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New WCPS curriculum aims to better prepare students for college, careers

Teachers say it calls for more critical thinking, more and longer writing assignments, and learning math concepts earlier

July 26, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • In a recent planning session are, from left, Amy Hilliard, a lead teacher at Western Heights Middle School, Nate Hirsch, the math department leader at Western Heights Middle School, and Erika Hancock the central office lead teacher for middle school math.
By Joe Crocetta, Staff Photographer

When the new school year begins, one of the first assignments Luanne Murphy’s seventh-grade class at Smithsburg Middle School will be given is to read a biography of cyclist Lance Armstrong.

Students will use the Internet to read more current information about Armstrong and allegations of doping, Murphy said.

In addition to being a cancer survivor and a seven-time winner of the gruelingTour de France, Armstrong faces allegations that he used prohibited substances or methods to unfairly improve his performance.

Murphy said she will skip the simple questions and dive right into the deeper, more thought-provoking questions such as “Is Armstrong a hero?”

Encouraging teachers to skip the simple literal questions, such as “Who is the main character?” and having students read more nonfiction are just two aspects of the new, more rigorous Common Core curriculum that will be fully implemented for the 2013-14 school year.

Washington County Public Schools, which has been using the state curriculum, started integrating the new curriculum during the past school year and students will see more of it when school goes back into session. The new curriculum is based on the Common Core State Standards, an effort driven by the states and coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

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Several math and English Language Arts teachers received training for the new curriculum this summer, said Kara Reed, K-12 math supervisor for the school system. Also, South Hagerstown High School hosted a regional training event for the new curriculum this week.

The goal of the new curriculum is to have students, upon graduation from high school, be ready for college or careers and be able to compete globally, local educators said.

The new curriculum looks at what students need when they graduate and then maps it backwards, said Jen Malcolm, a lead teacher at Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

Lead teachers help train classroom teachers, analyze data and work with students.

The new curriculum calls for more critical thinking, more and longer writing assignments, and learning math concepts earlier, educators said. But some local teachers interviewed in recent weeks said they won’t need to scrap all of their lesson plans and start from scratch.

Teachers have accumulated good resources, including teacher-generated and purchased lesson plans, said Nate Hirsch, who teaches sixth-grade math and is the math department leader at Western Heights Middle School in Hagerstown.

Teachers are determining which lesson plans can still be used or who could use them, and what they need to create or buy to meet the new curriculum’s expectations, Hirsch said.

Some lesson plans can be updated with higher-level questioning or real-life application scenarios, or they can be used by another teacher, Hirsch said. Students will learn some math concepts a grade earlier than in the past, so a lesson plan used in eighth-grade math last year, might work for a seventh-grade math teacher this school year, he said.

Before, math teachers were looking for one specific answer and one way to solve a problem, Hirsch said. Now, students will learn there could be multiple ways to solve a problem.

For example, Hirsch said, students could be told to figure how much it would cost to wallpaper a room.

The cost would depend on how much of the room students decide to wallpaper and the price of the wallpaper they select, he said.

Math teacher Kathleen Unger said she was apprehensive at first about the new curriculum, but during training she found the previous and new curriculums weren’t “that different.”

Unger, who teaches sixth-grade math at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport, said she thinks there will be more hands-on and group activities in class this school year. She said she looks forward to having more time to teach each topic, something she thinks the students will appreciate because they will have more time to master the skills.

“I think they’ll like it ’cause I’ve even had kids say in the past, ‘Man, we’re starting something new the next day? We’re only spending one day on this?’” Unger said.

Dan Nystrom, who teaches sixth-grade math at Smithsburg Middle School, said the new curriculum will be a learning experience for students and teachers.

It’s going to be a good change for all, he said.

“The students will be more engaged. They’re going to be learning at a higher level. They’re going to be allowed to master topics,” Nystrom said.

In English Language Arts classes, students will have more complex reading and writing assignments, Malcolm said.

Instead of just reading a biography about a person, such asMartin Luther King Jr., they also might read one of his speeches and an article from an electronic journal about the effects of that speech. The writing assignment could be to compare and analyze those works, she said.

“Not everything’s going to be handed to them in a book,” like a textbook, when they are in college or the real world, so students need to learn to use primary sources, such as academic or electronic journals, Malcolm said.

Literature will still be part of the course, Murphy said.

“The purpose of all literature really is, ‘How does it come back to our self?’ What can you learn about being a better person from reading the ‘Three Little Pigs’ or ‘A Tale of Two Cities?’” Murphy said.

“That’s probably the most important difference. We are going to analyze stories rather than just retelling them,” Murphy said.

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