Pinkerton Reviews Common Core with Parents, Derry Officials

Chris Harper, academic dean for Pinkerton Academy, stood before a roomful of parents, teachers and Derry School Board members and district administrators. “The rigor,” he said, “is in the relationships.”

The adults went back to school Tuesday night, Oct. 29, to learn about a whole different way of learning. Harper and two colleagues, curriculum assessment specialist Heidi Boyle and English/ Language Arts (ELA) head Peter Gaucher, explained the Common Core standards and how they would be implemented at Pinkerton.
Harper said from the outset that he wasn’t interested in an argument, or in the arguments that are peppering the media. “People are coming out of the woodwork, they love it, they hate it,” he said. “They say, ‘It’s rigorous,’ ‘It’s not rigorous.’”
Harper and his colleagues chose instead to focus on the question, “What is rigor?” and whether Common Core would cause districts and semi-private high schools such as Pinkerton to lose local control.
Boyle began with a table exercise asking participants to identify the “nouns” and the “verbs” in a task. For math it was analyzing what students need to know about parallelograms to demonstrate proficiency. Parents were asked to identify the “nouns” in the passage, the “verbs,” what skills a student needs to have and what a teacher would need to do to promote mastery of those skills.
The verbs collected by parents were “prove,” “bisect” and “are.” Skills include vocabulary, she said, pointing out, “If they can’t find them, they can’t see if they are bisecting them.” She said the students need to learn to reason with geometric concepts to explain or prove a conclusion.
In a geometry course, students will be given different “to prove” statements in words, with their task to draw and label the scenario, she said.
“The kids have a lot of ‘ahas!’ as they do this,” she said.
There’s also a piece for student reflection, where they write about what the assignment was, what tools they use and what their strengths were, she said.
Gaucher took the microphone for a discussion about ELA and Common Core. He said for his presentation he decided to use “Julius Caesar,” a play commonly studied in sophomore year of high school. But this generation’s sophomores won’t be memorizing speeches, he said. He had the adults compare and contrast Brutus’s and Marc Anthony’s speeches about Caesar, pointing out facts such as the use of prose for Brutus and poetry for Anthony. “When Shakespeare wanted to show a person was less intelligent, he had them speak in prose,” he said.
He showed how Anthony’s repetition of the phrase, “Brutus is an honorable man,” meant the opposite.
And he showed how the classic play could be linked to a more modern nonfiction piece, Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 speech upon the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the misconceptions about Common Core, he said, is that its detractors think fiction and classic literature will take a back seat. “We are not downplaying literature,” he said. “In the case of ‘Julius Caesar,’ we can draw in an informational text, Kennedy’s speech, to help interpret the classic work.”
Harper returned to the question of what is rigor. “It’s not just having the content, but being able to use it to transfer to new situations,” he said. While some critics of the standards say content and skills are separate, with more emphasis on skills, Harper doesn’t see it that way. “They are on a continuum,” he said. “It’s how we use content realistically.”
Harper addressed the difference between “standards” and “curriculum.” While Gaucher used “Julius Caesar,” he could have used “The Three Little Pigs,” Harper said, adding jokingly, “But I don’t think there’s a speech in there.” The local district has complete control of how to implement the standards, he said. While Common Core has a list of suggested texts for ELA, “We will continue to use the classics,” he said.
The standards are to curriculum as building codes are to an architect, Harper pointed out. The standards establish what a child needs to know, but the local school has total control over the translation of standards to curriculum.
“And if we don’t think it’s rigorous enough, we’ll make it rigorous,” he said.
He opened the floor to questions, and one parent asked, “In the matter of rigor, has Common Core caused this school to reassess its curriculum? Would we expect Pinkerton to be at this level already?”
Harper responded, “Curriculum is a very dynamic thing. We are constantly assessing it, with a whole host of data.”
He continued, “We have looked more at the skills piece.” While students were answering multiple-choice questions on standardized tests, many were skipping over the “big” questions, and that concerns the faculty, Harper said.
Gaucher said Common Core has helped them to redefine rigor. He used to design his classes to cram in everything from the Anglo-Saxon period to the 21st century. Now, he said, “I’ll take a few selected pieces and go more deeply.”
One mother asked how many standards there are, and Boyle took that question. “For high school math there are 162 to 167, covering five domains,” she said. That translates to 30 to 60 per course, she said.
Gaucher added that for ELA, New Hampshire looked at nine “big ideas” – reading literature, reading for information, writing expository pieces, writing narrative, writing argumentatively, a tech component, a research component, a speaking component and a listening component.
“I’m concerned about what we are going to lose in terms of a base of knowledge,” one woman said.
Harper agreed that those decisions need to be carefully made. The Common Core is not the “inch-deep, mile-wide” learning that has taken place in the past, he said. But there’s also a “certain cultural legacy” that needs to be passed on. “It’s not just about careers,” he said.
Gaucher added, “It’s not ‘I’m going to cover 15 pieces of literature,’ but ‘What are the ideas behind them.’”
For example, he said, “For freshmen I have to think, ‘What am I willing to give up to spend more time on ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’”
One father asked, “How will this affect leveling, or students in the CTE (Career and Technical Education) program?”
It will be adapted to students of different levels and abilities, Gaucher said. For example, with a C-level student, a teacher will give them five sources from which to glean information for an essay; for an A-level class, the students will be expected to find their own sources.
The senior essay will remain for all students, but at C-level it will be a shorter, career-focused paper, while an A-level student will spend three months on a 20-page paper. “Argumentation will be a part of every level, but will increase in complexity,” he said.
To a mother’s question of “How are the kids responding,” Boyle said, “Their understanding is ‘through the roof.’” Some are not yet comfortable with this way of thinking, she said, but they’re also no longer skipping the open-ended responses.
“The nouns are the same, but our verbs are changing,” Boyle said. “They are changing to ‘recognize,’ ‘relate,’ ‘compare’ and ‘contrast,’ to explain what we’re doing with those nouns.”