3 Steps to Understanding Your Common Core Math Standard

Whether you’ve been teaching math for three months or three decades, you likely have a few questions about what the Common Core means for you. How are the new standards different from the standards you used to teach? How closely do they align with your current lessons and units? How will your colleagues at higher and lower grade levels be adjusting their instruction, and what does that mean for you? And, perhaps most importantly, what do you need to know about the Common Core’s take on the standard you’re teaching next week?

We have done a lot of work around these questions at LearnZillion, and the following three steps are our recommended best practices for understanding your Common Core Mathematics standard.

LearnZillion's tips on how to understand your Common Core Math standard

Read on for LearnZillion’s best tips on understanding your Common Core Math standard

Step 1. Do standards analysis research

Analysis of Common Core standards can come in many different forms. Assessment is an important one. The Common Core assessment consortia, PARCC and SBAC, have released annotated sample items that show what students who have mastered specific standards are be able to do.

Many other sites also give helpful resources to anchor your planning. Formative assessments and performance tasks from sources like Illustrative Mathematics and Student Achievement Partners can help you set a vision for the end of a unit or lesson. These resources are generally tagged to Common Core standards, including the Standards for Mathematical Practice.

Step 2. Learn from your peers

Remember – you are not alone! Thousands of other teachers across the country are puzzling over the same standard as you, and – whether in your building or online – many are eager to collaborate.

Set aside time with your grade level team, or colleagues from your district. Form a lesson study group. Observe each other in action. Divide the task of interpreting the standards and bounce ideas and questions off each other.

If you’re looking for free examples of lessons by teachers who have studied the standards, LearnZillion.com is a great resource. We offer a growing library of thousands of free math video lessons and resources for grades 2-12 that have been created by our Dream Team of practicing teachers.

Step 3. Understand your lesson in the context of a bigger picture

If a standard seems confusing, you can always take step back to understand how the standard fits in to the broader conceptual developments taking place in your students’ math journey.  The Progressions, created by a team at the University of Arizona, is a concise and well-written guide to the conceptual developments that students experience as they advance in math.  The Progressions are organized into grade bands and Common Core domains, making it easy to see how your standard rests on earlier standards and reinforces later ones.

Ready to get started?

Let us know how it goes!

Check out this inspirational video on how one teacher felt empowered by this research process.

Bill Gates blogs about LearnZillion!

Back to school

We’ve been meaning to post this for a long time but never got around to it. Right after our Dream Team’s lessons went live on the site at the end of August, 2012, Bill Gates blogged about his support for LearnZillion! How cool is that?!  Here is the link if you want to read his original article http://bit.ly/Pu4BYw

The Gates Foundation was instrumental in getting our content up and running. They supported us this summer when we convened the inaugural TeachFest in Atlanta. That was the 3 day kick-off event for all of our Dream Team teachers. For 3 days we took over a hotel in downtown Atlanta and 123 great teachers from around the country celebrated great teaching and instruction. With the help of expert content coaches and each other, they wrestled with the new Common Core State Standards and decided how they wanted to craft their lessons. It was fun, it was inspiring and it was all thanks to the generosity of the Gates Foundation!

If you’re interested in applying for our next Dream Team, please check back in with us in the spring. We’ll have more information on the application at that time!

Live, Laugh, LearnZillion

Rebecca Ritenour has been an educator for 15 years, she is a member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team. Her thoughts were first published July 17, 2013.

After 15 years in the classroom, I realize that I am nearly to the halfway point of my career. At this point, it would be easy to put myself on autopilot. After all, I’ve taught every grade and ability level at my school and accomplished a lot in my career. But that’s not me. I can’t do the autopilot thing. I am constantly looking for ways to improve my own teaching and to gain more knowledge that I can apply in the classroom. It’s that drive that led me to pursue and earn my National Board Certification. It’s that drive that sees me working alongside other English/Language Arts teachers in my state capital every year as we review items that will appear on our state’s standardized literature exams.

So, when I noticed a blurb in a National Board newsletter about LearnZillion and applying to be part of their 2013 “Dream Team”, I thought “Why not?” I had no idea what I was about to experience.

LearnZillion’s purpose is to provide instruction to students all over the world as well as support parents and teachers in the process. Who knew that LearnZillion would actually be teaching ME a thing or two? Here’s what LearnZillion and the Dream Team experience has taught me that I will carry with me into my own classroom this fall.

1. Thinking is hard. Thinking hard is harder. All of it is worthwhile when you have a goal you believe in. When we see a real purpose for what we’re doing, we are much more likely to be engaged, to internalize corrections, to be resilient in the pursuit of the goal, and to be proud of the achievement when we’ve reached the goal.

2. I am not alone. Others are on this journey. That is comforting. Whenever I start to think that I am the only person out there who is experiencing struggle, doubt, or insecurity, it helps to know that there is an entire community out there who understands and can offer support. They, too, know these struggles. It is also awesome to know that when it’s time to celebrate even the smallest victory, that same community is there to cheer me on.

3. Missing the mark is the only way to truly learn and improve. Mistakes are not just an annoying part of life, they are an ESSENTIAL part of the process. They lead us to the next step and the next and the next. They move us towards our goal.

4. Getting the best out of someone takes time. Don’t be satisfied with “good” when “better” or “best” is possible. Don’t expect to arrive at “best” immediately. Be receptive to the guidance of those who have gone before you. Feedback that is offered in a supportive and encouraging way always gets me back on my feet and ready to start again.

5. There will always be bumps in the road. Laugh, learn, and leave them behind. (Note to self: remove the dog’s collar before using Screencastomatic to record lessons. Even when you do, the chipmunk outside will inevitably catch the dog’s attention just as you get to the last slide in your video anyway.)

I don’t quite have time to reflect on all of this fully, but when I do I will have an even better understanding of what my role as a teacher entails because of the Dream Team experience. The classroom that I create this year may very well be the best one I’ve crafted yet and what LearnZillion has LearnZillion has taught me will be an essential part of each and every school day. (Well, except for that dog thing…he has to stay home and protect us from those chipmunks!)

Birthday Traditions at LearnZillion

Birthdays are a big deal in the LearnZillion Office and today – July 30, 2013 – we celebrate Boaz Munro, our Assessment Coordinator. 

Boaz is our Assessment Coordinator. He oversees assessment item development, including quality control, supports teachers in lesson creation, and collaborates with the academic and tech teams to develop long and short term strategic plans. Boaz is a major contributor to www.learnzillion.com, making sure we are always on track for developing content for the site.
boaz bday 2013
Boaz brings to our staff a love of adventure and the fun outdoors. He brings this love and fun to the academic team and helps make sure our site is always catering to the Common Core academic standards. He also creates prototype performance tasks and constructs response items based on Smarter Balanced, PARCC, and other example items.
Fun Facts about Boaz: He is a Pittsburgh native, avid cyclist, and a fluent Arabic speaker!
Our staff marched in with “The Birthday Song”, dancing proudly to our wonderful singing. We entered his office with two huge chocolate cakes, lots of candles, and coffee and vanilla ice cream. (If you don’t know Boaz, then know he loves ice cream and coffee.)

A happy office community is really important to the LearnZillion culture. Happy Birthday Boaz we wish you many more!

Bottlenecks and Bright Spots: Our Founding Story

About the Author: Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.com, first published this article on October 16, 2012.

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” the Heath brothers recommend a strategy called “Bright Spotting.” Instead of analyzing all the reasons why something isn’t working; find examples where something is working, shine a bright light on it, and build from there. That’s what we’re working on at LearnZillion.

“Even as an adult, I’d never understood what was going on with division by fractions. In three minutes, Andrea fixed that problem for me.”

The idea for LearnZillion emerged from work I was doing with a group of teachers as principal at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. I was blessed with a very talented group of teachers. One of those teachers was Andrea Smith, an eight years veteran whose test results indicated that her students were making tremendous gains year after year. Andrea was not what you would expect. Movies like “Stand and Deliver” suggest that such teachers are like mini-rock stars; their relentless charisma captivates students and pulls them into their orbit. Andrea was anti-charismatic. She shied away from some of the teaching techniques that other teachers used to create high energy and engagement, like chants or claps.

Andrea’s outstanding quality was clarity. She had figured out ways to describe and show math concepts that turned something complicated into something simple. For example, what does it mean to divide a number by a fraction? Even as an adult, I’d never understood what was going on with division by fractions. In three minutes, Andrea fixed that problem for me. I happened to sit in on that lesson.

Divide whole numbers by unit fractions  using visual models

At the same time that I was observing teachers like Andrea, I was struggling with a problem at E.L. Haynes. We had become very adept at using data to understand our student’s strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the better the teachers got at analyzing data, the more anxious they became. This surprised me. Our test scores were rising and we were getting better and better at understanding where our students stood. What was going on?

In today’s climate of teacher accountability, it’s easy to assume that the pressures our teachers face are all external. Test scores and evaluations weigh on them. What I came to realize was that the internal pressure was even more powerful. The teachers at E.L. Haynes wanted to do right by their students. They had chosen the teaching profession and chosen to work countless hours outside of the normal school day because they believed every student deserved to get the highest quality education; they believed that every student had a right to have his/her needs met.

The better they got at analyzing the data, the more they understood something heartbreaking. In spite of their talent and hard work, they couldn’t sufficiently meet the needs of all twenty -five students. There wasn’t enough time. They were a bottleneck.

When you watch an amazing teacher like Andrea Smith teach a lesson like dividing by fractions, it’s easy to think whimsically, “I wish I could bottle this.” When the bottleneck problem emerged at Haynes, I began to take this aspiration seriously. What if we captured Andrea’s clarity in a simple way and made it accessible to all teachers and students? What if we put those lessons on a platform that made it easy for teachers to assign them to students (like a playlist) and then check for understanding? And what if we invited other teachers to include their clearest lessons so that teachers had a tool for understanding and teaching every new Common Core standard? Could we get the bottle without the bottleneck?

Thanks to funding through the Next Generation Learning Challenges grant, this is exactly what we are working on at LearnZillion. At a time when it’s common to bemoan the state of our schools, we’re going with the Heath brother’s advice. We are “bright spotting” great teaching. We believe that a tool made by and for teachers has the power to break the bottleneck and help teachers meet the needs of all their students. If you’re not convinced, just ask yourself, “do I really understand what it means to divide by a fraction?” Then watch this link: http://bit.ly/HP4Sfj

Common Core: Challenges and Opportunities

About the Author: Eric Westendorf is co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.  This post was first published on April 8, 2013.
This past week I had the honor of speaking on a panel about the Common Core with Sandra Alberti (Student Achievement Partners), Emily Barton (Tennessee DOE), Kate Gerson (New York State DOE), and John Maycock (Achievement Network).  The panel was about the challenges of implementing the new Common Core State Standards.
We were in universal agreement that implementing the Common Core is hard work.  These standards are not only new, they are really challenging.  Student mastery isn’t about getting the right answer anymore; it’s about showing that you understand the key concepts and that you can apply them in new, creative ways.
The biggest concern that surfaced was cynicism.  In Tennessee there are some teachers who have already been through 8 changes of standards since the start of their careers.  Can you imagine?  Eight times they’ve been told that they’re shooting for a different target.  How could you not be cynical about the Common Core when you’ve been through eight changes already, most of which probably didn’t have an impact on what happened in your classroom.
We also talked about the “I’m already doing it” phenomena.  Is it better to hear, “What’s the Common Core? I’ve never heard of it,”  or “We’ve already made the shift to the Common Core”?  We all chose the former.  The Common Core does require big changes in practice; it’s hard to make those big changes when you claim the status quo represents the change.
At the end of the day, this all comes down to ownership.  If the Common Core is something that is done unto schools and classrooms, it won’t work.  Everyone will say, “I’m doing it” but in fact they will be doing what they’ve always done.  This is where I think there’s a big opportunity.  If teachers are invited to make these standards their own, then something really exciting can happen.
Last summer, on the last day of TeachFest, one of our Dream Team teachers took the microphone.  He said that when he’d arrived at TeachFest he’d been suspicious.  “I saw things on the website that I didn’t like,” he said.  “References to charter schools and Teach for America.  Things that make my blood boil.”  He paused.  “But after rolling up my sleeves and working with my team on the Common Core standards, I realize now that we’ve been having all the wrong conversations.  Instead of getting distracted, this is what we should be talking about.  This is the important work – figuring out how to teach our kids better.”
If we can find a way to harness the passion and possibility of which this teacher spoke; if we can figure out how to make it possible for teachers to share and own the implementation of the Common Core State Standards; if we can make implementation something that is both hard AND inspiring, then the Common Core State Standards will be more much more than the 9th change those teachers in Tennessee have experienced.

Limitless Imagination


Nicole Roscoe is a Summer Intern at LearnZillion, focusing on education policy and market research.

Maybe I’m too mesmerized by the spunk and confidence displayed by the 12-year-old Adora Svitak, but I think she offers a really important message. Adora’s TEDTalk about the limitless imagination of youth reminded me of the hours I spent sketching designs for my dream camping tent and my fourth grade collection of poems that I added to every day after school.

(What memories of childhood projects did it stir for you?)

Without the inhibitions created by understanding realistic constraints, a child’s mind is able to develop thoughts that our adult brains would find difficult to entertain, let alone think of ourselves. This power to think without boundaries is the quintessential factor for innovation and great ideas. While these young minds are hungry for new knowledge and skills (building vocabulary, dividing with remainders, sight-reading music), they also offer a wealth of knowledge for those willing to listen. We all understand that you are never too old to learn; our next step is to understand that you are never too young to teach.

Watch Adora’s TedTalk at http://www.ted.com/talks/adora_svitak.html

Continuing Education Generation

Rachelle Wooten is a member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team and recently celebrated her 40th birthday. She first shared this insight with us on July 29, 2013.

It’s amazing the amount of reflection I have done as I approached my 40th birthday! Most of which revolved around where I am and where I want to be both personally and professionally.  See, I am the kind of educator that sets new goals for growth every year and I seek out opportunities to grow personally and professionally.  Recently, I read an online article “The Rising Ed-Tech Expectations of the Continuing Education Generation” by Calvin Hennick that stated, “members of Generation X are now midcareer professionals who pursue lifelong learning opportunities at impressive rates” and it resonated with me.

As a member of this “continuing-education generation”, I believe it truly exemplifies me! After all, it was this pursuit that led me to apply for the Learn Zillion 2013 Dream Team.  This same pursuit drives me to dig deeper into the content since I am not as strong in reading as I am in writing.  It’s also the reason I chase research, articles, and resources that help me explore and understand the Common Core standards, even if my home state of Texas has not adopted them. Most importantly, though, this commitment to lifelong learning will remain my life’s pursuit to scale my impact!

The Importance of Collaboration

Jessica Pitts is a middle school English language arts teacher from Little Rock, AR and a member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team. This post was first published May 24, 2013.

I have recently had the opportunity to be in the presence of some really great educators working on amazing things. I was able to attend the LearnZillon TeachFest in San Francisco and an Achieving By Changing Curriculum Huddle with the APSRC (Arkansas Public School Resource Center) in my home state. Attending both of these conferences was so inspiring and motivating because it gave me the opportunity to be a part of a larger community of educators with the sole purpose of improving student learning.
It has been so great to meet people in my home state of Arkansas that had the same need and want for a community of passionate teachers that I found at TeachFest. All of the teachers that I met were excited to hear about my experience with LearnZillion. I found myself repeatedly saying, “It was one of the best weekends of my life.” I explained to everyone that the best part was meeting so many intelligent, creative, and most of all, passionate teachers! Before attending TeachFest, I was nervous that I would feel inferior because I am only a third year teacher, but everyone I met was so welcoming and willing to share their knowledge. Through hard work and collaboration, we all became a community by the Saturday night dance party. I will never forget dancing to “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Living on a Prayer” on a tiny dance floor with 200 other teachers. That moment was definitely a perfect moment for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how we were all working towards the same goal, and as long as we helped each other and refused to give up, we would all succeed.

One comment from my time at the Achieving By Change Huddle that stood out to me was from a teacher who has been teaching for a while. She said, “I didn’t know that teachers did this!” She was referring to working together to build the best units and lesson plans we can for our students. In that moment, I realized how fortunate I was to have attended these two conferences in the same week. Collaboration is what teachers need so desperately. We need to feel like we are a part of the solution. Just as we have found through research that our students need to be given the space to create, so do teachers, and we create better as a team.
All of these experiences have helped me to realize that we are experiencing a really great shift in education. We are building a community of educators with the overall purpose of being the best we can for our students! I am so happy and grateful to be a part of education right now, and I can’t wait to see the results that we produce as a community of educators.

What Teachers Can Learn from Caine’s Arcade

Leigh Pourciau is a middle school creative writing and English language arts teacher from Jackson, Mississippi and member of the 2013 LearnZillion Dream Team.  This post was first published on May 28, 2013.
I recently participated in a well-earned standing ovation given by 200 teachers. The recipient of this applause was not a CEO, a principal, or a six-figure-earning educational consultant, but a ten-year-old boy – the son of an auto mechanic from east LA. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Caine Monroy? If not, stop everything and watch Nirvan Mullick’s short film about his cardboard arcade before proceeding.

Caine's Arcade - educators cheer

Educators cheer for Caine and Nirvan

Back to that standing O. I was sitting among 200 other educators at LearnZillion‘s TeachFest. When the company’s co-founder Eric Westendorf opened the morning session by showing this film, laughter and sniffles spread throughout the room. We teachers were struck by the seemingly simple truths Caine’s story revealed about how we learn. We learn when we are self-motivated. We learn when we are doing something we love. In awe of Caine, we sat quietly as the lights in the hotel ballroom flickered back on.

Eric took the stage and announced that we had two guest speakers – Caine and Nirvan, in the flesh! Inspired by their shared creativity and what they had accomplished by pursuing their passions, all 200 of us rocketed out of our seats and began clapping. In that moment, I realized how strange it was that this was the first education conference I’d attended whose featured guest was a child, not an adult. Who better to teach teachers?
In the following Q&A session, Caine answered our questions much like any other adolescent boy might.

“How have you changed since this experience?’

– “I’m taller.”

“What’s next for you?”

– “Sixth grade.”

“Will you hire me?”

– “Yep.”

Until one teacher asked, “What is the best thing your father ever did for you to encourage your success?”

Caine paused, staring at the microphone and all four hundred eyes, and then simply said, “He gave me space.”

That’s it. He gave him space.

And that’s when I felt very conflicted. Am I consistently giving my students the space to explore their own interests? Am I engaging their natural ability to ask questions and seek answers? Am I making my job harder by giving them too much structure? Too many limits? What am I sacrificing by letting my learning style and interests take center stage in the classroom instead of theirs?

This was a very untimely epiphany as my plane back home landed right in time for standardized test prep. I had planned for students to do the same old prep packets – even though I’ve been long convinced that a demon gets its horns every time we bubble in a multiple-choice answer.

Instead, in a fog of jetlag, I dumped a bunch of supplies in the middle of the classroom and asked them two questions: “What type of question from the test scares you the most?” and “How can you create a board game that takes the sting out of that standard?”

Then I stepped back and gave them space. And they delivered. Homemade spinners were built, verbal Twister was born, and a satirical game of Life was hatched where bad grammar landed you in dead-end jobs. We laughed and sustained paper cuts and didn’t bubble in any little circles, but they still learned all there is to learn about tools of persuasion, complex sentences, and much more.

And I learned to listen to Caine and give them space.