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New curriculum brings ‘critical thinking’ to high school classes

 

AMANDA SEBASTIANO

Staff Writer

 

As three teachers in Lincoln County high schools make final preparations for the upcoming school year, they have more to plan for than their usual work load of desk arranging, decorations and tweaking lesson plans from the previous year; now they must also prepare to push their students to a higher level — to be college-ready.

The Common Core State and Essential Standards are changes in the K-12 curriculum across the state, spelling out what is expected of students at each grade level — something that wasn’t so clear for high schools in the past, Lincolnton High English teacher Jane Sigmon told the Times-News on Thursday.

Previously, the old curriculum showed what students were responsible for knowing, but there was no distinction between what was expected at the ninth grade-level as opposed to what seniors were doing.

The new curriculum, though more rigorous and in-depth, is also very clear for both teachers and parents to see what their children will be learning in the upcoming school year, Sigmon said, making this a good time for new high school English teachers to start their careers, she said.

The changes occurring next week aren’t so much about the amount of work, but more on the difficulty of the material. More non-fiction resources will be used in English classrooms this fall, incorporating other subjects into the class syllabus, such as history. Sigmon is excited for what the new curriculum means and how it will “overhaul her classroom,” while also making room for other subjects to weave into what she’s teaching her students, which will help better-educate her classes as well, she hopes.

The heavier focus on ACTs is also something she thinks will help better prepare students for college, placing more emphasis on historical documents and other subjects requiring literacy, rather than just fictional works.

Last year, county teachers went through training in preparation for the new curriculum so there would be no surprises when it would be implemented later. Instructors were able to speak with each other and compare notes and tools they would be using in their classrooms, while learning the most effective ways to introduce students to the changes.

English Language Arts (ELA) and math are the two areas the State Standards will focus on, while other subjects aren’t out of the clear. Essential Standards requires more involved, interactive classrooms as well, along with its own set of guidelines for science, social studies and other qualifying subjects.

Another LHS teacher, Patricia Clark, is looking forward to the critical-thinking skills she will be trying to instill in her history classes. Her students, and the rest of those taking subjects within the Essential Standards perimeters, will no longer be taking End of Course tests, but will be taking Measurement of Student Learning (MSL) tests, which will have more written response-questions and fewer multiple choice problems; an attempt to have children show that they understand what they learn in class. There will no longer be an option for students to opt-out of taking final exams because of high performance in courses, either.

“What it boils down to, is that students are going to use more critical thinking across the board,” Clark said. “They will be using primary documents as resources and will learn about what’s going on in a global sense, which fulfills one of the missions of the standards — creating global citizens.”

Civics courses will roll out the new curriculum next week, but students enrolled in World History won’t have to worry about the standards until 2014, as it will be split into two American History courses.

Clark said LHS teachers will be working with middle-school instructors to review what those students are learning, to make sure they are on the path to entering high school on the level they should be on. An online resource called Live Binder was created for instructors to browse documents to later use with their students, which can be shared and used by any teacher who uses the tool.

Across the county at North Lincoln High, Health and Physical Education teacher Jay Thomson will also be working with the new Essential Standards curriculum in his classroom.

One of the more tangible changes he will see this year is the switch from using a textbook to teach to having all of his materials on a flash drive to present to the students through Power Point and other presentations.

He plans on being more collaborative with his students and faculty, not just handing out papers and leaving students to figure things out on their own, though there will be periods where students will be working independently on their assignments. During the nutrition part of his course, he plans on having students physically collect certain items, rather than standing at the front of the class and lecturing on where certain foods come from, he said.

Thomson will also be incorporating another new tool next week, switching out the Food Pyramid concept for My Plate. The main difference between the two is in measurements. The pyramid referred to serving sizes for each category, while the plate illustrates proper portions. The circular image shows different foods sectioned off onto the plate, giving a visual for what a proper portion should look like. The new idea replaces the “outdated” pyramid that Thomson believes is not as relevant to today’s students.

The changes in his syllabus also call for discussion of other sex-related topics, not just “sex ed,” he said. Students will be learning about sexually transmitted diseases, abstinence and other preventative methods — a more detailed approach. There will also be a showing of a child birth during his course, which parents will have the option to say decline on the permission slip.

“We’re moving toward 21st century schools; getting away from sitting at your desk and writing answers on a piece of paper,” Thomson said. “We’re teaching them how to problem solve.”

 

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