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Pearl River Teachers Adapt to New State Standards

Pearl River's administrators and teachers are adapting the curriculum to fit new standards mandated by the New York State Education Department.

Pearl River students should not be surprised to find themselves taking tests when classes begin Wednesday.

A greater focus on assessment at the beginning and end of the school year is just a part of the change in standards set by the state education department. 

"One of the biggest changes for the students this year is they are going to be assessed from day one," said Pearl River High English (ELA) teacher Tracy Holihan. "They will be assessed at the beginning of the school year and again at the end to see what growth and progress they've made. The biggest change for students is coming in and being hit with an assessment right away. I think that's going to be a shock for them."

The Pearl River administration spoke about changes in the curriculum based on changing state standards many times at school board meetings over the past year. According to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Sue Wheeler, one of the major changes is the shift to the use of more informational texts in all classes, including English Language Arts. The type of writing students will do is also changing, with more of a focus on evidence-based arguments and less creative writing.

Patch spoke about the changes with three Pearl River High School ELA teachers as they prepared for the new school year -- Holihan, Doreen Arney and Lauren Piccinich.

"The biggest jump will be for subjects outside of English because they are pushing for informational literacy and informational texts," Arney said. "We are also now trying to achieve a balance of incorporating that into our classes as well. English teachers love to immerse themselves in fiction, but now we need to pull in more non-fiction to help the students be more college ready."

Arney said that in some respects, Pearl River is already ahead of the game because the district already focused on literacy in all of its courses.

"Pearl River has always incorporated literacy in the core programs across the board," Arney said. "We've been doing that for eons, it seems, because we had an administration and staff that has been visionary and realized that this is where the importance is. We (English teachers) may be responsible for teaching them core skills, but they need to practice it as well. So we have had training and practice with vocabulary building and reading."

All three teachers agreed that the new standards are more structured than the previous ones, leaving less room for personal choices by teachers as they plan their units and lessons.

"We're sitting here now trying to create a syllabus for seniors," Arney said. "We're being told what must be covered by the core standards. Where in the past, it was up to state standards, our curriculum director and our knowledge to create a syllabus that would be enriching and engaging for kids. Right now, we're trying to fit the mold of what the core standards are telling us without it becoming cookie cutter. Each of us is still trying to bring our individual personalities, our interests, to motivate the kids so that it's not the same thing everywhere."

That led to fewer choices for students. In the past, seniors could choose the type of English course they wanted to take, with each providing a different focus. 

"They were full-year courses with different titles, more like you see in college," Arney said. "If they were interested in mythology, they would have taken Tracy's class. Mine was a psychology focus on English. That has been eliminated because of the core standards, because we must fit this mold. That's what we're working on. We're taking pieces of our courses and trying to make this amalgam of a curriculum."

Arney said she will still naturally tend to look at the psychological aspect of texts read in class while Holihan may look for mythological heroes, but the material will be the same.

"Student choice is a big push and I think they are more engaged when they are able to learn the type of genre they want to learn," Piccinich said. "They can't choose any more. I think choices get them engaged. They feel like they own it more than just having us assigning work and saying read this and do this. 

"They are seniors and they are going into college where they will have to choose their majors. This was, I thought, a really nice way to prepare them for that, starting to narrow down what they really want to study."

"Isn't that teaching 101?" Arney said. "You empower the students by giving them choices. You engage them. It's a part of motivation."

The assessments at the beginning of the year also cut into instructional time.

"You have to question where the powers that be have decided that using valuable instructional time to just add more assessments into the day is actually helping learning," Arney said. "It is counter-intuitive. We only get 40 minutes a day with them. We have a lot to cover. Writing skills, reading skills, grammar skills, vocabulary skills, critical thinking skills. Now let's throw in a test."

The focus on testing at the beginning and end of the year fits in with the state putting a larger emphasis on measuring growth in students.

"The final can remain the final, but the state wants to see some measure of growth and they need a way to measure growth," Holihan said. "That's why they added this assessment at the beginning."

Pearl River's teachers and principals are also dealing with state-mandated evaluations. The district's plan for Annual Professional Performance Reviews was recently approved by the state

Educators in general have expressed concerns about the evaluations, but Arney, Piccinich and Holihan said that the support they have from the administration makes it much less of a worry for them and that it should not interfere with their ability to collaborate.

"They constantly encourage collaboration here," Holihan said. "When APPR first came out, the administration said from the beginning that we are going to work to figure this process out and it's never going to be a fearful thing."

"Now comes the work of implementing our plan (for APPR)," Pearl River Superintendent Dr. John Morgano said last week. "As I will tell the teachers on opening day, we are all in this together. We will figure it out. We have very good teachers, so I'm not concerned about this." 

The combination of the changes in standards and evaluations could make things seem different early on.

"We have a very supportive community," Arney said. "My hope is for the students to understand they need to be flexible and patient, too. We are doing everything for their benefit. The choices we make are what is going to serve them best to get to the next level."

"I really think the biggest difference for the kids is going to be the assessments," Piccinich said. "Other than that, they've never seen an English 12 before, so they won't even notice. In a year or two, they won't remember that there were three different senior English classes." 

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