Summer assignment: Prep for Common Core

The teachers were dressed for midsummer in Nampa: shorts and sandals were all part of the uniform.

But the work wasn’t quite so casual Wednesday. In a room at Nampa’s alternative Ridgeline High School, the team of teachers continued fine-tuning and rewriting lesson plans to align with the new Idaho Core Standards.

This is where standards meet curriculum, where teachers work on applying the 45-state Common Core effort to daily instruction.

Nampa Common Core
Skyview High School teacher Annette Malone and Columbia High School teacher Doug Smith collaborate on math lesson plans, tied to the new Idaho Core Standards.

And the clock is ticking. The teachers from Nampa’s three high schools will finish their work this week. Middle school teachers will work on lesson plans next week, and elementary school teachers will follow suit the following week. If all goes according to plan, the elementary teachers will wrap up their work on Aug. 16 — four days before the first day of classes.

It’s more than just a tweaking in the lesson plans. “It’s kind of like daylight and darkness,” said Earnie Lewis, the district’s administrator of federal programs and  curriculum and instruction.

Lewis began his teaching career in 1972, and he likes the change from a textbook-driven curriculum to one that focuses on applied learning and critical thinking. Students won’t just be expected to learn. They will be expected to show that they can do something with what they learn. “That’s a 21st century readiness,” said Lewis.

But getting there, and getting started this month, presents some challenges:

  • Coordination. Because of the district’s ongoing budget crisis, Nampa hasn’t been able to prepare for Common Core in a systematic way, said Lewis. So part of the challenge is syncing up the district’s schools for the Common Core rollout. This week, for example, teachers from Nampa’s three high schools are collaborating on lesson plans.
  • Coaching. The Nampa district has a team of coaches assigned to Common Core: five to work with teachers, one to help administrators guide the transition in their schools, one to analyze data. The jobs are paid for largely with federal grants, and the five instructional coaching jobs are likely to be ongoing, Lewis said.
  • Analysis. Reading student data to spot trends is “kind of like being a detective all the time,” said Lori Roberts, Nampa’s data coach. The job is made more complicated with the switch to a more performance-driven set of standards — and the new data that come with it.
  • Logistics. Remember learning the quadratic equation in school? Previously, that was a part of Nampa’s algebra 2 curriculum. Now, with Common Core, that unit will shift to algebra 1, says Annette Malone, a math teacher at Skyview High School. This is just one example of a bigger challenge: trying to keep core lessons from falling through the cracks, and also trying to make sure students aren’t bored by repetitive lessons.

Despite the challenges, the administrators and teachers working this week are looking forward to applying the new standards.

Brenda Suchy, a Skyview English teacher, recognizes Common Core will pose challenges for students — such as when they are asked to look at a new math or science problem, and will be asked to write an essay about it. But she believes in the idea of making students apply their knowledge. “This is a great set of standards. This is what we want from future graduates.”

The added rigor may be a concern for some students, said Malone, but other students may be excited by it. “I think the students will really enjoy more task-oriented lessons.”

And as Nampa teachers do their homework, this month, to teach to Common Core, Lewis thinks the transition may actually prove to be easier on students. Teachers will have to rethink their approaches, but he believes students will embrace a new approach that rewards and respects independent thinking. “I see that as being kind of a relief for many students.”