Program Coaches Districts’ Teachers; Readiness For State’s New Standards Is Aim
By Brenda Bernet
This article was published January 14, 2013 at 2:02 a.m.
Teachers, especially those in small districts and charter schools, continue to grapple with ensuring their lessons challenge students to the level expected of new state curriculum standards for math and literacy.
They are learning to judge the quality and complexity of books and articles, said Linda Riley, a 28-year educator who is guiding 13 small schools across Northwest Arkansas as they adopt the Common Core State Standards. Teachers are hunting resources, such as the Library of Congress website, to refer students for accurate sources of information for writing assignments.
"I have quality resources I can go through and filter and send it to them and they can use it,” Riley said. "I really try to help them save time.”
The Arkansas Public School Resource Center started the Achieving By Changing program about a year ago with a $2 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation to assist small school districts and charter schools with transitioning to the Common Core standards. The program started with 41 campuses in 26 small school districts and charter schools across the state, said Teresa Chance, who became the director of the program in July. The program expanded this school year with 41 more campuses in 15 school districts. The districts are divided into 10 regional hubs that meet periodically.
The resource center is a nonprofit organization with more than 150 member school districts and charter schools.
Small districts and charter schools don’t have the extensive curriculum staffs employed by larger districts to provide resources for teachers to transition to teaching under the new standards, Chance said.
"They just don’t have time to read and hunt,” Chance said. "We spend a lot of time reading, researching and looking and try to bring them the best resources.”
TO THE CORE
The Common Core State Standards were developed by national committees of education and content experts at the direction of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Arkansas school districts began teaching under the new standards for literacy and math this year for kindergarten through second grade. The standards reached third through eighth-grade classes this school year and will be implemented in high school grades this fall.
Chance and coaches employed to work with the hubs share timely information, resources and teaching strategies, she said.
The Library of Congress has added sections to its website pertaining to the Common Core, with access to historical artifacts and cultural materials that teachers can provide to their students as "informational texts” or as sources for writing assignments.
Through the hub meetings and coaches, teachers can ask questions about what each of the standards means and how to design lessons to meet those standards, Chance said.
Linda Riley of Bigelow spent 28 years working in small and large school districts as a teacher and administrator before becoming a coach in October for the Achieving By Changing program.
"I’m able to go in and validate some of the things they’re already doing,” Riley said. "I can give them a different viewpoint from the outside in.”
Riley’s schedule this week includes a meeting with kindergarten teachers to help them teach 5- and 6-year olds problem-solving skills in math. One key standard is for pupils to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Among the resources Riley has found for them are a video on the Teaching Channel website about how to help children create mental images of mathematics and a website that focuses on problem-solving.
"All the schools I’ve worked with have had an open mind as far as looking at the Common Core standards and building up what they already had in place,” Riley said.
Her visits to schools have led her to teachers in language arts classrooms that are giving students reading assignments that present arguments, she said. The Common Core language arts standards expect students to justify their opinions and points of view with evidence.
The changes will lead to classrooms with teachers serving as facilitators of learning and who actively engage children in learning, such as through projects, Riley said.
All children have the right to a top-notch education, Riley said.
"The expectation level is high,” she said. "This is rigorous. It’s going to help our students make choices of what they want to do in life.”
The Achieving By Changing program has grouped the Paris School District with other area districts in the program into a single hub, said Margaret Wilks, director of federal programs and special programs for the district of about 1,100 students. Periodic hub meetings offer a chance for teachers and principals to ask questions and to share information and resources with other districts. The meetings clarify the standards and dispel myths.
"When you’re in a rural school, you only have the people in your community to use as your resource,” Wilks said. "It gives you a different perspective.”
The hub meetings bring together educators from various grade levels and subjects, forcing the conversation to focus on education and what constitutes good teaching no matter the grade or subject, Wilks said. The websites and online tools provided often are applicable to more than one grade or subject.
"Teachers are very nervous about what they’re supposed to do,” Wilks said.
One priority of the new standards is for children to read "deeply,” Wilks said. In one hub meeting, Paris educators have spent time talking with educators in other districts about what deep reading means. Their conversation led to a discussion about books they were reading and how to make connections with other pieces of literature.
"In the past, we equated good reading with lots of reading,” Wilks said. "Kids can get more out of snippets of literature versus reading 1,000 pages.”
Teachers can combine excerpts of novels with articles related to the author or the time period to enhance their understanding, Wilks said.
"Good reading now is looking at reading as a means of gaining background knowledge or information,” she said.
The program has helped Paris clarify the goals of the Common Core for its staff members, she said.
"It helps us have a better focus of what we’re supposed to be doing and to feel more confident that what we’re doing is right,” Wilks said. "It feels like we save time.”