Times are changing, and classrooms are changing along with them.
For this year's start of the eighth-grade math class Evan Borkowski teaches at Algonquin Middle School, he arranged students' desks in seven clusters so they are always ready to discuss topics as groups. Lesson plans are different -- much more conversation and problem-solving, with the focus more on the process than the answer.
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English language arts
Read more nonfiction in all their classes
Read more complex texts
Use evidence to support their arguments in writing
Increase their academic vocabularies
Spend more time on fewer concepts
Understand why the math works
Apply math in real world situations
Build on the previous year's learning
Borkowski told his students on day one, this past Wednesday, that their idea of a traditional math class is no more.
"There are going to be more struggles, maybe," Borkowski said. "But out of the struggles come opportunities to learn."
This is the first year Borkowski and his fellow math teachers in Community Unit District 300, which includes Carpentersville, East and West Dundee and Hampshire, will tailor their curriculum to the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. The state board of education adopted the standards in 2010 along with benchmarks for English Language Arts, asking districts to be ready to implement them by the 2013-14 school year.
Students in grades three through seven taking the state's ISAT exam next spring will find questions tied to the more rigorous standards before an entirely new test debuts in 2015, assessing how well students are progressing to college and career readiness based on the standards outlined in the Common Core. Science standards could be approved by the state by the end of the year.
Borkowski is one of the many teachers heartened by the latest initiative in education. He speaks excitedly about the opportunity to work with a generation of students taught to truly understand concepts instead of just memorizing them.
"I feel my job is to build critical thinkers who aren't scared to solve problems," Borkowski said.
The Common Core State Standards began as a state-led initiative, crafted by education leaders and experts from 48 states, two territories and Washington, D.C. So far the standards have been adopted by 45 states, four territories and the capitol.
While there have been accusations that the standards are a national curriculum and an overreach by the federal government, its creators say the standards define what should be taught, not how it should be taught.
And while the federal government has tied education funding to adoption of the standards, it had nothing to do with writing the standards themselves.
Teachers have maintained control of their own classrooms, but their students are now expected to end the year with mastery of the same concepts as students in every other school across the country.
Elgin Teachers Association President Kathy Castle said the assumption that the shift to the Common Core is a huge change is wrong.
"The teachers in (Elgin Area School District) U-46 have always based their instruction on standards," Castle said. "In that sense, it's not a change. Some of the standards are very close to the instructional practice that was already going on in some of our classrooms."
The Illinois State Board of Education already was in the process of reviewing and updating state standards when it joined the Common Core consortium, according to Mary Fergus, ISBE spokeswoman.
The previous standards hadn't been updated since 1997.
Educational best practices from all corners of the United States made their way into the Common Core, as did the most applicable standards culled from countries like Finland, known across the globe for its successful education system.
Many districts began reviewing their curricula in 2011 and 2012 to gauge alignment with Common Core. Professional development workshops and curriculum meetings ramped up during the last school year. And work is expected to continue as the shift to higher standards makes its way to the classroom.
Theresa Busch, assistant superintendent of curriculum at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said one key challenge to implementing a curriculum based on the new standards is achieving the depth they require.
Busch said the curriculum of past years is "a mile wide and an inch deep," giving students surface knowledge over a wide range of topics instead of in-depth understanding of fewer topics.
The new standards don't leave time for milewide curricula. Educators are still adapting, but Busch said they're being told to scrap lessons that don't directly apply to the learning standards.
"It's about teaching what's important as opposed to teaching what you want to teach," Busch said. "That's the shift for us."
In her eighth year of classroom experience, Mundelein kindergarten teacher Julie Silverberg returned to classes at Washington Elementary School last week to implement the new math standards for the first time.
Teachers of kindergarten and first and second grades started teaching to the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts last year.
Silverberg's lesson changes have meant she needs to be more creative in giving her students time to play. The goal, she said, is to fit play into the Common Core.
In a lesson about community when Silverberg leads a discussion about food, for example, she said she'll set up play food stations and connect the kids' discussion back to the standards. It's structured play.
"It's more intense, but I think in the end it really will benefit the students," Silverberg said. "And that's why we're here."