Schools adapt to 'Common Core'

By Stina Sieg | Oct 05, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Pisgah interior design teacher Kari Williams, right, learns about the Common Core in a county-wide teacher work day Wednesday. Tuscola health science instructor Jamie Henson is also pictured. The new curriculum was implemented in the county — and across much of the country — at the beginning of the school year.

At Haywood County Schools, like most public schools across the nation, things are changing. Gone are the days of rote memorization and math problems that only allow one process of deduction. Gone is a curriculum that's "a mile wide, an inch deep," as Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte called it.

Ready or not, here comes the Common Core State Standards, a bundle of new education philosophies and benchmarks that have been adopted in 45 states and three U.S. territories thus far. This shift — away from recall and toward more critical thinking and real-world skills — is massive for teachers, and Nolte knows it.

"And I know we built the plane first and then we told them how it works, but we do that all the time in life," he said.

It was Wednesday morning, and he was speaking from the the hallway outside a Canton Middle School classroom which was filled with a different crop of students than normal. Instead of youngsters, teachers from across the district were seated in rows of desks as they learned more about the ins and outs of the Common Core.

Every instructor in every grade was doing this in one classroom or another, with middle- and high-school teachers at CMS and elementary instructors at Waynesville Middle School. While teachers have been using the Common Core for nearly two months and have had instruction in it in the past, Nolte hopes additional work days like this will help the continuation of the transition. They might also, in his words, show teachers the "urgency and necessity to change" to the new system.

"I think if we do a good job with our staff people, we'll do OK," he said, adding "the key is do we really understand the new curriculum and how it works?"

For his part, he does, and not just through the eyes of an administrator. Nolte, a former principal and teacher, is licensed to teach middle-school science and biology. As he sees it, the big difference between the old and new system is what he calls "critical response." This new curriculum is focused on how students think and deduce, not so much on how they remember.

As an example, Nolte explained that in the old curriculum students might have to identify the parts of cell. In the new one, they might have to explain what a cell does. When Nolte himself was in school in Tennessee, he had to remember that his home state was the 16th to enter the union. If he had been learning under this new philosophy, however, he might have had to explain why Tennessee was the 16th state.

This difference is especially prevalent in math, in which students might now be challenged to find several paths to find the right answer.

"In the real world, there may be half a dozen ways to calculate the correct response," Nolte said. "The thing is, do they know how to calculate the correct response?"

That question extends to all areas of local schools. While the Common Core technically only deals with language arts and math, North Carolina has adapted all subjects to fit these new standards. At Wednesday's all-day training session at CMS, many teachers sounded positive — if a bit cautious — about the change. For most, the Common Core isn't so much a paradigm shift as a reinforcement of the kind of in-depth teaching many have already been doing for years.

Pisgah High School's April Haider, now in her 17th year teaching, explained that not a lot has changed for English instructors like herself. Though she has to incorporate more primary documents, like Shakespeare plays, into the school year, the rest of the Common Core and its goals look familiar.

"Honestly, most of us were already doing this," she said. "We just need to tweak it here or there."

Fellow English instructor Cristina McMinn agreed, but stressed that getting the extra materials needed for the Common Core isn't always easy. She was lucky enough to get a grant for the newly required books, but if she hadn't, the money would have come out of her textbook fund — which she desperately needs.

She also questioned how reasonable it was to expect all high schoolers to delve into these books and other primary documents in the in-depth manner the Common Core requires.

"They really want these kids to wrestle with the text, and I think that's very hard, because it might be more idealistic than realistic," she said.

Pressure builds

Both women, and many other teachers at the work day, talked of the pressure they feel to help implement the Common Core successfully. Starting this year, students across the county and state will take standardized tests meant to show their growth in various subject areas. After three years, these tests will be used to show whether or not instructors are teaching the Common Core effectively.

For teachers like Haider and McMinn, this all seems very quick and perhaps not entirely fair.

"I think the curriculum is a step in the right direction," Haider said. "It's the way we're being evaluated that I don't agree with."

Fresh from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, fellow Pisgah teacher Virginia Aughe expressed relief that at least the tests in question are a little ways down the road. Though these assessments were supposed to be given this semester, the date was changed to next semester. While it's still intimidating, she said, she's choosing not to focus too much on it and instead throw herself into teaching into this philosophy that she was actually taught in college. At UNC-A, most of her education dealt with the Common Core, and she even heard many of the same buzz words then as she was hearing at that day's training.

Her biggest concern is implementing this teaching the Common Core well, rather than wondering about a test still several months away.

"I feel like I can put my energy into teaching to my absolute best ability or I can put my energy toward worrying about the test," she said. "And I'm trying to put my energy toward the first."


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