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Dream Team of teachers dreams up lessons for new school standards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 17, 2013 - Math teachers Carol DeFreese and Luis Actis have spent part of their summer trying to make sure that the phrase “word problems” doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of future students.

The two are part of an elite group of teachers recruited to write lesson plans to help students master the skills included in the common core standards. They spent a few days in San Francisco to train for the LearnZillion Dream Team. Then they began writing lesson plans to make sure that the concepts the new standards are designed to get across can be translated into solid classroom experiences.

The whole idea, DeFreese says, is to make sure students can take the math they learn in the classroom and use it outside of school – and why it works.

“The way that math instruction has been described in this country is that it’s a mile wide and an inch deep,” said DeFreese, who teaches math and computer programming at Fort Zumwalt West High School. “We teach a lot of things, but we don’t teach them to a lot of depth.

“To teach to greater depth, you need a lot of things. You need fluency, so you can really be able to master what you are learning, and you also need more conceptual learning instead of procedural leaning. It’s not just knowing how to do something mathematically. You need to know how it works.”

Adds Actis, who teaches at Nipher Middle School in the Kirkwood district:

“The focus is not necessarily about skills. It’s about problem solving. In that sense, when I’m looking at prototype question for the new common core tests, there is a lot more emphasis around word problems and scenario-based situations.

“They’re not isolated bubbles. You have to apply your skills to solve things in a real world context. A lot of them are multi-step situations. You don’t focus so much on memorizing things.”

LearnZillion was started by two educators who wanted to give teachers a head start as they prepared to instruct students according to the Common Core State Standards, a set of expectations adopted by states nationwide, including Missouri and Illinois. They are designed to provide a clear picture of what students are expected to learn and what teachers are expected to teach, though the specific lessons and textbooks are still decided at the local level.

The site says 100,000 teachers and 1.5 million students have signed up for free access to the information it contains.

Where do LearnZillion and the teachers it recruited for its dream team come in? Teachers like Actis and DeFreese were assigned to come up with lesson plans for specific parts of the standards that could be put on video, then posted on the LearnZillion website so teachers anywhere could have a cache of material to draw from.

Dream Team members -- about 200 educators from more than 3,000 who applied -- spent four days at TeachFest in San Francisco, learning more about the concept from experts in the common core, then came home to devise their lessons that could translate the concepts into techniques that can be used in the classroom.

“One of the most challenging parts of it,” said DeFreese,” is that you have to break that standard down into lessons that are no more than five minutes each when they are put on video. You have to break the ideas down into small enough pieces that build on each other, so by the time you get to the last lesson in the standards, all of those lessons will teach the standard conceptually.”

Sharpen your pencils

What kinds of skills will students be tested on?

To get an idea of how the concepts will translate to exam questions that students might face, look at these questions developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a state-led group that is developing tests to gauge how well students have learned the concepts that the common core standards are designed to teach.

Third-grade math students might be asked questions like the following. Answers are at the bottom of the page.

A pencil has a mass of 25 grams. An apple has a mass that is 75 grams more than the pencil.

What is the mass of the apple?


Nicky has 4 packs of pencils. Each pack contains 15 pencils. In each pack, 5 pencils are blue and the rest green.

Create a bar graph to show how many of each color pencil Nicky has.

Tired of pencils? Try this one:

Jen has 5 stacks of quarters. Lee has 9  stacks of quarters. Each stack of quarters is worth $10.

How much more money, in dollars, does Lee have than Jen?

By 11th grade, math students might be asked to solve this kind of question, one that they might well face at an airport counter one day:

A car rental company charges customers an initial charge plus a daily charge to rent cars. The initial charge is $30 and the daily charge is $25.

The rental company charged Jacob $180.

Create an equation that can be used to find the number of days, x, Jacob rented the car.

The tests also have questions about language skills. In third grade, it could be this:

A student has written an informational report about teeth for class. Read this paragraph from the report. Then, answer the question that follows.

“Incisors are your front teeth. They are good for cutting and chopping food. Canines are the pointy teeth next to the incisors. They are good for tearing food. Premolars and molars are your back teeth. They are good for grinding up food.”

The student needs to fix the paragraph by adding an opening sentence that gives the main idea of the paragraph. Which sentence would best begin this paragraph?

  • There are four types of teeth in your mouth.
  • It is a good idea to visit the dentist regularly.
  • Eating healthy foods helps build strong teeth.
  • It is important to brush your teeth at least twice a day.

By 11th grade, the questions are more sophisticated. For example, you might be asked to read a passage about public art, then be faced with this assignment:

Your local city council is voting on whether to use city funds to pay for a sculpture to be created and placed in the town center. Today you will write a multi-paragraph argumentative letter that will be presented to the city council that argues either in support of or in opposition to the city government-funded sculpture. Make sure to address potential counterarguments in your letter and support your view with information from the sources you have examined.

Argumentative Scoring

Your letter will be scored using the following:

  1. Statement of claim and organization: How well did you state your claim, address opposing claims, and maintain your claim with a logical progression of ideas from beginning to end? How well did your ideas thoughtfully flow from beginning to end using effective transitions? How effective was your introduction and your conclusion?
  2. Elaboration/evidence: How well did you integrate relevant and specific information from the sources? How well did you elaborate your ideas? How well did you clearly state ideas using precise language that is appropriate for your audience and purpose?
  3. Conventions: How well did you follow the rules of grammar usage, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling?

Fear of fractions

How will the work done by the Dream Team help students solve such questions? DeFreese says the key is teaching a way to learn, not just the approach to solving specific problems. To illustrate, she uses a common stumbling block in math classes everywhere.

“If you ask any math teacher what’s the one thing you wish your students could do better,” DeFreese says, “the first word out of their mouth is fractions. It doesn’t matter if it’s a calculus teacher or a fourth-grade teacher. If you are going to teach fractions procedurally, you are just going to teach the how. If it’s conceptual learning, it’s more of a why approach. Why do we need a common denominator when we add fractions?

“You might have more of an emphasis on a visual model, so they can see what is going on. Those of us who are older think of word problems, but it’s really more about helping kids function in the real world when they’re adults. Employers have been telling us for years they try to hire people when they come out of school, but they can’t apply their basic math skills to what they need to do on the job.”

The LearnZillion videos, Actis says, will take that approach and make it more accessible to a wider audience.

“If you look up any content for any math lesson,” he said, “you can find thousands of videos online that will tell you here is how you should do this. But I haven’t really found any that go into concepts, about why things are the way they are. That’s where the approach is different. This is the kind of things that can be used for many years.”

And, DeFreese adds, being involved in drawing up lesson plans helps math teachers increase their reach exponentially.

“What you’re contributing and what you’re creating is going to be used by other teachers,” she said. “If you can teach a teacher how to teach something, it’s the greatest experience in the world. The number of students you reach in the end goes far beyond your own classroom when you’re able to contribute to something like this.”

(Here are the answers to the test questions:

1) Apple is 100 grams

2) Bar graph shows 40 green and 20 blue pencils 3)

3) $40 (90-50)

4) x = (180-30)/25 (6 days)

5) There are four kinds of teeth.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.