Liberty Middle School 6th-graders inspired by Common Core-based work

By Justin Runquist, Columbian small cities reporter

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CAMAS — Liberty Middle School wrapped up one of its first experiments with Common Core-driven coursework this week as Washington schools prepare to adopt new education standards in the next school year.

For the past six weeks, more than 200 sixth-graders at the school have pulled together their research to finish an ancient history project. The project is a highlight of the sixth grade at the school, though it underwent significant changes this year as the school looked for ways to integrate Common Core into the curriculum, said James Dewey, a sixth-grade history and language arts teacher.

"We've really tried to incorporate those ideas from Common Core about how do you use evidence, how do you cite evidence and gain the critical-thinking aspects," Dewey said. "We've been trying to think, 'How can we get more historical thinking rather than just regurgitation of facts?'?"

Common Core standards for math and language arts will be fully implemented in all Washington schools in the 2014-2015 school year. The transition means teachers across the state are focusing on assigning more challenging reading material, research assignments and narrative writing prompts, Dewey said.

Students put their projects on display in the school's library Thursday. From wall to wall, the room was filled with research papers, three-dimensional models of historical landmarks and figures and fictional letters written by the students from the perspectives of people living in ancient civilizations.

In past years, Liberty teachers have based the ancient history project merely on textbook research, Dewey said. But this year, they challenged the students to go further, directly seeking out historical writings, documents and other primary-source material for their projects.

"Those are often more difficult than our traditional sixth-grade history textbook," he said.

This year, the teachers also required the students to form their own arguments about historical figures or civilizations — learning to support claims is a tenet of the state's new standards for sixth-graders, based on Common Core.

Some students have struggled with the new approach of working with primary-source material as opposed to relying solely on textbook-based analysis of history, Dewey said. It forces students to work harder, he said, but overall, he sees them becoming more engaged with the material.

"They find history more interesting, I think, than the original textbooks, where you just read it and answered a question about it," he said. "One of the things I enjoy about this is it's making students take more ownership of their work."

Not everyone is a fan of Common Core, though. Republicans are divided about the new standards, with Tea Party-aligned officials in several states demanding that the program either be delayed or scrapped altogether.

While supporters praise the standards as a needed change that will challenge students in new ways, critics argue Common Core will fail by taking a one-size-fits-all approach to learning.

Democrats have had to respond to criticism from many teachers about the program's implementation. For teachers at Liberty, the curriculum changes mean more hours spent outside the classroom on grading and planning, Dewey said.

Forty-five states had adopted Common Core until Indiana withdrew from the program last month, and the Oklahoma Legislature recently passed a bill to pull out, as well. The bill awaits a signature from Gov. Mary Fallin.

Students in dozens of states and the District of Columbia recently began taking field tests for Common Core. The tests opened earlier this week in New York to loud protests from parents, with many taking their children out of the classrooms for the day.