King Holds Court

“We are building an online course for our fellow students based on our studies of the Progressive Era,” said Kyla Walker, Persell Middle School eighth-grader.

“Students will read portions of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and we designed questions for them to answer based on, for example, how the food back then is different than the food in our cafeteria. We also created guided notes so that students could create a diary entry showing a ‘day in the life’ of a person in that time period.”

Kyla was describing her group’s social studies project with New York State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. during his recent visit to Jamestown Public Schools.

Kyla, along with eighth-graders Jon Sandstrom, Alicia Rensel, Alyson Edwards, Ryleigh Trask and Andrew Roof, were developing an online course for their fellow students with the help of teachers Jeff Kresge and Jason Kathman.

Through an iTunes U app and Moodle, these academically talented students work ahead and help create the curriculum for their classmates. As part of their learning experience, the eighth-graders are using Common Core literacy instruction and shifts including close reads and using evidence-based claims.

“We know that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

“These students have been tasked with not only learning the content, but to create engaging ways to deliver it through the use of online curriculum that their peers can immediately benefit from,” Kresge said. “The students research data called for by the social studies curriculum, evaluate the most suitable primary sources and methods to deliver the content, and then create a method to do so online that they themselves will be able to monitor as their classmates take part. The students have become experts in not only the content, but how to package the material in a way that will be engaging and enriching for their peers all while gaining a unique perspective on what their teachers need to do to create lessons according to Common Core methodology.”

King was very impressed with the student’s work and asked them what they thought about the new Common Core modules.

“The modules are really challenging, especially the math ones. But, they do result in a deeper level of thinking,” said Andrew Roof, Persell Middle School student. “It was hard because our teachers did not have the modules last year to prepare us for the state tests. But, because we have them this year, I think we will all do better.”

The students appreciated that King took the time to learn more about what they were doing in class, but also to hear a student’s opinion on the new Common Core Learning Standards and modules.

“As the students, we are the ones using the modules so it makes sense that he would ask our opinion and how we are experiencing using them. I think that it is a much better curriculum but challenging,” Kyla said.

“I also think it was important for him to come to a smaller city like Jamestown and see what we are doing and that we have needs just like the bigger cities in New York.”

The Persell Middle School visit was just the first stop on the commissioner’s tour of Jamestown Schools.

“Thanks to the Jamestown School District and the community for a great visit to schools today and hosting this conversation,” said King at a recent public forum. “I have visited over 40 schools since the start of the school year and I am struck by the great work that I’ve seen going on.

“The great work that educators, students and parents are engaged in around the Common Core standards. And today (in Jamestown), was no exception.”

The commissioner and Chancellor Emeritus Robert Bennett not only visited with eighth-graders at Persell Middle School, but also watched a fifth-grade math lesson in Betsy Pope’s class. Next, they visited Fletcher Elementary School second-grade classrooms, met with a Fletcher Elementary School third-grade teaching team and held a discussion with Jamestown PTA representatives.

At Fletcher Elementary School, King observed Shannon Osborne’s second-grade class in action working on an ELA module about Greek mythology. In the lesson, students learned about developing topic sentences, voicing the main idea and then providing specific details on the Greek god or goddess they had studied in depth. In Chris Emley’s classroom, students worked on a math module. In both classrooms, the commissioner helped students with their work.

After the classroom visits, King met with Fletcher third-grade teachers during their weekly team meeting, which included a discussion of how the students were progressing in the modules, analyzing student data and how the group planned to improve instruction. King specifically asked the teachers what concerns they had about the Common Core and the modules, both ELA and math.

“The commissioner’s surprise visit was a validation of all the hard work that we are doing as teachers,” said Rudi Andalora, Fletcher Elementary School third-grade teacher. “Many people assume that the new Common Core, or any program, is just teaching and planning.

They don’t realize all of the behind the scenes work that we do in analyzing student data and working together as a team to improve instruction. Our group was as honest as possible with the commissioner in letting him know both what is succeeding, and what is still challenging about the new Common Core modules. But, it was also a great opportunity to show him a glimpse of the fantastic teachers who are working really hard to help students succeed.”

The teachers and King exchanged thoughts and ideas.

Teachers explained that the ELA modules are dynamic, relevant and engaging for their students. The math modules, however, are more challenging for both students and their parents to understand the higher-level math.

“Even at third grade we are dealing with very high-level math skills,” Andalora said.

“It’s been a concern that our students have to keep moving through the modules even when we aren’t sure they are mastering it. After discussions with the commissioner, we left understanding that we need to keep moving ahead with the math modules and as they unfold during the school year, we will start seeing more ‘ah-ha’ moments from our students in terms of mastering the math skills that are now required.”

The commissioner’s last visit was with a group of JPS parents from the PTAs.

The commissioner asked the parents for specific concerns and questions that they had on the Common Core curriculum. Parents expressed concern about the difficulty of how to help their child with their homework.

They also reiterated that they like the rigor of the Common Core modules, however, they didn’t want it to take over so that students could not enjoy recess or activities that would be beneficial and fun.

“The commissioner was clearly impressed by what he saw,” JPS Superintendent Tim Mains said. “He will be sending a team from his department to film some of the great things we are doing here in Jamestown that will be posted on the State Education Department’s website – EngageNY.org. In addition, his staff will provide some professional development for our teachers, and Deputy Commissioner Ken Slentz will host a parent forum in the spring.”