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5th grade math. Photo: Sarah Harris
5th grade math. Photo: Sarah Harris

Inside school: navigating Common Core

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Common Core has become a lightning rod for dissatisfaction with educational policy. New York's Education Commissioner John King has been shouted down at public forums accompanying the roll out of the new federal standards in state schools this fall.

For teachers, Common Core isn't just a talking point. They have to find place for the new standards and recommended curriculum in their classrooms.
At Canton Central School, teachers are trying to figure out what Common Core means for them and their students.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Under the Common Core, teaching long division is a little different. 5th grade teacher Paula Jones is teaching kids to round the numbers, cross of zeros, and estimate the answer.

"How do I find my dividend when I’m estimating?" she asks the class. "Does 2 go into 8 basic fact? Yes. So you can keep it at what, 8000."

Kids will still learn the old-style long division. But this method reinforces their knowledge of basic multiplication tables. And there are several possible answers to each question.

After the lesson, the kids get problem sets that they work on by themselves. I lean over Trey Bessette’s desk. He explains how to divide 9155 by 34.

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"Well 34 rounds to 30, and a factor of 9155 rounded would be 9000, and 3 divided by 9 is 3, and I got 300."

Trey may have mixed up a couple numbers at the end there, but he gets it.

Jones says her students are becoming better mathematicians. But her job has gotten harder. The state doesn’t provide answer keys for the homework, so teachers have to make the keys themselves. And sometimes, the answers they do provide are wrong.  

"We find errors on the problem sets since we’ve been doing the modules too. Sometimes in our team meetings we’ll say oh this one answer maybe they’ve crossed out another zero or maybe not added a zero," Jones explained. 

At Canton Central School, teachers from first to 8th grade are deep in Common Core modules (the high school roll-out is a little slower).  

Viola Schmidt-Doyle is the middle school principal. She says the standards themselves are good.  It’s implementing them that’s the trouble.

"The problem with the roll-out as a policy initiative I think has been that it’s been really too much, too quickly, with not enough support in terms of time and resources and that’s where there’s a lot of legitimate criticisms," she said. 

Schmidt-Doyal says she’s impressed by how teachers at Canton Central School are working hard to figure it out.

But it’s not an easy transition.

"I’ve seen a lot of people just frustrated and grappling — some of it doesn’t reflect the developmental reality of kids so I’ve seen  teachers grapple with that – I’ve seen the issue of wait a second, somebody’s telling me how to teach, so trying to walk a line of how do we maintain a high standard for our students and make sure they learn the skills, and how do you maintain creativity though, in applying it, has been a challenge."

And changing the curriculum costs money. The modules are free and available online. 

But "at every single level, there are new central texts, in terms of outside reading each grade level has hundreds of books that are recommended," Schmidt-Doyle said. "We don’t have money in our libraries to build up that library collection or build up classroom sets of things. This summer when it came to text book ordering time we had to make some decisions – yes this, not that."

That same afternoon, the fifth grade teachers are meeting with BOCES literacy specialist Trina Griswold.

"There’s this set of curricular objectives you have to reach, and this set of students, and somewhere you need to bring them together, "Grisold says. "And I think that’s what you guys are really masters at doing."

The 5th graders have just finished reading a book called Esperanza Rising.

Griswold asks why the teachers skipped a particular part of the module.

"And my first reaction is 'why not'? And then I’m thinking, well explain that to me!"

Teacher Beverly Snyder replies that while kids really liked the book, the teachers didn’t want to drag it on and have the students lose interest.

"What we decided as a team was to end it on a high note. They loved the book, they loved the activities, we’re doing things like making yarn dolls and having a little fiesta to end it by Thanksgiving."

Snyder says the Common Core has some good ideas. But there’s too much material. She has to sift through it, and worries that the state won’t test the kids on what she’s taught.

"This Common Core is like an airplane that we’re flying, but while the airplane is still in the air, we’re trying to build it. 

For Canton Central School, it’s a matter of keeping everything in the air.

 

 

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