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    Memphis teachers learning new ways to teach

    By Jane Roberts - The Commercial Appeal -

    Tennessee's elementary and middle school math classes will sound more like philosophy, even debate practice, starting this fall.

    Under the new Common Core standards being adopted locally and nationally, students in grades 3-8 will be encouraged to work problems in ways that make sense to them.

    "Our classrooms are going to be like those you walked by and wondered why they were so loud," said Almond Fraction, fourth-grade teacher at Klondike in north Memphis. "We thought they can't possibly be learning anything."

    More than 13,000 math teachers across the state are in school this week and next, learning what it takes to lead students in math but not corral them in narrow thinking that there is only one way to solve a problem.

    "It used to be, I do, we do together, now you do," said teacher Kaitlyn Steigler, a Southwind Elementary teacher describing how she would teach a concept at the board, work with students as they did it together, then direct them to do the next problem on their own.

    "Now, the kids will take charge," she said. "The teaching will be based on what we figure they know or don't know."

    In its simplest form, the Common Core is a list of must-have knowledge and skills students need to succeed in work or college. The movement to get states on board was spearheaded by the National Governors Association over the last five years; 46 states so far have signed on. Tennessee joined in 2010.

    Common Core emphasizes fewer concepts, allowing teachers to drill down in core tenets, including exploring different ways they can be used to solve problems.

    In third-grade math, for instance, the number of standards will decrease from 113 to 25. Assuming children master the concepts, teachers will not spend time reteaching concepts, such as how to multiply fractions.

    "The kids are going to have much more ownership of the learning," said Alison Garibaldi, a Lakeland Elementary teacher.

    The math standards rolled out last year in Tennessee for kindergarten through second grade. This year, grades 3-8 come on board, although teachers will only focus on two standards. In the spring, elementary and middle school students will take the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test based on the old state standards, but they also will be tested on two Common Core standards that deal with fractions. While the results will not be on their individual report cards, they will be on the school's record.

    "It lets us take the temperature to see how our kids are doing and how our teachers are doing," said David Stephens, assistant Shelby County Schools superintendent.

    The idea is to turn the United States into a nation of math-doers. Believers say lots of students lost on the periphery could learn math if they were allowed to figure problems out in ways that make sense to them.

    "We're asking students to struggle and be frustrated but stay with it. When they get it, they really get it instead of memorizing algorithms " said Linda Kennard, head of curriculum and instruction in the city schools.

    About 500 teachers from Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools are learning the strategies this week at Houston High and Southwind High. Next week, an even larger batch will convene for three-day sessions at Cordova High and Craigmont Middle. When finished 1,388 city and county schools math teachers, two per grade, will be ready to teach their peers the tenets of math under Common Core.

    It is the largest simultaneous teacher training event in state history, being carried out in 41 schools by 200 math "coaches," who have been fine-tuning the lessons since April with help from the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The coaches receive a $10,000 stipend to make sure the year and transition go smoothly. Each teacher receives $100 per day to attend.

    "I've been teaching for 18 years and I've never been part of something like this," said MCS math coach Pam Giles, who is working on her vacation this week to lead 25 teachers in training at Southwind High.

    "I did it because this is really important to me. Teaching math this way can make a major difference in students' lives. I don't mind giving up my vacation to do it because it is that important."

    Tennessee budgeted $7.4 million in federal Race to the Top money to switch to the Common Core; $5.9 million is dedicated to training K-12 teachers and administrators.

    At the same time it's rolling out math standards, the state department of education will pilot Common Core reading standards in 60 schools statewide, taking what it learns to shape how the mass teacher training in reading is conducted next summer.

    "What makes this fun is that they are doing such a good job of presenting it," said Anita Blount, a 30-year teacher who rolls her eyes at the "number of teacher in-services" she's had to attend.

    By 2013-2014, the Common Core will be fully implemented in Tennessee schools. The following year, the TCAP test will disappear. Students instead will take a standardized test based on the Common Core. For the first time, the test will be taken online.

    Also for the first time, curriculum in the vast majority of states will be the same, making it possible for employers to easily compare workforces from state to state.