June 7, 2012
Fifth-grade teacher Jason Westerlund has involved his whole school in the process of developing guides to new learning standards, known as the Common Core.
Using funding from the city’s Common Core Fellows program, he and a handful of fellow teachers from P.S. 101 in Queens meet regularly after school to review lesson plans and “go into depth,” exploring the new elementary school literacy and math standards and comparing them to the old ones. And today, a required training day for all city teachers, Westerlund will present this work to the rest of the P.S. 101 staff.
The trickle-down effect was exactly what city officials hoped for when they hired Westerlund and 59 other city educators to design and refine Common Core-aligned curriculum materials and act as emissaries for the new standards in their schools.
Next year, when state tests will reflect the standards for the first time, the city is planning to have 240 fellows, quadrupling the program’s size and output.
But the search for funding to cover the overtime costs of the fellows and their colleagues has so far only turned up enough for the current crop of fellows. City officials say they are hoping Race to the Top winnings can pay for the expansion and will solicit private donations if that plan falls through.
The Common Core calls for teachers to spend more time on fewer topics, focusing on tasks that require students to apply knowledge to practical questions. The shift is jarring for teachers used to hurtling through material in order to ready students for success on tests.
Teachers “want answers to questions that don’t exist yet,” said Josh Thomases, the city’s deputy academic officer. “Such as, what’s a mechanism for evaluating the grade level of informational texts? How do you decide whether or not the thing you’re reading, the article you’re about to write, is it an eighth-grade level text, a ninth-grade level text? What’s my process for doing this?”
Fellows tackle those questions during twice-monthly after-school sessions, and occasionally they gather for longer weekend work sprees. During one session, the fellows might start out by debating how to define the “formal voice” students are asked to adopt in their writing, then switch to reviewing curriculum materials designed by publishing companies, students at education schools, and other fellows.
Their goal is to create concrete curriculum materials to help teachers weather the Common Core transition, a transition that some educators say is shaping up to be rocky. To that end, the fellows spend hours writing, reviewing and revising curriculum “bundles.” Each set of materials includes a lesson, a rubric for measuring student achievement, instructions for how to tailor the lessons for students with varying skill levels, and examples of strong and weak student work. The bundles are going onto the Department of Education’s Common Core Library website for other teachers to download and adapt.
The library is not comprehensive yet, and teachers say the quality of sample lessons varies widely. But the quality will only improve as the city funds more teacher collaboration aimed at producing Common Core-aligned materials, Westerlund said.
“That’s what makes all the difference in gathering people together to do that work — getting funded for it,” he said. “This puts us light years ahead of everyone else that’s in the classroom.”
The fellows are also being called on to coach their colleagues to help them become more comfortable with the Common Core. Most teachers at the Salk School of Science haven’t had time to scrutinize the changing standards in depth, said Jason Rosenbaum, a humanities teacher at the Manhattan middle school. But he said he can help them navigate the new requirements — and allay their concerns about the implementation of the new standards.
Having a team of teachers create curriculum materials as the rollout begins is preferable to waiting for the city to create and dictate a new curriculum, Rosenbaum said.
“Teaching shouldn’t be about, ‘Just tell us what you want us to do,’” he said. “No one wants there to be a scripted curriculum that comes out of the Common Core. That’s not the agenda at all.”
The teacher-directed structure of the fellows program has educators critiquing each others’ lesson plans regularly. On a recent afternoon, Westerlund and Yolanda Robinson, also a fellow, had only compliments for a sample math lesson on the area of a rectangle produced by a third fellow.
“The task is set up according to the progression of the standards,” Robinson said, as Westerlund typed notes into a spreadsheet.
“And it’s well organized,” he added.
Both agreed that the lesson was just about classroom-ready. Other lessons produced by teachers, graduate students, and curriculum writers outside of the fellows program do not always meet their standards, they said.
“When you go into depth, a lot more planning needs to be involved, and you need to have a deep understanding of the material,” said Robinson, who works as a math coach at P.S. 68 in the Bronx. “Without it, you can’t do this well.”