This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBAbuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

Nov. 2

In case you haven't heard, there are big changes coming to your child's classroom in the next two years.

Just when everyone was used to STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) assessments that cover hundreds of curriculum standards in math and English language arts, the state jumped on a nationwide bandwagon to implement standards and tests that will be consistent from one state to another.

Called Common Core Standards, the new curriculum requirements are being eagerly embraced by many educators who say they are the answer to complaints they had with No Child Left Behind.

Instead of whizzing through numerous lessons at breakneck speed without delving into any deeply, educators will soon be freed to slow down and encourage high-level discussions with their students about what they are learning. This is exciting to some, but scary to others who aren't sure how this will change the way they teach.

To help educators sort all of this out, the Contra Costa County Office of Education hosted a two-day Common Core State Standards Summit this week. About 400 people attended, including many eager for information and a few dozen presenters who shared their early attempts at easing into the new standards.

"The shifts and issues associated with transition and implementation of the Common Core Standards are intertwined with all areas of instruction and assessment," County Superintendent Joe Ovick wrote in his program introduction. "Implemented well, they give teachers the opportunity to reclaim their creativity in the classroom while strengthening the learning process and increasing outcomes for students."

The key part of that sentence is "implemented well." And that's the part teachers are struggling to accomplish.

Many experts came to their rescue, delivering presentations about how to implement the math standards, assessing literacy and designing lessons for the standards, facilitating close reading of complex texts, using creativity to engage learners, and effective teaching strategies.

Presenters also included several educators and administrators from local districts who talked about what they're doing to prepare teachers for the dramatic changes to come.

A Lafayette assistant superintendent, math coach and two literacy coaches shared lessons they've learned while implementing the new standards, along with challenges they've faced. In a similar session, administrators from the Castro Valley, Pittsburg, San Ramon Valley and West Contra Costa districts discussed the first steps they've taken to introduce the standards to teachers.

And some presentations dug deeper. A San Ramon Valley teacher and a reading specialist discussed ways to guide fourth- and fifth-graders to write like researchers and essayists, in a talk focused on "argument writing." In another, a curriculum coordinator from San Ramon Valley showed teachers how to use texts to build students' inquiry and critical thinking skills by exposing them to multiple perspectives.

A Mt. Diablo district principal shared strategies for ensuring that English learners will be able to comprehend complex texts and read, write and research history, science and technical subjects.

I sat in on a presentation by Audrey Lee, director of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology for the Martinez district. Educators there are already adapting their teaching to the new requirements in five ways, she said.

These are: reading more nonfiction texts; teaching academic vocabulary (such as "deduce" or "hyperbole"); increasing expository writing in all subject areas; using technology to connect, collaborate, research, explore, synthesize, and present information; and asking open-ended questions, such as "Why do you think that?"

Lee laid out the challenge to districts, as they try to build buy-in, with this quote from author Lucy Calkins: "You can view the standards as a curmudgeon or as if they are gold."

"I hope," Lee said, "that you will look on these standards as if they are gold."

Do you think Common Core Standards will help California's students?