Cider Mill curriculum changes cause commotion

Changes to Cider Mill’s third term social studies curriculum, which have caused a stir in the Wilton public school community, were addressed by Cider Mill Principal Jennifer Mitchell and K-8 humanities curriculum coordinator Gina Dignon at the Board of Education’s March 29 meeting.

The curriculum controversy arose after parents were informed through Cider Mill’s March 17 What’s the Buzz newsletter that social studies would not be assessed on third trimester progress reports “due to the fact that [the] third unit of study [had] not been fully developed.”

Instead, the newsletter stated, the time would be used to have students “read content area materials” and “continue to practice their note-taking skills,” and also “help [them] feel prepared and confident to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC).”

The decision to change the curriculum was made “in the best interest of our students and teachers,” Assistant Superintendent Chuck Smith said at the meeting.

Not only will students be “engaging in meaningful, authentic work,” he said, but they “are not going to be missing critical content,” which many parents have expressed concern about.

Although the unit for third through fifth graders is called “Test Readiness,” said Mitchell, “it’s a little bit of a misnomer.” The SBAC measures informational literacy or “a student’s ability to think critically,” said Mitchell, and requires students to “do research and synthesize across very short pieces of text.”

Based on Cider Mill students’ test scores, said Mitchell, “there is a need … to be a little more purposeful and intentional with providing opportunities to get that type of thinking, work and tasks in front of our students,” which is why the school is beginning to embed this type of critical thinking and learning into its curriculum.

The Test Readiness unit, she said, is “an opportunity for our students to practice the actual, authentic experiences that they will be engaged in, and what is measured on this assessment.”

Mitchell said, she does not “believe in test prep” and the Test Readiness unit is not what its title suggests.

“What we’re doing through this unit is providing our students with an opportunity to have explicit experiences with what it means to take this form of assessment on the computer, and to have explicit instruction in activities, such as extended response to short pieces of text,” she said.

Mitchell said taking an informational literacy test on the computer is “a very different experience.”

“Students have to read and synthesize across multiple pieces of text. To respond and come up with a critical answer; students have to annotate,” she said.

“It is a high-level thinking process that’s measured on this assessment … We’re getting our kids in front of the computer because the reality is these assessments are taken on a computer.”

For the unit, Mitchell said, students are being given access to Newsela articles, “which are very similar to short texts that students will experience” on the SBAC. The articles are also “aligned to content of what would have been in the social studies third unit,” she said, “so students are not going to miss content.”

Because they’re going to be “tackling higher-level tests,” Mitchell said, students will be engaged with more challenging reading material through the Test Readiness unit in order to learn the skills “required to process and get through that kind of text.”

Building “stamina with reading” is “part of what we do throughout the year” at Cider Mill, said Dignon. “We realized that we need to actually also build stamina with reading on a screen because that’s how the students are assessed,” she said.

“We had the staff actually engage in taking the SBAC for their grade level for ELA [English language arts] so that they could see and experience what the students need to do.”

Dignon said the teachers “realized that we need to actually have some kind of lesson in place to not only build stamina,” but also transfers what they do into a computerized format and uses language that’s presented in the SBAC.

“The vocabulary that is utilized on the assessment is very academic in nature and so there’s a lot of work around looking at word connotation and making sure that students understand different kinds of vocabulary that are evident on the assessment,” said Mitchell.

Because note-taking is a “big tool,” Mitchell said, “we’re providing our students an opportunity to really hone in on information literacy [and] study skills that are important across all content and academic areas and really are lifelong skills.”

Mitchell said curriculum is “an evolving process,” and a lot of what’s done in the Test Readiness unit will be embedded into other units of study.

The experience provided through the Test Readiness unit, she said, “is actually critical.”

“I can truly sit in front of you knowing that what is happening with our students is meaningful. They will not be missing content and we’ve been very thoughtful in thinking up short texts that will provide experiences,” said Mitchell.

“It’s a value added in regard to the explicit focus on information literacy and study skills required to be successful going forward, as well as what’s measured on the assessment.”
Public comments
Middlebrook social studies teacher John Priest offered his perspective as “an educator who’s extremely familiar with the workings of this town for the last 15 years,” as well as a Wilton resident whose children attend Cider Mill.

“My wife and I moved to [Wilton] because … I came to teach in Wilton and I was blown away. We moved to Wilton for an unending list of inspirational and really highly qualified educators … We moved here because school administration understood that parents’ dedication to the quality of education offered fertile ground for teachers to work in and children to thrive in,” he said.

“They understood that state-mandated tests were an annoying reality, but the greater reality was the continual success of these Wilton graduates as they moved on to the finest institutions. They understood that if a standardized test actually measured everything teachers were doing in the classroom, something was really wrong.”

Priest said he and his wife didn’t move to Wilton to have their daughters “come home from school to tell us that they weren’t going to have social studies class for a month or so, but instead needed 30 to 45 minutes doing test readiness for the Smarter Balanced assessment.”

“I’m not angry because I’m a social studies teacher,” he said. “I’m furious and I’m sad because the narrative being developed seems to be the SBAC is a good test and the more our instruction looks like the test, the better. Nothing is further from the truth.”

Priest said he knows “what those scores mean in our town” and understands that “the general public can’t see the magic that’s conducted in these classrooms day in and day out.”

“They can’t see the impossible work that teachers and our administrators do every day, but I do,” he said.

“The instruction is dynamic. It involves students actively engaging in multimodal, receptive learning and differentiated expressive learning. It’s inspirational and it looks nothing like a test question on a Chromebook with four choices. I don’t care how similar the answers are — especially at the elementary level.”

Priest said he’s “blessed” to live in Wilton and have the job he does, but feels that as a district, “we’re losing our way.”

“Over the last 25 years, I’ve been able to, as an educator, live in this uncomfortable spot where I took the standardized test and we dealt with it … we always prepared for it and our kids crushed it, but we need to flip the narrative and our focus,” he said.

“Recently, [Middlebrook English teacher] Paul Schluntz … said, ‘The teachers in this building and district would tear down this school and build it brick by brick if they felt that they would have a say in teaching the right way.’ I don’t feel like that’s happening.”

Priest asked the Board of Education to consider “the work we’re doing and what good teaching is” going forward.

New Canaan Road resident and retired Wilton school teacher Susan Graybill said she feels like teachers aren’t being invited to participate enough in the curriculum development process.

“It’s too bad the Board of Ed doesn’t always get to be in the classroom because it’s magic, and it’s teachers like Paul [Schluntz] who teach from their heart and have instincts about what kids need — and it doesn’t have to be tuned into planning for a test,” said Graybill.

“I sure hope you listen to what John said and that you start paying attention to what those teachers want to offer you in your curriculum planning because they know — they’re in the classroom — they know better than anybody what ought to be happening.”