It’s time to ask a personal question. You don’t have to share your answer with anyone, but you need to answer it. Here’s the question:
Do you truly understand every math and reading standard that you teach? Well enough to explain them all to another adult using examples?
I suspect that the honest answer for some is, “No, not really.” And that answer may be even more applicable to math than reading. As you might imagine, this will impact your ability to help your students with test preparation.
Standards can be confusing
I list a few confusing Common Core standards in my test preparation book, and I understand that sometimes they can be difficult to grasp. I mean, sometimes it feels like a teacher needs a math minor to understand a standard like this:
Use variables to represent two quantities in a real-world problem that change in relationship to one another; write an equation to express one quantity, thought of as the dependent variable, in terms of the other quantity, thought of as the independent variable. Analyze the relationship between the dependent and independent variables using graphs and tables, and relate these to the equation.
I’m certain that non-Common Core state standards can be just as challenging to understand.
Well, we have to fix that, don’t we? It’s pretty common sense that if a teacher doesn’t deeply understand what she is teaching, the results will be sub-optimal (to put it nicely). If a teacher is having difficulty understanding a standard, then think how much harder it will be for her students!
The only person who can give the children a fighting chance at mastery – and at passing year-end test questions – is you. But there’s good news…
You don’t have to memorize!
“Deeply understand” doesn’t mean that you must be able to recite explanations by heart. My husband tells the story his father showing him over and over again how to fix a leaky faucet. He finally complained that there was no point because he could never remember the steps. His father said something that applies to you and standards:
It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember how to fix a faucet. It only matter that you know it can be done. You’ll figure it out when you need to.”
I’ll rephrase that for you:
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember how to explain every standard. It only matters that you know there is an explanation* and that you have resources you can turn to.”
Fortunately, resources are plentiful in our modern age! Whether you want to learn how to fix a faucet or explain the commutative property, the answer is online. You just have to want to find it.
Expertise is critical
If you spend enough time in the same grade level with a stable curriculum, you will get to know every standard if you are willing to put in the work. But make no mistake: even if the knowledge fades a bit as you move on through the year, you must be an expert on a standard whenever you teach a lesson about it.
How do we define “expert?”
Remember that asterisk (*) a few paragraphs ago? When I said: “It only matters that you know there is an explanation”? Well, I need to clarify that to be an expert on a standard, it’s not enough to know one way to explain it. Expertise means you know a few different ways to explain it, because your students will need every angle you can give them for test preparation.
So let’s go over the resources that you can rely on.
Look for the online resources provided by your curriculum publisher. There are often explanations created specifically for teachers. No online publisher resources? No worries, we have more options.
District or state resources
Sometimes a school district or state department of education will undertake to create teacher resources. Search your district or state website to determine if there is something you can rely on throughout the year.
Pretty much every test publisher releases past tests. These are good for more than review! They will include student work and why that work was scored a certain way. This is excellent for learning multiple ways to approach different standards and to get a flavor for how the test will ask questions about it.
A searching tip
These released items will either be web pages or PDF’s and there may be multiple standards covered in a single page or document. How do you find the standard you are interested in? Easy: the magical “Ctrl + F” on a Windows keyboard or “Command + F” on a Mac.
Pressing both the “Control” or “Command” key and the “F” key at the same time will pop open a search box on any web page or any PDF document. Type in your standard (e.g. RL2.8) and you will find it immediately.
Bonus: This functionality is built into every web browser, so it works on any web page for any search term. It also works with any Microsoft Office program.
Google search (documents and video)
Search on Google by the standard. Just enter, for example:
You’ll see all the web pages on the subject. Then click the “Video” option at the top and ta-dah! Someone ready to explain verbally and visually all about the standard.
Don’t hesitate to watch videos intended for students; those are often the best way to learn.
Not using Common Core? No problem. You’ll find resources for your state’s standards in the same way.
This is a great resource that covers all the Common Core standards with lesson and videos. It’s well worth checking out and signing up for a free account here: LearnZillion
My Standards and Guiding Questions products
This is promoting my own products. But they have been lifesavers for me and I know they will be for you as well.
Do you think I’ve always been able to hold standards in my head? Nope. So I did what every frustrated learner does: I made a cheat sheet for myself. Actually, I made a lot of cheat sheets.
As I did the research I have outlined above for both reading and math, I captured what I found. Eventually, I turned all of these documents into products I sell in my online store. They are called Standards and Guiding Questions Handbooks, and I have them for ELA (Kindergarten through 8th grade) and math (Kindergarten through grade 6).
I’m going to brag a little, but there is nothing else like them. From the product description:
- All Common Core math standards explained and illustrated using clear language with examples, diagrams and pictures. Includes sample problems and “I Can statements.”
- All Common Core ELA standards explained in clear language with examples, vocabulary and SBAC claim.
You don’t have to take my word for it. You can find my Common Core Guidebooks here. Just download the samples.
Never trust your curriculum until it passes your test
I have to warn you about one thing: a common trap is thinking that when your curriculum says it’s covering a standard, it is covering it sufficiently for mastery.
“Well, I taught it. So I did my part.”
Not exactly. I’ve been on curriculum adoption committees and talked with a lot of publisher reps. There is some excellent curriculum out there, the kind of curriculum that teachers deserve. But there is also some not-so-excellent curriculum.
Worse, sometimes a district has no curriculum at all for a subject and is relying on a patched together bundle of free teaching materials. That approach is bound to be riddled with gaps.
Good thing they have a dedicated teacher on the case!
If you know your standards in depth, then you will know if your curriculum is measuring up – if it gets to mastery on all standards vs. just covering all standards. If it’s leaving your students unprepared, then you have a few choices:
- Reinforce by using the same lesson but increasing the rigor of the lesson. You can do this by asking students questions that are a Depth-of-Knowledge (DOK) level 3 rather than the publisher’s consistent DOK 1 and 2 questions. (Google Webb's depth of knowledge levels for guidance.)
- Ask students to apply lessons in new, more rigorous real-world contexts.
- Look at what is offered at the next grade level to see if it can supplement and extend learning for your students.
You get the idea. It’s about rigor and covering standards in multiple ways.
Make a commitment to learn
You know how you tell students who ask you how to spell a word, “Use your resources.” Well… if you have questions about how to understand and apply a standard…
“Use your resources!”
You’ll find the answer in short order.