New techniques get kids thinking critically

Teachers are using holiday projects to prepare students for new academic standards.

December 13, 2013|By Bryce Alderton
  • Shannon Velotta teaches a class of third-graders at El Morro Elementary School in Laguna Beach on Tuesday.
Shannon Velotta teaches a class of third-graders at El… (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline…)

Even a letter to Santa can benefit from a dose of persuasion.

Earlier this week, students in Shannon Velotta's third-grade class at El Morro Elementary School went step-by-step in a writing exercise designed to wriggle their brains to produce thoughtful prose.

Velotta asked students to persuade Santa why they are the best animal for a certain job, such as pulling a sleigh, or placing presents under a tree.

Teachers throughout Laguna Beach Unified School District and the state are rolling out retooled lesson plans to prepare students for new testing standards, called Common Core, that will become official in the 2014-15 school year.

The standards are designed to fuel kids' critical-thinking skills while relying on more nonfiction texts to make a claim or argument.


"Do you think it would be important to tell Santa what type of animal you are?" Velotta, who has taught at El Morro for eight years, asked her students.

After class, Velotta explained the difference in how she structured the assignment from a year ago.

"Last year, it was more of a narrative. The kids didn't have a strong argumentative voice," Velotta said. "My big thing is supporting a claim, to go back in the book and use examples to support [an argument]."

Students in El Morro kindergarten teacher Tami Mays' class aren't writing reports, but they journal.

"The biggest change is bringing in more writing," said Mays, who has taught at El Morro for four years. "The more they write, the better they'll be at reading."

Mays's students will write about penguins when they return from winter break, she said.

They'll focus on nonfiction characteristics, such as habitat, and pull in fictional stories about the animals, according to Mays.

One advantage of Common Core is combining, to a degree, various disciplines, which Velotta did with English and science in the letters to Santa.

"They argued which animal is best for the job, which integrates with science since we're talking about adaptation and how different animals adapt to their environment," Velotta said.

Velotta is creating a writing workshop where students brainstorm, write a rough draft, edit and compose a final version.

Velotta's students focus on three styles of writing; narrative, persuasive and informational, she said.

Mays disagrees with critics who argue that Common Core dumbs down standards.

"It give teachers more freedom and power to teach the right way — fostering creativity and engagement," she said.

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