In one of the most dramatic changes to ever happen to education in our country, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have become a reality in 46 states. California adopted CCSS in 2010, replacing inadequate standards from the 1990s that focused on testing outcomes and rote memorization. While the new standards offer clear goals for student achievement, they do not define a pathway for implementation—but Benicia teachers are leading the way.     

As an educator for more than 25 years, Marie Morgan, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services for Benicia Unified School District (BUSD), who has a background in teaching literacy, is passionate about the new standards. “If students can read and make meaning out of text, we have set them up for success in their lives. For me, that directly correlates with Common Core standards that are based in creating depth and complexity with real-world application. It’s a whole new level of literacy.”
Teachers are no longer “the sage on stage,” but rather facilitators for learning in the classroom. And real world application is taking many forms. Nicci Nunes, science teacher at Liberty High School, has built an innovative science lab, or “makerspace,” that allows students to design and build their inventions with futuristic tools like a 3D printer and wearable technology. This year, ECH2O Academy, led by Josh Bradley at Benicia High School, will train students to design and build their own solar powered rain collection system in collaboration with professional engineers. Andrea Jenest’s oceanography students are building SeaPerch underwater remotely operated vehicles in partnership with California Maritime Academy architects and engineers. The common threads through these “real world” scenarios are the 3Cs of Common Core: critical thinking, communication and collaboration, all with the goal to prepare students for success in college and career in the 21st century.

Instruction is new for elementary levels too, and our K-5 teachers are among the most innovative.  Brandy Shelton, 5th grade teacher at Matthew Turner, uses Kidblog as a fertile learning ground. “Kidblog is an instantaneous way to see work published, and a jumping off point for digital citizenship,” she says. “They learn that once they put it out there, they can’t take it back.” In order to put their best foot forward students have learned to review, edit and revise their work before publishing. Students write about their field trips, compose letters to their grandmothers or explore poetry among other topics, then share feedback through the blog technology. Shelton also uses Twitter, blendspace, Google Draw and other resources to transcend the walls of the classroom. “My students realize that they are not just working on an assignment, it’s an opportunity to have their voices heard,” says Shelton.
While teachers are the driving wheel for Common Core, technology is the engine. With the fundraising support from the Benicia Education Foundation, parent-teacher groups and other sources, more than 500 digital devices were purchased last year with the goal of creating access to 21st century technology for all students and teachers. “With the right technology we can level the playing field in 22 seconds,” says Morgan. “I can bring Lindsay Wildlife Museum right into the classroom, and every class can take a field trip together to China.”   
Ruben Fernandez, Supervisor of Information and Educational Technology for BUSD, says his department was once geared to support administration, but now they are focused primarily on education services.  A current challenge is to bridge the gap between digital natives (K-12 students) and digital immigrants (everyone over 20). “Our job is to facilitate ease of use, to make technology just another tool like using a white board or a pencil. It needs to be as easy for teachers as taking a cap off a pen.”

One of the most exciting leaps into the digital era for Benicia schools is the new Active Learning Space: 21st Century Lab at BHS that will be used as a model and meeting space for innovative thinking and instruction throughout the district. The Lab, funded by the Syar Foundation, embodies the 3C’s of Common Core and creates a global learning experience through video conferencing, interactive white boards and flexible furniture for an adaptable space.

Shelton sums up the shifts in pedagogy well: “CCSS is tapping into the fact that we process information very differently, students are changing, the world is changing and we are preparing them for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet.”

b-Cubed is a collaboration between Benicia Unified School District, Benicia Education Foundation and Benicia businesses to support innovative classroom projects like those described in the story.