Engrossed in the picture book “Grandpa Comes to Stay,” second-grader Jake Barreto hardly acted like a student with specific marching orders.
But on the wall next to him in Lauren Ojalvo’s Montgomery Knolls Elementary School class, the students’ objective for the day’s reading lesson was: “You will be able to identify a character’s point of view using information from the story.” For Jake, this was straightforward, given the grin on his face.
“I think they had a good time,” he said.
Jake, whether he knew it or not, was experiencing “Curriculum 2.0,” now in its third year and one of the largest academic initiatives in Montgomery County Public Schools. The effort is based on the national academic standards, which have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia called the Common Core State Standards.
Now being used in all kindergarten and first-grade classes, and in some second-grade classes, Curriculum 2.0 is billed by the school system as a way to teach critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It stresses the mastery of material over the quantity studied, and integrates more subjects, like science and social studies, into lesson plans for math and English.
“In some ways this is a big change in the way we think about instruction,” said Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs.
Curriculum 2.0 functions like an inverted pyramid, with the broadest concepts at the top and daily and weekly objectives and tasks on the bottom. At the top are the critical thinking, creative thinking, and academic skills the school system has adapted from the Common Core standards.
For Shannon Stroud, a first-grade teacher at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Knolls, the first marking period of this year requires teachers to stress analysis (as a critical thinking skill), such as identifying attributes of an object, and collaboration (as an academic skill).
Stroud spent her Sept. 21 reading class testing the children on their comprehension of “Lion Talk,” a book about the characteristics of lions.
Using an electronic Promethean board, Stroud quizzed pupils on the three key details that helped describe lions in the book, and asked them to identify a topic sentence. They also had to work in groups to identify the big paws and teeth that made the lions leonine.
Under the previous curriculum, the reading lesson may not have been tied to any other subject matter, Lang said, noting that students who have more knowledge about the world around them become better readers.
In lessons a few years ago, students also would not have had specific academic and thinking skills integrated into lessons by the teachers, Land said. The analysis of a lion, for example, helps teach students that things can be broken down into parts with their own attributes.
“I think they are a lot more interested,” Stroud said. “They’re learning things that they like.”
When it comes to creating lessons, teachers have the flexibility to use one of eight sample plans or create their own. Ojalvo writes a “Daily Letter” to students explaining her plan for the day and what she expects.
Lower down on the Curriculum 2.0 pyramid are unifying questions that guide lessons in one- to two-week periods. Last week, the unifying question on Ojalvo’s wall was, “How can asking questions or solving problems in different ways help you make sense of ideas?”
Jake’s task when he leafed through “Grandpa Comes to Stay,” was to identify with a character’s perspective, the reading objective to help answer that question. The math objective to help answer the unifying question was also posted: “You will be able to compare 3-digit numbers using >,< and = symbols.”
“The curriculum allows for so much more critical thinking, which wasn’t the case before,” said Ojalvo, in her third year at Montgomery Knolls.
Teachers are enthusiastic about the curriculum, said Montgomery Knolls Principal Deann Collins, because professional development tools are available online, and teachers can discuss questions and problems with each other using the Internet. In turn, teachers are making concepts more explicit to students.
“Now you can see the threads between all the content areas,” Collins said.
Teachers are still grappling with making sure that students truly learn concepts in depth.
About an hour after her first-grade class, in a staff development meeting over lunch, Stroud reported that students sometimes had trouble moving beyond just getting correct answers to mathematical problems to understanding why they were correct.
“They get the concepts, but they can’t explain,” Stroud told fellow teachers.
The curriculum isn’t without critics.
In testimony to the Board of Education last year about the Elementary Integrated Curriculum, Frederick Stichnoth, president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County, which represents parents of gifted students, said he was worried the content would be too watered-down for students ready for advanced material.
Ted Willard, co-chairman of the Curriculum Education Committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said he was pleased that subjects like science and social studies are now getting more attention and believes children are likely to learn more.
Like Stichnoth, he worried about high-performing students, but also those who need more time to master material. He was also concerned that incorporating science and social studies into math and English lessons won’t automatically help students truly understand them.
“I don’t see how that necessarily creates more time, more attention to social studies, science, the arts, things like that,” he said.