, believes in the way STEM brings many hands-on activities to class and so thoroughly engages learners.

"Effective educators recognize that relevant curriculum embraces the demands of future high-need occupations [STEM]. For instance, students are more willing to stretch themselves academically if they see monetary value in their studies. America's College and Career Ready Goals have even MORE skill-building value in cross-curricular applications. Practically speaking, STEM initiatives should infuse technical writing across courses. "


How can STEM be used with younger students?

The district already makes use of FOSS® Kits, self-contained science packages designed for three learning levels for K-8, as well as special Alaska-centered science kits. The initiative this year is to align the kits with the technology and mathematic components and continue to incorporate natural writing and reading prompts to go along with the lessons.


When elementary students open the FOSS kit, "Bones and Skele-tons," they start the lesson by using their own bones. Students snap photos of their own mouths with the integral digital camera in the Macintosh computers and then use software to label each tooth. Another program, such as ComicLife®, which integrates photos and "talk" bubbles to create a comic strip, provides a fun way for students to describe the shape of their gums and jaw and to add both metric and English dimensions of their mouths. The creation of the strip might be followed with a paragraph about the functions of the skeleton and the general chemical makeup of bones.

                             origami bird

STEM initiatives are underway at the Middle Schools, too, although math teachers have been instituting a new program, so a deep integration of the science and math courses is on the back burner. In the meantime, students are being given preview opportunities through extracurricular challenges such as FIRST Robotics and SeaPerch ROV Robotics. The district began offering robot activities in 1999 and this past January sponsored a day-long STEM conference for middle school girls. The students learned about STEM careers from women who work in them, including the keynote speaker, who was from ExxonMobil Corp. The girls also had a chance to exercise STEM skills by engaging in art mathematics, origami, and chemistry lessons.


How can STEM fit smoothly into high school curricula?

For now, the broader STEM initiative in high school is focused on ninth grade science curriculum components. (Two Anchorage high schools offer special academies in engineering and health career science paths.) Teachers of the standard course, Integrated Science 9, are working to "STEMify" their labs and projects and then posting them on a site for all the district IS9 teachers. More technology will be integrated in these labs in the coming months. Other efforts are at the investigative stage. Many biology teachers are reviewing the current curriculum to see how it aligns with both health careers and upper level biology and anatomy courses. A third component for high school science initiatives is to look at the AP Environmental Science course to see if it could be another course in the high school curriculum to be offered to entering, highly gifted students. The overall intent is to encourage more students to take these STEM courses without jeopardizing their grade point averages.


Can differentiated lessons employ STEM?

Lastly, to incorporate the needs for bilingual gifted youth and special needs students, Mullane works with high school teachers to incorporate a STEM component into the differentiated lesson plans. These blue ribbon differentiated lesson plans are on ASD's website to guide new teachers as they assist with individual needs. Mullane reports that "Co-teaching with its emphasis on teaching to the strengths of individual students furthers learning:  It help make connections for kids and more connections equates to more kid memory retention." 


Can STEM really make a difference for students' futures?

Anchorage estimates a fully adopted STEM curriculum is three to five years off for the K-12 program. Other initiatives have begun, each of which has the goal of helping students to be better prepared for STEM careers, either directly from high school or by entering a college program for further education.  


Suzan Mullane is a board member for The Center for Educational Improvement. 




Common Core State Standards
for Early childhood

Kathy Ward-Cameron, MS

Founding President/CEO

Early Literacy Institute (ELI)


President Obama has said of early childhood education, "We know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life... we should raise the bar when it comes to early learning programs... we're going to make a historic investment in improving K-12 education, making sure that our children get a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career."   

   Pre-schoolers from 

"Science for Pre-Schoolers" 

So where are the Common Core State Standards for early childhood (pre-kindergarten and younger)?   

Research conducted by PEW Charitable Trust indicates early education is the first step to school reform. The human brain reaches 90 percent of its potential growth and most of its capacity to learn by the age of five, so it is critical that educators be provided with a vertical alignment that begins at the beginning!  In construction, scaffolding doesn't begin on the 5th floor of a building; it begins on the ground level. Likewise, a strong educational infrastructure requires that core curriculum standards begin at birth, not in the 5th year of a child's education.

Fortunately the Council for Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governor's Association (NGA) who lead the formation of the K-12 standards announced plans to add standards for birth to 5 years old to align with K-12.  In the meantime, each state's department of education website contains Early Learning Standards that can be downloaded. The links below can help fill in some of the gaps until there is a complete vertical alignment of Common Core State Standards:

Head Start Child Outcomes Framework

Alignment of the Common Core Curriculum with High Scope's Preschool Child Observation Record (COR)

Alignment of the Common Core State Standards with Teaching Strategies GOLDTM Objectives for Development & Learning: Birth Through Kindergarten (PDF)

This edition of Wow! Ed includes examples of the potential of instruction that strives for deep learning.  The transition to the Common Core Standards presents an opportunity to step back from the almost frenetic pace introduced by No Child Left Behind. NCLB produced some gains in schools around the country, and should be recognized as a catalyst to significant educational changes. However, there has been a cost associated with these gains. With the Common Core comes the possibility of not only resurrecting dialogue and project based learning, but even expanding beyond these foundations into the exciting realms of knowledge exploration - a place where depth of learning leads to new discoveries and greater insights.


Christine Mason
Center for Educational Improvement

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