By Chris Kieffer
CORINTH – Teaching is more difficult this year, said Corinth’s Ben Knight.
It also is more fun, said the eighth-grade English educator.
This is Knight’s first semester teaching in Corinth, which is in its third year of the national Excellence for All program. Participating schools in four states use a more demanding, rigorous curriculum that encourages critical-thinking, discussion and writing. Students often work in teams and justify answers. They also must pass exhaustive board examinations at the end of courses.
The University of Cambridge in England developed Corinth’s curriculum standards, which are different than those used by the rest of the state.
“I’ve had to bring my A-game every single day,” Knight said during a panel at Corinth High School about the program on Friday. “It has allowed me to express myself more as a teacher.”
The standards cover fewer topics but are much more in-depth, Knight said, meaning teachers don’t feel as much pressure to rush through the curriculum and can encourage more thought.
“I can have a lot more fun with my teaching and can tweak things to my strengths,” he said. “Instead of water-skiing, it is diving.”
Friday’s event was an opportunity for representatives of the National Center on Education and the Economy – which developed the Excellence for All program – and Cambridge International Examinations to see Corinth’s program. They attended panels of students, teachers and administrators and also visited classrooms.
Among the guests was Diane Palmer, assessment director for Cambridge International Examinations, who came from England to visit the school for the first time.
“It has been really interesting to hear teachers talk about how it has affected their practice in the classroom,” Palmer said. “To hear young people talk about how they can think better, write better and are better prepared for college, for me, that was inspirational.”
Corinth’s transition parallels what many schools and districts across the state will experience as they switch to the Common Core State Standards. The standards used by Corinth are different than those of the Common Core, but Corinth Superintendent Lee Childress said they are similar.
“The assessment strategies and instructional strategies we have in place are what other schools will have to use to meet the Common Core,” he said.
In both, Childress said, educators must switch from narrowly teaching a large number of skills to delving into deeper understanding on fewer concepts.
“One of the problems with education in Mississippi and in America is we have been too focused on testing and trying to cover massive amounts of material,” Childress said. “We have never covered many skills or concepts in depth.”
Preparing students and their parents for the more demanding courses was difficult, teachers said.
“They’ve never seen anything like this,” said biology teacher Debbie Madjlesi. “The grades are not as good as before. The students and parents are not as happy.
“But by the second six weeks, we’ve worked through that and they know what is required. They can’t just give me the answer. They have to give me a thorough description.”
Students said their workload has increased, with more requirements for essays, video projects and presentations.
“I’ve just gotten adjusted,” said senior Frances Bullard, noting it has been hard to balance those requirements with a busy extracurricular schedule. “For three years, it has been a journey.”
Bullard said the new demands to research and to justify answers forced her to “learn to think for myself and not what others wanted me to think.”
“I feel I can hold my own in debates now and in conversations with friends and adults,” she said. “I feel like I know what I’m talking about, and I’m included in the conversation. I feel more educated now.”
Teachers also spoke of the benefits of those higher demands and the new more thorough examinations.
“I think multiple choice tests in the U.S. have hurt our math understanding,” said Joan Roberts, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade math. “It is about give me the answer but not really about understanding. Students learn tricks for solving the problems.
“Now we are trying to make them know that just knowing the answer is not enough. You have to understand it now.”
Corinth and Clarksdale were the two Mississippi school districts that volunteered to pilot the Excellence for All program during the 2011-12 school year, joining schools in Arizona, Kentucky and Connecticut. Mississippi schools in Columbia and Lamar County have joined this year. The Gulfport School District also has adopted different curriculum standards, but its program doesn’t fall under Excellence for All.