“Coach” Karli Sullivan calls out orders to her players, directing the moves they should make in the next round of competition.
Their goal: to earn more points than their rivals and advance to the next round of the tournament.
And what do they get for the win? A “proficient” rating on the state standardized math test.
What may sound like an elite basketball tournament is, in fact, a contest happening at Buffalo’s School 19, where teachers have come up with the creative game to teach the Common Core math standards.
Each week, students earn points by completing extra assignments that reinforce what they learn in the classroom, competing for prizes and working toward the ultimate goal of mastering the standards.
“We were having some issues getting them motivated,” said Kate Kukulski, the School 19 math teacher who came up with the idea for the competition. “It was our way to help students have greater success and a deeper understanding of what is now expected of them.”
Similar efforts are taking place in classrooms across Western New York, where teachers are coming up with creative ways to make learning the standards more fun and to better engage their students.
“I personally believe that the Common Core, if it’s being implemented properly, actually encourages the teachers to be creative,” said Anthony J. Panella, an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Amherst.
Common Core is the new, tougher set of national standards that has touched off controversy both locally and across the country. Parents and teachers alike have criticized the state for rolling out the standards too quickly, not equipping schools with proper resources and tying teacher evaluations to tests that measure how well students have mastered the standards.
The first batch of state tests measuring mastery of the standards showed that fewer than a third of New York students were deemed proficient in reading and math. In Buffalo, only about 12 percent and 10 percent met the standards, respectively.
And the math standards are notoriously difficult because they focus more on the process – why students take certain steps to arrive at an answer, not just memorizing multiplication tables and solving problems.
But while some educators and parents are calling for delays in the reform effort, other teachers are getting creative, not critical.
In the Jamestown School District, teachers have put the Common Core standards to music, using rhythm and lyrics to reinforce the skills.
Teachers have also created a recognition system for students who complete the most math problems during a certain time period as part of a fluency exercise. Students with the best results earn the spots as gold, silver and bronze medalists.
“You’ve got to mix it up,” said Lisa Certo-Card, a math teacher at Jamestown’s Fletcher Elementary School. “The kids, and the teachers, get bored. We’re trying to liven it up and make it more kid-friendly.”
At Smallwood Elementary School in Amherst, teachers do similar fluency drills – called math sprints – to help students learn how to think fast and solve basic math problems quickly, something that will help them when they delve into more complex ones.
Teachers there have also taken a hands-on approach to teaching math skills, using various tools to make concepts more concrete. During one recent lesson, for example, Lori Chittenden’s second-graders learned how to measure in different ways by using pennies as well as rulers to calculate the height of Abraham Lincoln’s hat. Ultimately, the students will need to articulate why they came up with different numbers using different measurement techniques.
Teams of teachers have been working with the district for two years to come up with these kinds of new strategies to present to their fellow teachers.
“The teachers were so excited,” Chittenden said. “We just made it accessible for them.”
But it’s not just about making the subjects fun. Teachers at those schools regularly use data to determine their students’ progress and evaluate whether these new strategies are working.
School 19’s tournament-style competition started when Kukulski, who works with teachers throughout her building, noticed that many children were having a hard time getting motivated to learn the tougher new math standards.
So Kukulski, a Syracuse native and die-hard fan of the Orange at the university, came up with a competition patterned after the NCAA basketball brackets, assigning each grade level to a conference and working with teachers to divide the students into teams.
Each week, the teams work together to complete an assignment, and then students take a quiz, allowing them to earn points. At the end of the week, the teams with the most points get bragging rights for holding the top spot in their conferences.
To sweeten the deal, Kukulski reached out to more than 60 colleges to see if they could donate prizes. More than half of those responded with an outpouring of insignia T-shirts, pennants, pencils, hats and even letters from coaches and signed pictures. The University of Cincinnati even donated tickets to a basketball game for any student who can get there.
Syracuse University declined to send anything, citing National Collegiate Athletic Association rules banning recruitment of younger students. But that didn’t stop their longtime rival Georgetown University from sending an assortment of prizes, including what have become quite popular headbands with what appear to be fuzzy hair coming out of them.
“This competition is kind of fun because when you win, you get prizes,” said 11-year-old Miguel Medina. “It makes the math fun and easier because we get to talk to each other and help each other.”
And Miguel knows a few things about holding the top spot in his conference. He and his teammates ranked first for two weeks in a row.
His advice to the competition?
“The other teams better watch out.”