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'Brains are on fire' in Amherst

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 13. 2013 11:42PM
A lot of hands go up as first-grade teacher Brenda McHugh asks her students at Wilkins Elementary School in Amherst to solve a "number bond" for 10, shown on the white grease board, while the district's mathematics coach, Jen Eccleston, looks on (far left). (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

AMHERST ­— Brenda McHugh was in the middle of a math lesson with her first-grade class at Wilkins Elementary when mathematics coach Jen Eccleston entered the room with Nicole Heimarck, director of curriculum and professional development for SAU 39, the district that serves elementary schools in Amherst and Mont Vernon as well as Souhegan Regional High School.

As McHugh paused to introduce her guests, including a reporter, one girl leapt to her feet and turned to face the visitors: "I solved a tricky question today, Mrs. Eccleston," she said. "Our brains are on fire."

There was a lot of talk about brain power in McHugh's class that morning and obvious enthusiasm among the 15 first-graders. They gathered in a semi-circle at her feet as she took them through several exercises designed to reveal concepts behind addition, subtraction, equations and even what Heimarck described as "algebraic thinking."

McHugh hung an orange rod on one side of the scale with 10 blocks. On the other side, she hung a green rod with six blocks and a purple rod with four blocks.

"Six, which is a part, and four, which is another part, are equal to the whole, which is 10," she says. "Can I prove it on the scale?"

"Yes," comes the reply.

"It is equal. How do I know?" asks McHugh.

"Because it balances," the class replies in unison.

"So many kids have their brains on fire," says our precocious greeter.

In SAU 39, the seeds of algebraic thinking are sown in first grade, said Heimarck, through a new math curriculum that's been five years in the making and is consistent with Common Core math standards.

In Barbara Pitowski's third-grade class, students have been graphing weather trends from month to month, integrating calendar and time lessons into a basic math class that also includes a discussion of equilateral and isosceles triangles.

It's a far cry from the old days, says Eccleston, when students were essentially told, "Yours is not to reason why; yours is just to multiply."

Getting a headstart

When the New Hampshire Board of Education decided to replace the state's Grade Level Expectations with Common Core State Standards in 2010, SAU 39 was already one year into a review of its math curriculum, said Heimarck. The district was well-positioned to become one of the state's earliest adopters of Common Core, and it embraced the standards as a foundation.

"In 2010, we developed our local curriculum with Common Core as the centerpiece, but not the only piece," said Heimarck. "Our curriculum in some areas exceeds the Common Core State Standards."

The district applied for and received a federal grant under Title II-A, a fund for teacher training programs, and used the money to bring an internationally known consultant on math education into the Amherst district schools for a year. Teachers also attended a weeklong institute in math education in the summer of 2011, volunteering their time. The district began to phase in the new curriculum, starting with kindergarten and Grade 1 in 2010 and continuing at two grade levels each year.

"At the pace we are on now, we will be fully implementing the new curriculum, K through 9 and maybe into Grade 10 by the start of school in September 2014," said Heimarck.

The first round of statewide testing based on Common Core starts in 2015.

"Generally speaking, we are comfortable with our students being ready for Smarter Balanced, with a caveat," said Heimarck. "There is going to be a tendency to compare the last NECAP results to Smarter Balanced when it rolls out in the fall of 2015. That would be very damaging for our schools and our students."

New York state became one of the first to administer Smarter Balanced in the spring, with results at the end of August. Only 26 percent of students in third through eighth grade passed the tests in English; 30 percent passed in math, according to the New York State Education Department.

"That doesn't mean those students lost smarts," said Heimarck. "The standards are tougher. That's the change people have been asking for."

SAU 39 may be well down the road toward implementing Common Core, but it has not been immune to the recent mobilization of opponents. About 75 people attended a Common Core forum at Souhegan High School on Nov. 6, after which a statewide organization opposing the standards, Math Wizards, posted the following critique:

"Many expected to hear what was good about the Common Core standards, what the problems were and how their district was going to implement them. Instead they were subjected to a sales job."

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