NEA Master Teacher Says Building Blocks Are Not Only for Kindergarteners

When kindergarten teacher Dawn Gunn’s students’ small, nimble hands manipulate wooden blocks to construct towers and staircases, she recognizes that they are grasping more than toys. Rather the Phoenix, Ariz. educator—who is also a National Board Certified Teacher and a National Education Association (NEA) Master Teacher—knows that these young students are actually holding building blocks to a lifetime of math proficiency.

Gunn’s math lessons for kindergarteners are not only hands-on, but are also aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and, thanks to Gunn’s participation in the NEA Master Teacher Program, available online at

To be sure, building blocks play an important role in our educational system beyond teaching kindergarteners. The goal of CCSS is to use sequential learning as a way to develop deeper critical thinking and problem-solving skills among U.S. school children. However, exactly how to meet these Common Core objectives has proved to be a vexing question for teachers in many parts of the country. According to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, the answer to this challenge is in the hands, and lesson plans, of America’s NEA-represented teachers.

“In far too many states, CCSS implementation has been botched. Seven of ten teachers believe that implementation of the standards is going poorly in their schools. Two-thirds of all teachers report that they have not even been asked how to implement these new standards in their classrooms,” explains Van Roekel. “For CCSS to be successful—for education to improve in the U.S.—teachers must be front and center. That’s the mission of the NEA and what is behind several of our new initiatives, including the NEA Master Teacher-BetterLesson joint effort.” The NEA also recently announced plans to invest $60 million in state and local initiatives to improve student success and strengthen the teaching profession.

Dawn Gunn

As a part of the NEA Master Teacher Program, Gunn and 89 other NEA-represented teachers are sharing their CCSS-aligned lessons with educators from across the country. Putting the expertise and creativity of NEA Master Teachers on a national showcase is the job of BetterLesson, the leading education and technology organization known for providing teacher-created resources to the online education community. The unique partnership between the NEA Master Teacher Program and BetterLesson tackles the issue of the lack of CCSS-aligned curricula and also puts control of the classroom squarely in the hands of teachers.

While some teachers may still be skeptical of the Common Core standards and confused about how to implement them, Gunn is in full support of both.

“I believe in what the NEA is trying to accomplish with this program. When it comes to the Common Core-aligned lessons, teachers need both quality and quantity. They also need to have easy access to these lessons; you simply can’t reinvent the wheel all the time,” says Gunn. She adds, “Another important point of this project is that teachers need to be empowered. Classroom teachers, not politicians or administrators, need to be involved in transforming the classroom. After all, a doctor wouldn’t ask a plumber to diagnose a patient.”

The lessons shared by NEA’s Master Teachers, offered through an open platform, set themselves apart from other online lessons in that they offer a narrative explaining the “how” and “why” of a lesson; use a video to show the lesson from start to finish; provide reflections from the Master Teacher; and include student examples. Each lesson also includes a list of lesson resources. In other words, according to Gunn, “You can see, hear, and feel the lesson. The site is remarkable and powerful. With so many lessons that reflect different perspectives and philosophies, there truly is something for everyone. I think every teacher can benefit from the NEA Master Teacher-BetterLesson site, especially teachers who are anxious about meeting Common Core objectives.”

Gunn, who is passionate about helping teachers grow professionally, suggests that teachers who are struggling with CCSS ask themselves specific questions before planning a lesson.

“Always start with the standard, and ask ‘What is the end goal?’  After looking over the standard, break it down. Focus on building blocks,” advises Gunn. “We rob students when we don’t give them a deep conceptual understanding of a subject. That’s why the site is so important: it gives teachers a full-range of lessons for free.”

No doubt, some debates about CCSS are getting hotter than a sidewalk on a summer day in Arizona, but this teacher from Phoenix hopes that a teacher-centered approach to CCSS implementation will temper the climate so that real gains are made in classrooms across the country.