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Vt. schools' new approach to help students learn the Common Core - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. schools' new approach to help students learn the Common Core

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BARRE, Vt. - Experts say part of the problem with the old approach to math was it encouraged memorization instead of understanding. New Common Core math standards kick in next fall and aim to change that, but teaching a new approach to numbers means teachers have to learn it first.


In Ms. Elisha Coleman's algebra class at Spaulding High School, sophomore Desmond Avallone and her fellow students are working their way through a factoring problem.

"Last year in math class it was way different from what I'm learning now," said Avallone.

Avallone is new to the district this year. She says math is not her strong subject but the classroom approach is helping her learn.

"When you have a teacher who makes you enjoy it and really pushes you, it's the best," said Avallone.

Ms. Coleman doesn't just lecture or outline a problem and have students practice a formula. She reworked her lessons to be able to coach students so they find answers on their own.

The path through an equation can be windy.

Reporter Kristen Kelly: How big a change is this for you? You say you've been doing this for 8 years?

Elisha Coleman: Yeah, I would say it’s a really big change. And it's hard; it's hard not to just step in. Oftentimes the kids will say "why don’t you just tell us" and you know that would be easier, but it would not help them understand what they’re doing.

Freshmen Yvonne Otis says she switched to this algebra class after struggling in the fall. She's surprised how the give and take with other students is helping her.

"You can learn from their mistakes," said Otis. "It's like a new way of thinking because you are looking at it from their perspective."

The changing approach to math reaches through every grade in the Barre district.

A growing number of studies are finding that students who are successful in their early years understanding numbers are more likely to be successful in math and other academic subjects later on in their school careers.

"One of the things Common Core math did really well, was it considered the good ED research on how kids learn, how brains work," said Beth Hulbert, Barre district math coordinator.

An example of that can be seen in Mary Gehlbach's first-grade class at Barre Elementary. The Common Core pushes geometric concepts like shapes into later grades so K through 3 students can spend more time learning about how numbers work. The new standards focus on depth of knowledge and the ability to apply it.

"It's very different from what we are used to, very meaty if you want to call it that," said Gehlbach

Ms. Gelbach is getting help reworking her classroom approach from math expert Chris Farnham. She steps in to co-teach for about six weeks.

"We have an opportunity to sit down and say wait a second, how did yesterday go? What do we really need to think about, what do we need to change today," said Farnham

"I've learned a lot from her in collaborating and planning," said Gehlbach.

Barre was well positioned to help teachers learn the new standards. The district already has a Math Lab.

It's a team of teachers to give extra help to any student struggling with math. Those teachers are now the ones pushing into classrooms teaching teachers the approach to Common Core.

"There's not enough time for professional development, so we have to embed professional development as much as possible," said Hulbert.

Teachers have also gone to special trainings and meet in groups to go over lessons together.

Some districts have not spent as much time preparing teachers, but students in every Vermont district will still be facing standardized test questions incorporating Common Core standards by next year.

"It's all over the map. I think there's tremendous variability in the state, unfortunately in terms of how prepared people are for some of the challenges posed by teaching to the Common Core," said Holcombe.

The state spent $7 million on professional development for teachers this year. Holcombe says that while the shift to the new standards is taking a lot of work, it will mean Vermont kids leave school better prepared for the real world.

"If you want students to be able to actually use that knowledge as a skill in life to solve problems they have to be able to recognize when it’s relevant, when it's important," said Holcombe.

Coleman was not convinced learning the new Common Core standards was worth her time when she started her first training session last summer, but says additional training and what she sees in her students makes her a believer.

"I think there's a big difference and like I said we're not all the way there yet. It's not perfect yet, but when they really make a connection they get excited, 'I got it, this is the first time, I got it,'" said Coleman.

It's a powerful formula for Avallone who looks forward to the part of class when the group finally reaches an answer to the problem.

"You're like, yes! I feel success from my teammates. Really, that's what I think of math class as, is a team, working all together," said Avallone.

State education officials say that Common Core standards show schools where they need to be for each grade in math and literacy, but it's up to each individual district to decide the best way to help students get there.

Click here for more on Common Core Math Standards.
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