Terri Clarke, a second-grade teacher at Newport Elementary School, works with Kaiden Reid, 7, during a lesson on Thursday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / October 10, 2013)

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The words "Common Core" don't hold special meaning to students in Terri Clarke's second-grade class at Newport Elementary.

Unbeknownst to them, the lessons Clarke is implementing will have a profound effect on the way they are taught for the rest of their time in public schools.

Common Core places an emphasis on big-picture, conceptual understanding and collaborative learning with peers, moving away from rote memorization, proponents say.

"We're passionate about this curriculum," Clarke said. "It's what's best for the students, but it still adheres to the state standards."

Tiffany Lewis, a former Newport Elementary teacher, is on special assignment developing the Common Core curriculum for the district.

While Common Core features 30% fewer standards mandated by the state, those standards are based in learning skills, making the curricula more difficult, she said.

"It's a college and career readiness curriculum that prepares students for the real world," she said.


What is Common Core?

The new standards emphasize real-life applications of classroom material and encourage students to think critically about what they're learning.

Common Core, which was adopted by 45 states, including California, replaces previous federal standards, which opponents say was simply teaching to the test. Along with other districts in the state, Newport-Mesa Unified began developing teachers in Common Core standards last year and started phasing the standards into classrooms this year.

Unlike other districts, Newport-Mesa has involved teachers in the process of creating lessons that adhere to the new standards, Lewis said.

At the elementary level, each grade has a team of six to 10 teachers who design and implement the curriculum in their classes. After the lessons, the teachers meet and discuss what worked and what needs to be improved.

"It's unique that all of this is done by teachers and their utilizing the resources they have," she said. "As a teacher it feels great to be validated. It's invigorating and motivating to be respected and valued."

At this point, students will mostly see changes in their math and English classes. The state is in the process of refining standards for science classes, which will likely take a few years, Lewis said.


Common Core in the classroom

One of the English-Language Arts units Clarke is piloting in her classroom emphasizes writing skills, reading comprehension, critical thinking and public speaking. It also exposes students to handling criticism from their peers.

In the exercise, the students read a book of their choice and write a review, including a short summary, the lesson they took away and how they connect the story to their own lives or an aspect of the larger world.

Clarke played a video of a student reading his report aloud on YouTube to give her students an idea of what was expected. When Clarke asked them what they thought of his speech, several students offered constructive criticism, like "he should slow down when he is talking" or "he gave away too much of the story," statements Clarke calls "growing" comments.