Filed Under:  Education

Morris Jeff School shows how Common Core can work

23rd June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By George White
Contributing Writer
 
(Special from New America Media) — When Morris Jeff Community School, a charter elementary, reopened its doors here in 2010, five years after being destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, journalists were eager to interview Principal Patricia Perkins about the school’s plan to adopt an international education association’s more rigorous academic standards.

“It’s a curriculum framework that…focuses on foreign languages, critical thinking skills, arts and physical education,” Perkins told one reporter at the time. “It’s a very holistic way of educating children.”

Students of the Morris Jeff Community School.

Students of the Morris Jeff Community School.

Today, those same words could just as easily be used to describe the new education standards, known as Common Core, that schools in more than 40 states across the country, including Morris Jeff, will be adopting this fall.

As a result, eyes are once again being placed on Morris Jeff because, explained Perkins, the school already “offers a rigorous curriculum that… aligns with many of the Common Core State Standards for learning.”

The critical thinking skills that students are expected to learn under Common Core, for example, have already been among the objectives at Morris Jeff and more than 3,800 other “world schools” in 147 countries affiliated with International Baccalaureate Organ­ization (IBO), an association founded in 1968. Morris Jeff is the only elementary school in Louisiana with an IBO affiliation.

“Under IBO and Common Core, students are asked how and why information is important and how they made that determination,” Perkins said at a recent meeting with ethnic media journalists during a school visit organized by New America Media.

Perkins said the IBO school movement has been growing because the affiliated schools offer consistent, high-quality standards for the children of parents working outside of their home countries. Similarly, most states are adopting Common Core because it is designed to ensure that standards are consistent between districts and states, and because of the emphasis it places on high-quality instruction in English language arts and math.

In addition to placing more value on critical thinking and analysis, the new Common Core standards require the creation or adoption of curriculum that prompts students to develop real-world applications for their studies and engage in group problem-solving with their peers.

In mathematics, the Common Core standards call for a change from traditional instruction to a more visual, problem-solving approach exemplified by Singapore math, a type of curriculum that Morris Jeff has already used its classrooms for four years.

Over the same four-year period, Morris Jeff has been using an English language arts curriculum developed by Lucy Calkins, a series of books and lesson plans that many schools and districts are planning to adopt as they begin the transition to Common Core.

Visiting ethnic media journalists were able to observe this teaching approach in Morris Jeff’s third-grade class, taught by Catherine Coyle. She asked her students to sort 26 pieces of paper – each piece embossed with a letter from the alphabet – into various subgroupings based on a pattern or theme. Subsequently, many of the students sorted letters into smaller subgroups that reflected their order in the alphabet. When the sorting was completed, Coyle asked the students to “tell your neighbor how you grouped the letters and why you did it that way.”

Each student then explained their grouping logic to their seat mate. Under Common Core, students are expected to communicate more with each other in this fashion and – in some exercises – solve problems as members of small teams within the class.

Common Core also calls for curricula that engages students and requires them to demonstrate what they’ve learned. In Courtney Wilde’s second grade class, for example, students were given a tutorial on script-writing by a member of a local theater troupe.

The students are then asked to write a short script of their own.

After her students transitioned to gym class, Wilde told reporters about a math-related problem-solving exercise that also requires writing skills. In the exercise, the students conduct a “lab” experiment that required them to put a small cart on two ramps — one that declines at a 45-degree angle and another with a 33-degree drop. After the experiment, the students are assigned to write a paper explaining why carts travel at different speeds at different angles.

“Common Core is helping these kids become critical thinkers,” Wilde said. “Under Common Core, there is no regurgitation. This is needed because the workplace is more competitive nationally and globally.”

To be sure, as an IBO school, Morris Jeff emphasizes global awareness. There are flags of foreign countries in the hallways. Such an emphasis is not required under Common Core. However, the new standards give schools more flexibility in curricula selection if the lesson plans and themes prompt students to do exercises requiring practical application of knowledge.

For example, Morris Jeff students were taught about water as a finite resource, and learn about the emerging global need for conservation. Subsequently, they learned how to track and measure their daily water use at home and at school. The exercise was immediately relevant because the assignment was devised when a local utility began charging schools for water.

Older students at Morris Jeff are expected to demonstrate their capacity for analysis by conducting research and by delivering oral or multimedia presentations. During their visit, journalists observed a fifth-grader giving a presentation on gentrification in New Orleans. She used a large board displaying the names of neighborhoods that are undergoing change.

She then went on to discuss the negative impacts of gentrification – among them, residents displaced because they can no longer afford the higher rents—as well as the positive impacts, such as more city tax revenue from new restaurants that have opened in gentrified areas.

This type of instruction approach promotes critical thinking that can help students excel in the United States and abroad in a more globalized economy, said Principal Perkins, an advocate of Common Core.

“It’s important because we know how transient societies are today,” she said.

This article originally published in the June 23, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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