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Common Core isn't working for everyone, including (according to her parents) six- year-old Maddie. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Hansen
Common Core isn't working for everyone, including (according to her parents) six- year-old Maddie. Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Hansen

Common Core: looking for alternatives

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Common Core is making its way into classrooms across New York state. The new standards and curriculum emphasize conceptual learning and critical thinking. But that approach doesn't work for all students.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

Jenny Hansen and her husband, Alex Schrieber, are both professors at St. Lawrence University.

Their 6-year-old daughter, Maddie, is active, artistic, and curious. She likes drawing and hockey. But since last year, Maddie stopped wanting to go to school. 

And her parents didn’t really know what to do.

"She was just not enjoying school. She was not enjoying learning. She wasn’t enjoying any part of it – reading, art, it was just something she wanted to avoid," Jenny said. 

"I was getting messages that she was behind grade level in reading, and she didn’t know the actual day, the number of the day of the week, so I started getting worried about what it meant, and then we started getting her homework."

Under Common Core, math homework starts early. The idea is to teach math concepts and build critical thinking skills.  

Common Core uses a different vocabulary than older methods of teaching.

For parents, who haven’t been exposed to the new language, it can be confusing.

and Alex and Jenny, both of whom have PhDs, found Maddie’s math homework incomprehensible. 

"Baffling," says Jenny. "Indicipherable."

"There’s numbers," Alex adds, "and lots of squares, and lots of arrows pointing to the squares, circles and squares – it’s not straight forward, there are no directions. I sat there for 30, 40 mintues, what do they want me to? What do they want my daughter to do?"

Maddie’s homework took hours each night. The whole family was stressed. Maddie still didn’t want to go to school – and Jenny would have to bribe her with a trip to Dunkin Donuts.

Jenny says it hurt to see her daughter so unhappy,

"It’s really difficult as a mother who has spent her life learning and teachings and in love with ideas to see my young 6 year old absolutely hate school. And hate school. She doesn’t want to do anything that has to do with school. She would come home and say, I’m not smart. And when you hear that from a 5-year-old, it’s heart-breaking."

So in late October, Alex and Jenny pulled Maddie out of public school. They enrolled her in the Little River School, an alternative school in rural Canton 

Maddie’s only been there a few weeks, but her parents say her attitude towards school has totally changed.

She’s thriving – and is excited to go to school in the morning.

Jenny says Maddie had great teachers in public school. But the implementation of Common Core made it a tough place for her. 

"I think there’s probably good aims in the common curriculum, but when you combine it with high stakes testing and this kind of sudden implementation without the teachers being trained and figuring out how to adopt it, it’s just a perfect storm for a lot of kids and parents."

Parents and teachers across New York state have the same criticisms: that Common Core roll-out was rushed, and teachers haven’t had time to tailor the standards to their classrooms.

Private schools in North Country say they haven’t seen an exodus of kids from public school because of Common Core.

But they say that in a time where public schools are struggling with budgets, new standards, and more testing, they offer something different.  

Take Northern Lights, a Waldorf-inspired school in Saranac Lake.

Part of their mission is to built attitudes, like resilience and grit.

First graders have classroom chores. And they way they learn math isn’t all worksheets and flashcards.

Tam Ly is president of the school’s board. He says first graders there learn math by knitting.

"So by knitting, by making the loops, you’re counting. You know if you make a mistake, you miscount, you have to subtract one. That’s what I mean by experiential. You’re learn numeracy – arithmetic – by physically actually doing it."

And at the North Country school in Lake Placid, students study hard, but also spend time in the mountains and at the school farm. Communications director John Nicholson says he feels for teachers who are trying to incorporate Common Core in their classrooms.

"It’s sort of sacrosanct, you’re in this little world where the teacher and the students are all together to try to create something terrific and the thought that somebody or something or some powerful element has the opportunity to wedge its way in to what you’re doing I understand is really hard to for people to swallow."

This is what parents and students and teachers in New York’s public are navigating right now.

They have to achieve to these higher standards – and they don’t want to lose the joy of learning.

At Canton Central School, after a big math lesson, 5th grade teacher Paula Jones gives students a Jack Prelutsky poem about an exploding turkey. There are blank spaces where the verbs used to be and students have to fill in a word of their choice – like madlibs.

Kids giggle as their classmates step forward and share poems about turkey guts. 

Jones says it’s nice way to let the kids have a little fun and unwind before the holiday.

It’s that balance public educators – and educators everywhere – are after.

And John Nicholson from the North Country School says Common Core affects everybody.

"We all have a stake in this. If you don’t care about what’s going on in Albany, or at the public schools, or in education in general, you’re just not paying attention. We’re all responsible for raising a community for next world citizens."

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