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Western Pa. teachers take on Common Core challenge

| Saturday, June 21, 2014, 6:16 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Hampton Middle School teacher Gwen Cohen (left) gestures to Avonworth Middle School teacher Emily Hickman of Ross Township during a game of 'Guess My Tone' during a game training session at the Institute of Play expo at the AIU Center for Creativity in Homestead on Wednesday, June 18, 2014. The teachers were learning games designed to prepare students for new Common Core standards.

Sari Brecosky said she's sick of feel-good answers.

Read a story. Memorize the vocabulary. Regurgitate the plot. Tell the teacher how it makes you feel.

“There are better questions,” said Brecosky, coordinator of reading and curriculum at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit's Reading Achievement Center. “Why does this matter? What does it mean in a historical context? Why did the author choose these words to make her point? I don't care about your opinion. We need kids that value evidence. Common Core gets us closer to that.”

Common Core standards are national learning goals approved by individual states that outline what a student should know in English and math at the end of each grade. Pennsylvania's Common Core equivalent, dubbed PA Core, emphasizes critical thinking over appreciation and problem-solving over memorization.

Teachers and administrators trying to implement PA Core, accepted statewide in March, are looking to intermediate units for guidance on what resources they can trust.

William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University, studied 700 math books from 35 textbook series for grades K-8 being used by 60 percent of America's public school students. His team found that nearly every textbook claiming Common Core alignment is a carbon copy of its previous edition.

Publishers capitalized on a hungry market, he said.

“Because there is no published, just-let-me-buy-it resource out there, we're creating games and videos and reading material we can offer to schools so they can train teachers on what they need to know,” said Megan Cicconi, the AIU's curriculum and reading coordinator.

Locally, some districts are ahead of others in aligning their curriculum, said AIU Director Linda Hippert, but implementation is under way everywhere. Many were teaching to the standards, she said, just not calling them that.

“We've helped a number of districts work to realign their K-12 curricula top to bottom, but everyone has needed to tweak something, particularly in math,” said Rosanne Javorsky, the AIU's assistant executive director for teaching and learning.

Clairton Superintendent Ginny Hunt wants to surround her students with technology.

“Kids are connected 24/7,” she said. “Then you want to come to school and give them a traditional delivery? We'd never reach them.”

In the Steel Valley School District, Superintendent Edward Wehrer said it's tough to quantify, but the teamwork and camaraderie established through teacher training is just as important.

“When this all started, we estimated a full math and science overhaul would take two years. Math will be closer to three; science at least four. The resources just aren't as well developed as we'd like them to be,” he said.

Teachers in Plum, East Allegheny and Quaker Valley are pulling in ideas from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, YouTube and other teachers. They devour learning games and strategies as quickly as state and AIU administrators can organize them.

“The new standards require a totally different perspective for kids,” Cicconi said. “It's not just about remembering a story's major characters. We're teaching bias, author's purpose, word choice and craft. ... They have to cite and infer and form arguments as early as kindergarten.”

Forty-five states including Pennsylvania initially approved Common Core English and math standards released in 2010 by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, many with an eye toward competitive Race to the Top grants that federal leaders used to encourage rapid adoption.

Since March, three states have opted back out. Others blended national goals into state-specific systems.

“Academic standards are just public statements about what a student should know at a certain grade level,” Javorsky said. “They don't tell the teacher what to teach, what to use or how to do it. We say, ‘Here's what the student should know. Get them there.' ”

Therein lies the mission.

“The state just asked us to challenge our students more,” said Lisa Machado, who teaches gifted students at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Bethel Park. “Most teachers I know have been talking about wanting to do that for years.”

Machado attended a training session with the New York-based Institute of Play at the AIU on Wednesday. Those learning opportunities are pivotal to engaging kids in new ways, she said.

“We played a game where we have to read the same sentence over and over, but every time, it has to express a different emotion,” she said. “That teaches tone. Other games were about communicating. Those skills are really important.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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