August 10, 2012
Future principals explore curriculum
Teachers can shape what they are presenting by starting with “essential questions,” which lead to “guiding questions” and onward to a unit’s worth of lessons.
A school district can build a district-wide curriculum approach from that template, which can provide an anchor in turbulent times of budget cuts, aid decreases, more mandates and New York state’s push to match federal education policy.
“The perfect storm” is what one teacher called schools’ challenges Thursday at SUNY Cortland’s annual Francis J. Cheney Educational Leadership Conference at Sperry Center.
About 55 college instructors and teachers who are studying to become administrators explored a template was presented by a team of educators.
The conference is funded by Louise Conley — granddaughter of the conference’s namesake, an early principal of Cortland Normal School, the college’s predecessor — and the College Foundation.
Most people attending Thursday’s conference were finishing their administrator internship or starting it. They were from the Cortland, Syracuse, Utica and Binghamton areas.
Their focus was a template for a district-wide curriculum to guide teachers.
One participant — Paul Schoeneck, Central Square Middle School principal — said he had not seen so much change in 31 years as an educator, as he has the past couple of years.
Another participant, art teacher Albert Shaw from the Utica city schools, said art and music have been facing massive cuts. He said his district lost teaching jobs for 2012-13 even as it grows by 200 students per year due to an influx of refugees who find a home in Utica.
Conference Director Kevin Mack, chair of SUNY Cortland’s educational leadership department, said principals can arm their teachers with a uniform curriculum if they can convince the teachers to accept it. Right now, within the state curriculum, teachers design their own curricula.
Mack and Barbara Phillips, the Race to the Top coordinator for Broome-Tioga BOCES, said teachers can design lessons and tests that connect with the goals the state Education Department has developed to attract federal funding.
The template also covers how lessons connect to technology and texts, and how to use the students’ own questions.
Most teachers at the conference said their districts do not have a district-wide approach to teaching.
Phillips said questions could be what makes a good read a great book, and what can be learned from seeing historical conflict from the “loser” side.
The questions behind what teachers are doing need to be thought-provoking, without right or wrong answers, directed at the topic and posted in the classroom so students and the teacher can see them throughout the unit of instruction.
The first group session let the teachers explore the questions behind what they are teaching. The second session focused on vocabulary, which students learn in three tiers: everyday words, words that students see mostly in textbooks and on tests, and words specific to a content area.
The teachers divided into two classrooms: grades kindergarten through six, and grades seven through 12. Working in groups, the teachers decided on essential questions in math, science, English and social studies.
The math group consisted of Schoeneck, Shaw and Dave Phetteplace, elementary music teacher at Groton Central School. Faced with a unit for eighth-graders about rational and irrational numbers, they chose four questions after some discussion: Why are numbers important in a person’s life? Where does the number system end? Where do numbers come from? How should numbers be important for the eighth-graders to understand?
The three were referring to using numbers in percentages, square roots, finance and music.
The English group created questions about biography, the science group found questions about earthquakes and the social studies group looked at civil war.
Mack said the curriculum template might help to alleviate some of the anxiety among teachers and staff that has been growing the past couple of years, as the state toughened its assessment test scoring and linked testing results to the teachers’ Annual Professional Performance Review system that starts this fall.
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