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In northeast Colorado, a collaborative response to new standards

On a windy Monday last month, the main school campus in the small northeastern town of Haxtun quietly buzzed. Teachers walked the hallways heads together and deep in discussion. Lunch time was a rush of moving bodies.

But there were no students in sight. On this day, the teachers were the students and the instructors.

Teachers from ten rural districts in northeastern Colorado gathered in Haxtun, just 30 miles from the Nebraska border, to figure out how to translate the mandates of the Common Core to their classrooms.

The Common Core State Standards, a shared set of expectations about what students are supposed to know, are being rolled out across the state this year, and districts are finding implementation challenging.

The ten districts these teachers came from face an even bigger hurdle, as none had curriculum specialists and only one had any kind of written curriculum at all. Instead, teachers used textbooks to guide their instruction. Each classroom went at its own pace and even taught different material. The differences between districts were even greater.

So the group of districts decided to adopt the sample Common Core curriculum written by the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) and collaborate on training to teachers to use it.

All ten districts are members of the Northeast Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), a regional consortium that coordinates shared services, including professional development and distance learning. The Northeast BOCES, which also includes two districts who are not participating, helps to coordinate this curriculum collaborative.

So every month, teachers and school administrators gather in Haxtun to familiarize themselves with the curriculum, write assessments and agree on grading standards.

Writing the tests

The collaborative had to pick a starting point for curriculum training, so this fall the focus is math. Teachers in subjects other than math team up to work on their own area.

During this session, the expectation was that all groups would create the first test that they’ll give to their students based on the new curriculum. Teachers worked to write test questions that are aligned to the new standards and difficult enough to challenge students.

In a classroom of first grade instructors, a table of teachers worked on a unit on measuring and telling time.

One teacher suggested that students measure objects found in their desks. “Pick an object shorter than this pencil and longer than my thumb” was one possible instruction. But the logistics of how that would work under testing conditions got more complicated.

“How much do we want them digging in their desks?” said one of her table mates. They agreed to have students take the object out before testing started.

The group also stalled over the wording of a question about students’ ability to tell time. The question asked students when they got up for school. Then students had to construct a clock, fill in the hands to show their wake-up time and finally write that time on a digital clock (see the example assessment for similar questions).

“But what if it says 2 p.m.?” said one teacher. She said students might not know what time they got up or write when they want to get up.

“As long as the two answers match, it’s fine,” said Susan Rogers, the first grade teacher for Wray school district.

By 2:30 p.m., when the workshop ended, the first grade teachers had three new assessments to take back to their classrooms.

“If you lose that test, you’re walking home,” one Holyoke teacher said to her colleague, who had the master copy of their newly minted assessment.

Teachers said that the new standards presented a challenge for them, but that they thought the extra work was worth it.

“We’re free to teach it the way we want to teach it, but it’s good to know what the bottom line is,” said Kristie Pelle, a Holyoke first grade teacher. She said, especially in math, she has already seen benefits for her students.

“I felt like math was one of the things [where] we needed to change curriculum,” said Pelle.

She also anticipated that the change will smooth the transitions between grades. “When my first graders go to second grade, [the teachers] know where to pickup, they know where [the students] left off.”

Beyond the core

Teachers in all subjects gathered for the training, including those not traditionally covered by testing. Since Monday was about assessments, figuring out how to apply the Common Core standards to grading outside of traditionally tested areas required creativity on the part of teachers.

In the group for arts curriculum, the teachers designing a curriculum to assess fifth grade art projects found themselves balancing the need for clear grading protocols and the desire to encourage creativity.

“Do we give it to the fifth graders?” asked another teacher. “I would not want to hand this to students and say welcome to fifth grade art.” No, they agreed, they would use a different ones for students to grade themselves.

The challenges of grading art projects was not lost on them. They struggled to find a balance of rewarding creativity and encouraging clarity.

“Does a spider have four or eight legs?” Rhonda Mehring-Smith, Holyoke’s art teacher, suggested for the kind of benchmark she would use for students.

She said she thinks there are still ways to encourage kids to use their imagination. “I intentionally never put up an example because then they just copy it instead of being creative.”

Scheduling conflicts

The process leading up to this day of work has not been simple. Getting districts and teachers used to going their own way on the same path was difficult.

“As part of this consortium, [the districts] all had to get on the same path,” said Tim Sanger, the executive director of Northeast BOCES. One district left the collaborative because there wasn’t consensus among staff members.

The ten districts had to create a common calendar in order for all teachers to attend the trainings. The calendar, which included shared school breaks and TCAP testing windows, required uniting school districts who feel their local control has faded.

“That was the hardest thing,” said Sanger. He said schools had very different academic calendars, even down to how many days a week students were in school. Several school districts had four day school weeks. Another, Holyoke school district, hadn’t had spring break in years.

All these changes require considerable district support, which means that superintendents had to do a bit of marketing for the project.

“Superintendents going back to their staff and selling it is a huge piece,” said Sanger. But, he said, the results have been good. “Seventeen years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The end of the day

By the end of the day, according to Miles, all of the groups completed at least one assessment and many had finished the entire math curriculum.

That meant the collaborative was a month ahead of their target and groups had time to work on other projects and even just chat. A group of kindergarten teachers, who rarely see each other, spent the afternoon sharing war stories and discussing how they manage their classrooms.

That collaborative spirit didn’t surprise Sanger. Rural districts, he said, work differently than urban ones.

“We’re a different animal, so to speak,” said Sanger. “We have to share more resources, we have to network more.”

The assessments teachers build this year will be used in classrooms right away but the collaborative will continue. Both teachers and administrators agree it will take more than a year to see results.

“Kids have gone through curriculum with different expectations,” said Carly Daniel, a first grade teacher at Holyoke School District. “So it’ll take some backfill.”

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