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Principals plot how common standards will change school life

What will national standards mean for New York City’s classrooms?

For the past few weeks, groups of principals, teachers and staff members have been gathering with their school networks to begin answering that question.

Last week, a large group of principals, assistant principals and teachers met in the cafeteria of P.S. 129 in Flushing, Queens. They came in teams of three from each school in a Children’s First Network led by Diane Foley.

The state won’t begin to use the core standards to test students until 2014.

But, as Foley and her staff reminded principals, the first group of students who will take the new exams — 2014’s fourth-graders — are entering kindergarten this fall. Foley’s goal was to nudge schools towards the core standards by helping them think of small changes they can make immediately.

“Let’s find one or two things that schools can do this year,” Foley said. “It’s about the little tiny steps you can take.”

The first step last week was to figure out how far current writing instruction is from what the new standards dictate. One of Foley’s staff members, Debbie White, laid out three styles of writing assignments: persuasive opinion writing, explanatory texts and storytelling. She then asked each table to estimate what percentage of the writing that students at each school complete falls into each category.

“What does writing instruction look like in your schools?” White asked.

At one table, the principal, assistant principal and reading coach from Queens’ I.S. 93 huddled together and talked over their eighth grade writing assignments. At first, principal Ed Santos worried that his eighth graders don’t spend any time writing persuasive arguments. “There’s nothing,” he said.

Foley encouraged Santos and his staff to think about the writing students did in all of their courses, not just their English Language Arts classes. That increases the percentage a bit, Santos said, but not by much. When the groups re-convened, staff at other schools echoed Santos: their students write a lot of stories, but spend little time building arguments.

“We do a lot of essay writing, but I don’t think it really reaches what an argument is,” said one teacher. “I think it just scratches the surface.”

White then made the big reveal: Under the new standards, fourth graders should be spending nearly a third of their writing time constructing arguments. Narrative and explanatory writing should make up 35 percent of their assignments each. By the senior year of high school, 40 percent of writing assignments should be persuasive or explanatory writing. Only 20 percent of students’ time should be spent writing straight fiction and non-fiction narratives.

The new reading standards will prompt a similar shift. Principals and their staff compared the amount of time their students spent reading fiction and poetry to the time spent reading informational texts, like scientific articles and instruction manuals. The overwhelming amount of time was spent reading literature, principals agreed.

But under the new standards, fourth graders will be expected to spend half their time reading more instructive texts. By twelfth grade, only 30 percent of the texts a student will be expected to read should be literary, the common standards say.

That kind of shift won’t happen immediately at any school. But Foley and her staff encouraged the principals and teachers to think about small changes that will make the shift easier.

Staff at one school suggested that they add more magazines, articles and non-fiction to their elementary classroom libraries and add more non-fiction books to suggested reading lists. As students learn to read, schools can more actively encourage parents to have them read everyday signs and nutrition labels at the grocery store, volunteered a teacher at another school.

Schools can also begin to re-adjust the grade levels when they introduce many common books to students. Foley said. Her example: the novel “Sarah, Plain and Tall” is now thought to be written on a fourth or fifth grade reading level. Under the new standards, it will be considered a third grade-level book.

And schools should think about how to explain the changes to parents, Foley said. “Parents are going to have to understand, ‘why is my child coming home with more informational articles in her backpack?'” she said. “You need to come up with a clear reason.”

The answer, she said, is the common standards’ emphasis on building practical skills for college and careers. “I think parents are really going to relate to, ‘my child really needs to get a good job at the end of this, and what are we going to do to get her there,'” Foley said.

The shifts required by the new standards will be greater at some schools than at others. But Grace Sears, I.S. 93’s assistant principal, said she was encouraged by the new standards’ clarity.

“I think this will be better,” she said. “I think it will be useful for the teachers; I think it will be useful for the administration. We’re going to know exactly what should be going on in the classrooms.”

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