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Teachers look back at first year with the new curriculum

Interviews by Ron Whitehorne and Jessica Oliff

Lisa HantmanLisa Hantman is in her first year of teaching third grade at McCall Elementary School. She has taught in the School District of Philadelphia for 16 years.

Hantman said last year at her previous school was the hardest year she has had in her 20-year teaching career. As a veteran teacher, she had seen many new curricula come and go. But she said that by the first week in September, she knew this new curriculum was different.

"The fact that they actually gave out materials [and] the fact that they were going to test kids every six weeks with a standardized test - that was a big deal."

Hantman found aspects she liked in the new curriculum, particularly the guides that tell teachers what skills and topics they should cover each week.

"They are very organized and clear-cut. I found it comforting to know what [the District] wanted kids to know by a certain date."

However, Hantman also had serious concerns.

"They asked us to start the pacing guide on day one, and you cannot start anything on day one except bonding a class. That was devastating, and it showed throughout my school.. There was no community in the classroom," she said.

In addition, the traditional lack of monitoring persisted. "Nobody ever came into my classroom, and nobody ever questioned my lesson plans," she added.

Hantman noted that her own approach to teaching differs markedly from the core curriculum. "I do a lot of innovative stuff.. I teach the skills I am supposed to teach, but I don't use a textbook," she said.

Nevertheless, Hantman's thematic approach to teaching accomplishes all of the same goals as the District's curriculum, and her students score as well as peers on standardized tests.

"The difference," Hantman said, "is that my kids leave my room with an appreciation for reading and for books. Ninety percent of them leave my room believing they can write in a way that they didn't believe they could write before and believing they have something to say to the world."

Erica YoungErica Young taught second grade last year at Robert Morris Elementary School in North Philadelphia, her first year as a teacher. She returned to the same position this year.

As a new teacher, Young naturally followed the directions given to her, which were to closely follow the curriculum. "I recognized the need for standards and consistency.. It's not really my style to go 'by the book,' but I got close to doing it that way last year," Young said.

But after a year's experience, and particularly after doing some professional development with the Philadelphia Writing Project over the summer, Young questioned the way the core curriculum "does it all for you."

The highly structured and sometimes scripted curriculum "didn't give me much chance to find my identity as a teacher, to find out what worked for me in my classroom," Young said. An exception was guided reading, where Young had considerable autonomy and thus was able to be creative in developing her lessons. She said this was the part of the teaching day she enjoyed the most and where she grew as a teacher.

Young echoed the criticisms of many teachers in faulting aspects of the reading and writing programs for lacking depth and opportunities for students to develop ownership of their work. She says that the writing program's emphasis on writing to prompts and mastering differing forms of writing was presented in a bewildering and arbitrary fashion.

Young said she is "so much more excited this year." With the confidence that comes from experience and reflection, she intends to "do the things I believe in." A significant test of the viability of the new curriculum might be how well it can combine the need for standards and consistency with the creativity of teachers like Young.

Martha PerezMartha Perez is a veteran teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School. Last year she taught math and reading to a self-contained eighth grade, predominantly English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

For Perez, the core curriculum is a step forward from the lack of consistent standards and accountability that she said characterized the School District in past years. Persistent low achievement at schools like Julia de Burgos meant "people had to step up to the plate," Perez said.

Still, Perez has a range of concerns about the new instructional program, particularly in relation to students who are just beginning to learn English. Previously at Julia de Burgos, much of the instruction for English as a Second Language was provided in Spanish. But now, because the PSSA exam is only given in English, nearly all instruction is in English, which is a major disadvantage for students who have minimal English skills.

Perez noted that many of her students who could not write answers to the open-ended, complex questions characteristic of the PSSA could write very sophisticated answers in Spanish. The benchmark test, again administered only in English, was "basically a guessing game" for her students with limited English proficiency.

Perez also feels that the literacy core curriculum needs some modification. Perez said she wants children "to fall in love with reading" and questioned whether the emphasis on reading short selections to learn specific skills serves this end.

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