This is the first in a four-article series exploring how teachers are incorporating Common Core State Standards
MIDDLETOWN, Del. — Remembering the plot of a short story is no longer good enough in teacher Amy Lawson's fifth-grade classroom.
Today's students are being asked to think more critically. For example, what might a character say in an email to a friend?
"It's hard. But you can handle this," Lawson tells them.
Welcome to a classroom using the Common Core State Standards, one of the most politicized and misunderstood changes in education for students and their teachers in kindergarten through high school.
In 45 states and the District of Columbia, Lawson and other teachers are starting to use the standards to guide what skills students learn and when.
To hear the standards' critics — mainly tea party-aligned conservatives, but also some parents and teachers— tell it, there are few things more dangerous happening in the country.
But in this fast-growing community in northern Delaware, it's just another day in the classroom.
The Common Core State Standards are academic benchmarks that outline the skills a student should have at each level.
For instance, third-graders should know how to find the perimeter of a figure. A fifth-grader should be able to compare and contrast two characters from a story.
The standards were created by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to improve academic achievement and increase accountability. President Barack Obama and his administration embraced them.
That led critics, including Republican members of Congress, to call the standards a national curriculum, or "Obamacore." The standards are not a curriculum, despite the opponents' claims. Each state, school or even teacher can determine how to help students reach those standards.
Alaska, Texas, Nebraska and Virginia decided not to adopt them. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards.
At the core of the standards is a reduced emphasis on memorization. Students now have to connect the dots and apply critical thinking. It's what experts call higher-order thinking. Teachers say it's preparing students for life after high school.
That has made classrooms much more of a hands-on proposition.
In teacher Melissa Grieshober's classroom, students have set aside work sheets in favor of a game board. On their 10-by-10 grid of numbers, they are playing a version of capture the flag, using flashcards to guide their moves: a 22-7 card lets them move 15 spaces; 16-9 allows them to move 7.
In pairs, the students try to reach targets on the board, not only by solving the problems at hand but by figuring out which cards would get them closer to their targets. It's as much about probability, predictability and luck as it is about rote memorization of addition and subtraction tables.
In fact, in Grieshober's classroom, there is no right or wrong way to figure out such problems. Yes, there are correct answers. But students are encouraged to explain how they got there.
"How did you reach that number?" Grieshober asked one of her third-grade students. "Show me your strategy for solving this."
But what about those who say schools exist to teach students facts, such as 15 subtracted from 20 equals five?
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