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In District 2, educators explain their approach to new standards

As an elementary school teacher, Nekia Wise has taken her students to the HomeDepot in Midtown and to a nearby Starbucks to learn about business, communities, and cultures. And when she read the materials the city used to introduce teachers to the Common Core standards last year, those lessons immediately came to mind.

In her view, the new standards represent a teaching point-of-view that she has used with her first, third and fourth grade students for years: a focus on “inquiry-based learning,” which privileges learning opportunities ripe for experimentation and analysis over the rote memorization of facts.

“They learned so much about Africa from learning about where the coffee beans come from. And about the lack of water systems,” she said. “[The Core] made me think about everything that I’ve already tried to do in the classroom with kids along the lines of real-world understanding and implementation.”

She and two Manhattan principals joined city officials and educator Deborah Meier in District 2 on Monday night for a forum to demystify the new curriculum standards for parents who feel the city’s curriculum pilot has left many in the dark about how teaching practices are expected to change. The standards have come under fire  since their inception both for being too vague in some areas and too rigid in others.

Meier, a city educator and the influential author of “the Power of Their Ideas,” said she is particularly concerned that the Core will stifle students’ and teachers’ creativity, by prescribing a strict guide to what they need to learn, when they need to learn it, and how they will be judged using standardized tests.

“The word alignment is not something we ever used to use,” she said. “You’ve set up a situation starting in pre-Kindergarten in which we are all involved in a race.”

Some parents in the audience said they worry the Core would introduce more testing to their lives at young ages, creating an atmosphere of competitiveness and stress. But educators from high-performing Manhattan schools who spoke on the panel said they see plenty of flexibility to the standards, and view them as an outgrowth of lessons they’ve already used in the past.

Wise said that some changes wrought by the Core in her classroom are obvious—students are reading and studying more nonfiction writing, for example—and that the transition was easy. Similarly to how she would ask students to make inferences about characters in a story, she now asks them to make inferences from more expository writings. She said this approach works particularly well with boys in her class, many of whom are predictably more interested in reading about nonfiction subjects, like basketball.

“I know myself, I haven’t pushed that in previous teaching years,” she said.

But she said some of the Core’s demands are more challenging.

For her Core-aligned unit, Wise said she is asking students to think more explicitly about how they construct arguments with their writing. One sample question she shared was the prompt for a recent persuasive essay for fourth-graders: Should students bring lunch from home or eat lunch provided by the school? To answer the question, students are required to write an introduction, state their opinions, provide evidence for their opinions based on what they’ve read in class or experienced, and write a conclusion.

“That can make a fourth-grade teacher go, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I got to teach? This could take me all year,” she said, after reading the lengthy prompt aloud.

But Wise said the rollout eased her into the new work sufficiently.

“The first time we looked at these was in August at school, fresh off the press, at our professional development days before students entered school,” she said. “So we had four months to sit with this.”

Her principal, Adele Schroeter, said in her view, the Common Core is just a new way of articulating the high expectations also placed on students, teachers and schools. But she also cautioned that the new materials provided by the city and state would not be able to make up for poor teaching.

“They are only going to be as good as the hands of the teachers that they are in,” Schroeter said. “I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about them. But it is also possible for them to be misapplied in a way that feels a lot like raising a bar but not really having a plan for supporting kids in growing.”

The problem would be worse if teachers don’t get the support they need to incorporate the new standards in a way that helps students, she said—an issue that, in her view, the state’s guides have yet to resolve.

“You don’t want the surgeon reading the diagram while he’s operating on you,” Schroeter said.

In similarly wary tones, some city teachers told city and state officials last week that they have not received enough support in implementing the Core so far. But officials responded that this year’s pilot is intentionally open-ended, and teachers should view it as an invitation to experiment.

With that sentiment in mind, Schroeter and Megan Adams, the principal of the city’s Lab School for Collaborative Studies, said they are asking teachers to take extra time to prepare their Common Core-aligned lessons. A major challenge, they said, is that teachers have been told to practice the new standards, but are left to develop their own tools for assessing how well students have learned the material that’s aligned to the standards.

This hasn’t always been easy, especially for teachers in history and the sciences, who warn that, because the Common Core has so far only released standards for math and English, other subjects are getting short shrift. but Adams said teachers at her school have always collaborated across disciplines, and the Common Core might encourage more schools to do the same.

“I really do believe that having children practice literacy in context of other content is a much richer experience,” she said.