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Teachers learning how to use Common Core

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LAND O’ LAKES — Debbie Weir struck upon Socratic seminars four years ago as a way to help her Advanced Placement World History students at Land O’ Lakes High become more engaged in their learning.

The students divide into two groups, each with an opposing point of view based on a subject covered in a classroom reading. Using a question-and-answer method, each group makes the case for its side, with the restriction that students must refer to facts from the text they read in class to support their arguments.

Other than that, it’s pretty much the students’ show.

“I just sit back at my podium and keep track of who is talking,” Weir said. “It’s a fantastic way to show that deepening of knowledge.”

Although Weir started her Socratic seminars four years ago, the idea of getting students more engaged in the classroom — as opposed to having the teacher lecture and students listen — lines up neatly with what’s expected with the Common Core State Standards, the new academic standards that are scheduled to be fully implemented for the 2014-15 school year.

“The kids have to begin to own the learning,” said Chris Christoff, the Pasco County school district’s director of professional development.

Ideally, at the end of the day, the students rather than the teachers will be the ones exhausted, said Jennifer Waselewski, who specializes in English language arts in the district’s Office for Teaching and Learning.

Waselewski and Christoff led a training session in the Common Core standards Tuesday for about 20 teachers from Land O’ Lakes High and Wesley Chapel High. At the same time, similar Common Core training was happening with other groups of teachers at other locations at district headquarters in Land O’ Lakes.

Standards training is difficult, Christoff said, because the standards are simply broad goals for the knowledge and skills a student needs to accomplish at a specific grade level. It’s up to teachers to take those standards and translate them into instruction in the classroom.

The goal of the training, Christoff said, is to provide teachers the skills they need to “unpack those standards.”

The training is a joint venture between the district’s Office for Professional Development and School Support, which helps teachers improve their skills, and the district’s Office of Teaching Learning, which is charged with overseeing Common Core implementation.

“We’ve done it in concert with that office so it makes sense on a content level and makes sense on a skill level,” Christoff said.

In the past, each state has had its own academic standards, but that is changing. The Common Core standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, with the Florida Board of Education signing on with the standards in 2010. The next year, schools began phasing them in, starting with kindergarten and first-grade students.

Initially, the standards got scant attention, but slowly they have become controversial.

Common Core proponents say the standards provide more depth of learning and will better prepare students for college, the workforce and competition in a global economy. They also will insure that students who move from state to state face the same expectations, they say.

A growing number of critics say the standards aren’t as rigorous as proponents claim and represent a federal intrusion into what should be state and local decisions about education. Some opponents express concerns that data collected could violate student privacy. The criticisms have led Florida to consider some tweaking to the standards, including adding a requirement for cursive writing.

Christoff doesn’t concern himself too much with the controversy.

Students will be assessed on these standards, he said, and it’s his office’s job to get the teachers where they need to be so they can get the students to where they need to be.

In the training sessions, the teachers are led through a process where they break down a standard verb by verb and noun by noun until they have a good understanding of the concept so they can then incorporate the standard into their lessons and make it come alive for students, Christoff said.

Christoff said as a teacher he “was a good talker.”

“I thought the kids were engaged and enjoyed what we were doing,” he said.

With Common Core, he said, it’s not so much about how much information the teachers give the students, but how the students interact with the material.

In language arts, students will spend less time writing about themselves, as in the past, and more time writing about the world based on analysis of what they read in class. In math, they will have time to delve more deeply into a smaller number of concepts.

Many teachers may already have been doing, at least in small chunks, what is expected with Common Core. In some ways, the teachers may be in better shape than they realize, Waselewski said.

“I think you are moving forward more proficiently than you think you are,” she told them.

Teachers involved in the training are facilitators for each school’s “professional learning communities,” which place a greater emphasis on collaborative efforts to make sure all students are progressing. The PLC facilitators in turn will take strategies they learn and share them with their colleagues back at their schools.

Even as teachers are being trained, the Pasco school district has been holding a series of community meetings at each of the county’s 13 public high schools to explain the Common Core standards to parents and anyone else interested. The first meeting was Jan. 14 at Anclote High.

All the meetings begin at 6 p.m. The remainder of the schedule for the community meetings is Thursday at Gulf High; Feb. 4 at Wesley Chapel High; Feb. 6 at Land O’ Lakes High; Feb. 11 at Hudson High; Feb. 13 at River Ridge High; Feb. 20 at Zephyrhills High; Feb. 25 at Sunlake High; Feb. 27 at Ridgewood High; and March 4 at Wiregrass Ranch High.

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