Classroom changes challenge, frustrate teachers

Betsy Mayo, a fifth-grade teacher at Songo Locks School in Naples, has taken inventory of the many changes in public schools through the last decade, including the constant overhaul of academic standards and student assessments, as well as the integration of technology.

Mayo said she’s noticed more students concentrating during class through the years as a result of ever-changing classroom technology.

Today, when students work on their laptops she notices “little to no behavior problems,” she said. “You can hear a pin drop in the classroom when kids are on their laptops.”

Mayo has been teaching for 30 years, beginning at Stevens Brook Elementary School in Bridgton from 1985-1999. She then taught at Crooked River Elementary School in Casco, and in 2003, was named Maine Teacher of the Year. She now teaches reading, writing and math on team of four teachers at Songo Locks.

“I’ve taught fourth, fifth and sixth grade, but the majority of my time has been spent in fifth grade,” says Mayo.

For Mayo, the transition from the “phonics” to the “whole language” approach to reading instruction was a “huge revolution” when she first started teaching.

Unlike phonics, a traditional method of teaching students to read and pronounce words by learning the sounds of letters, letter groups and syllables, the whole language approach teaches students to recognize words as whole pieces of language.

As a recent college graduate, Mayo had been “launched” into the whole language approach without special training or guidelines, which is one reason that she finds today’s Common Core academic standards valuable for teachers.

“What I like about the Common Core is that is has a set of expectations,” Mayo said. “When we (changed) to whole language, there was this philosophy that kids would learn to read by (simply) reading, but we didn’t really have a lot of research or professional development to teach kids to read that way.”

Another big shift, Mayo said, was implementation of Maine Learning Results in 1997, a set of standards that the state Department of Education periodically updates to align with the evolving expectations of 21st-century colleges and careers.

In 2011 the Maine Learning Results were updated to include Common Core as the standards for language arts and math, in order to prepare students for college and their careers by creating a more clear – but more rigorous – set of learning expectations.

In the 1990s, the Maine’s local assessment system, including the Maine Educational Assessment, eventually morphed into the world of standardized testing, Mayo said.

“In the state of Maine, we have been playing around with different standardized assessment tests,” said Mayo, including the Smarter Balanced assessment test, a computer-based math and English test implemented in the 2014-2015 school year.

But in the wake of complaints by educators about technical glitches and other pitfalls of the test, Smarter Balanced was abolished in June. The Department of Education is now seeking another state assessment method.

“We aren’t going to have scores to compare from this year to next year because they have already done away with Smarter Balanced,” Mayo said. “The Common Core itself I really like, but the achievement testing piece that goes along with it has really taken over schools. It’s gotten very distracting. I think a lot of teachers would say that it’s kind of sucked the life right out of the classroom.”

Every year third-graders in Mayo’s district take nearly 135 assessments, she said, from spelling tests to state achievement tests to grade-level assessments.

“Kids are being assessed to death,” she said.

Common Core has also been challenging for teachers because it requires them to “up the rigor in their classrooms,” Mayo said. “I am teaching harder now than I have in all 30 years that I’ve taught.”

Talya Edlund, a teacher a Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, agrees. She said while the standards themselves are “a good thing, the danger is when (teachers) are held so accountable to them that the human side of teaching begins to get lost.”

Along with statewide testing initiatives, Mayo said another change in the last decade for teachers – and students – is the Maine Learning Technology Initiative proposed by Gov. Angus King in 2000 that aims to provide laptops to all middle-schoolers and teachers in Maine’s public schools.

According to Mayo, one problem is that “middle school and high school kids are world-class in our state with computers, but it has not trickled down to elementary school. We do not have the same one-to-one capability as the middle and high schools have,” she said. “It’s a question of equity (in terms of) how it’s impacted elementary teachers because we don’t have the equity that middle school and high school teachers have with technology.”

While the upper grades have access to laptops “every minute of every day,” said Mayo, “I might have to wait a week to a week and a half to sign out one of those (laptop) carts to use for projects with my class.”

Mayo still uses an overhead projector to teach her students, and like many teachers, she has also used a Smart Board, an interactive whiteboard with a touch screen. Teachers in her district are also starting to use document cameras that project the text from a book onto a screen. Within the next five years, Mayo foresees more teachers implementing iPads in their classrooms.

“The possibilities are endless with technology,” she said. “I think the more it gets out there, the better (education) is going to be.”

But having to adapt to different learning devices through the years as part of her curriculum is “pretty intimidating,” Mayo said. “It changes all the time. Every year we go back there is something different to learn.”

According to Edlund, any technology, including iPads, “can be an exciting tool to engage teachers and families, but I do think we have to be careful in overusing it. Technology needs to be used to connect kids, to give them more opportunities to collaborate, not to isolate them from one another,” said Edlund, 2015 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year.

Keeping up with technology in the classroom has been somewhat challenging for teachers, especially the ones who did not grow up using computers or iPads, like Edlund, 39.

Using iPads came with “a fairly steep, time consuming learning curve,” she said. “There is quite a bit of disparity in technology integration from teacher to teacher, or school to school.”

Sarah Brokofsky, 2014 Cumberland County Teacher of the Year and a teacher at Westbrook Middle School, said in the last 10 years, technology has been the biggest development in public schools.

“When I started teaching 10 years ago, there was no technology in my classroom,” said Brokofsky, 33. “Now I teach in a school where we are one-on-one with laptops.”

Brokofsky, a fifth-grade teacher, calls technology a “tool to get curriculum across” to the students. She said technology, especially laptops, has provided opportunities for her students to collaborate in ways she’s never imagined before, from home, school, or the library.

“It’s provided opportunities for my kids to be extremely creative,” she said. “They can present their work in several ways. They can create a video, they can do a pod cast, create a slideshow. Technology is a motivation.”

As a teacher, Brokofsky benefits, too. Technology, if anything, has “enhanced teaching.”

“I can grade right online,” she said. “And I can edit in real time, as opposed to having to take a stack of papers home and correct them over the weekend. It’s immediate feedback.”

In addition, she said, “The Common Core does a wonderful job of giving all Maine students a similar educational experience. They are all being exposed to the same material, but every teacher is able to teach it in their own style.”

For Brokofsky, the updated standards have changed the way that she delivers her lessons to students. She now starts every lesson by announcing the standards in kid-friendly language.

“The standards have also given my kids the language to understand what they are learning,” Brokofsky said.

The biggest challenge for Brokofsky as a teacher is finding time to meet with her colleagues to “really digest what the standards truly mean,” Brokofsky said. “Teachers always want to do their best job. In order to do our best job we need time to understand what the standards expect so we can teach them to our best ability.”

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