Tupelo teachers develop district's curriculum

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – While students in Tupelo enjoy their summer break, a group of about 100 teachers has been working hard to improve what those pupils will learn next year.
During Tupelo’s second Summer Curriculum Writing Project, those educators are developing documents to guide their teaching throughout the school year.
“Last summer, we accomplished a lot,” Lawhon Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Celeste Ellis said of the first curriculum project. “We did a lot, but this year we are fine-tuning it and making it better.”
They are refining some of the materials created last year and creating some new ones. They’re also trying to better align what the district teaches with new national standards that Mississippi will begin following by the 2014-15 school year.
Those standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bring consistency across the country. Mississippi is among the states that has agreed to use them.
“Common Core is a huge implementation,” said Leigh Mobley, Tupelo’s executive director of school improvement. “It will make huge changes, and we need to get a head start.”
The district began installing them in kindergarten through second grade during the past school year. It now will begin putting in those standards that naturally fit the curriculum in other grades.
Participants in the curriculum writing project are laying the groundwork to do that.
They’re also compiling a common list of resources, including online ones, that can be used to help teachers.
“We have teachers doing wonderful things in pockets,” said Kenneth Griswold, instructional technology specialist. “We want to increase resources available to teachers and train them so they can use the resources available to them.”
The curriculum project recently completed its second of three weeks. Kindergarten to second-grade teachers are at Parkway Elementary School, and third- to 12th-grade educators are located at Church Street School.
Teachers applied to be part of the group and are paid for their work. Curriculum Specialist Brandie Freed said they have attracted more teachers with 10-plus years of experiences this summer.
Participants say it has been helpful having teachers from different campuses brought together in one building.
“I think it is a great professional growth experience,” said Lawndale special education teacher Karen Logan.
Said Mobley: “It is phenomenal for talking to each other. I think in a district this size, that is a big problem. We have discovered kindergarten in building A and building B are not on the same page, and we want to work on that.”
During the first curriculum writing project last year, educators worked to ensure that what was being taught at various schools across the district was consistent and that there were not gaps in what students needed to learn as they advanced to higher grades.
They developed curriculum guides that spelled out which objectives needed to be taught and pacing guides that advised teachers when to introduce those skills and gave them resources for doing so.
This year, teachers will not only strengthen those guides, but they also will write questions that can be used to test students throughout the year to gauge how well those pupils have understood the various concepts.
“We are working hard on developing test items and making sure questions have the rigor we need,” said Mobley, who essentially serves as the district’s curriculum director. “Districts across the state have struggled with finding that rigor.
“Some of these assessments will count as nine-week tests, which is why teachers need to be very involved in writing them.”
The group also is trying to improve what was developed last year. Mobley said it is important to take and respond to feedback from teachers.
“We are trying to simplify this process so teachers have as much time to teach as possible and don’t get bogged down in paperwork,” she said.
Added Lawndale Elementary School fourth-grade teacher April West: “It was helpful last year, but this year, we are making it simpler and more teacher-friendly.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com