Sarah Brown Wessling, author of "Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core Standards" and the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, said the new standards provide teachers across states "a common language in which to talk about some of the facets of learning that we know are important."
She took an interest in the subject because she realized it affects everything teachers do in the classroom, and she wanted to feel empowered.
"I didn't want to feel like the standards were being done to me," Brown Wessling said. "The only way that I was going to be able to feel like they weren't being done to me was to understand them in such a way I could reconcile the standards with what I know and believe is effective practice in the classroom."
She's a language arts teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. She also coordinates professional development with other teachers for the school district and is teacher laureate for http://www.teachingchannel.org .
Brown Wessling said there's not anything in the standards she wishes weren't there, but said she wishes a few more things were included.
She said it's important for teachers to feel empowered enough to include things that aren't a part of the standards "to make sure we're offering our students a balanced and well-rounded approach to literacy."
Teachers must take the new standards and figure out what to do with them, she said.
"What I think happens when teachers or schools are given a document like this, (they think), 'Oh my goodness, I have to get rid of what I'm doing,'" Brown Wessling said. "The truth is, that's not how we need to look at it. What we need to do is look at this document and look for the places where it overlaps with the quality instruction that's already happening in our classrooms."
Gaps between the new standards and what's already being taught are opportunities for teachers and administrators to talk and collaborate in order to fix them, Brown Wessling said.
The new standards don't replace effective teaching in the classroom, she said.
"Effective teaching is effective teaching," she said. "We have to remember that ... every day, teachers have to make decisions about what's best for their students."
Though some critics have expressed concern that the new standards turn students into a product intended to all come out the same, Brown Wessling said that will only happen if decision-makers in school districts interpret them as "discrete and compartmentalized" assessments, skills and activities.
"That's not the intent" of the new standards, she said. "It's not the spirit of it, actually."
For her, implementing the new standards in the classroom has taken some thought — while the new standards include precise language she uses when designing things like rubrics, she finds that her "teaching brain" can't manage that precise level of detail.
"I can hang onto the big ideas," she said. "In my day-to-day teaching, I'm teaching toward those things. (But) my daily instruction is about the kids. It's always about the kids."
She also understands — and wants others to, as well — that the new standards aren't perfect, and don't have to be.
"I think it's important for us to use the (new standards) as a device for having really important discussions," she said.
This story appeared in print on March 18.