SARANAC LAKE - Diane Fox thought it couldn't be true.
Were first-grader teachers really being asked to teach their students about Mesopotamia as part of the state's new Common Core curriculum?
The Saranac Lake Central School District superintendent decided she had to find out on her own.
Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Diane Fox, right, speaks at Wednesday night’s school board meeting in the Petrova School library as Assistant Superintendent Dan Bower listens.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"I'd heard this whole talk of Mesopotamia being taught in first grade, and I went, 'You gotta be kidding,'" Fox told the district's Board of Education Wednesday. "So I thought I would take a look, because I haven't really spent much time digging in the elementary modules. The state of New York has put out modules for teachers to use as a resource. They align directly to the Common Core state standards."
Fox eventually came across a first-grade English language arts "domain" focused on early world civilizations. She read the language of this module aloud to the school board.
"'By the end of the domain, the students will be able to, one, locate the area known as Mesopotamia on a world map or globe and identify it as part of Asia,'" Fox said. "Number two. Explain the importance of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the use of canals to support farming and the development of the city of Babylon.'
"I'm not making this up," Fox said, unable to restrain her laughter. School board members seemed astonished.
"That one alone could be a thesis," said board member Terry Tubridy.
"Wasn't this in Global in high school?" added board President Debra Lennon.
Fox then read another Common Core module that focuses on monotheistic religions. Again, for first graders.
"'Identify Judaism, Christianity and Islam as major monotheistic world religions.' That is number 24 in the objectives," Fox said. "I'm not kidding."
"Oh, come on," Lennon said.
"Looks like, if our first graders understand all of this, they'll be candidates for Jeopardy," quipped board member Miles Van Nortwick.
The superintendent was quick to point out that these heady topics are just a small snippet of the Common Core modules, which she said can be found on www.engageny.org, a website the state Education Department is using to promote the new standards.
"I'm not painting a picture that it's all like this," Fox said. "But when people are stumbling and they don't know what they're looking for, and there's 20 million pages you can click on at Engage New York - when you have pieces like this, it's very confusing to everybody. If this were your only introduction to Common Core, you'd say, 'They've got to be crazy.'"
The age appropriateness of the Common Core modules is one of the biggest concerns parents, teachers and administrators across the state and the country have raised with the standards, Tubridy noted.
"Remember, this is all a guide," Fox said. "As a teacher, you don't have to use all of this. That's where as a professional you have to use your own judgement as to what you're going to put together.
"But it's not surprising to me that we as a state or a country are not able to have a meaningful conversation about Common Core, because even those of us who are living it really do not understand it."
Earlier, Fox spoke in more detail about the "shifts" Common Core will lead to in the classroom. In language arts, students will read more nonfiction, learn about the world through reading, read challenging texts very closely and learn how to write from what they read. In math, there will be fewer topics, but more time spent on each topic. Students will have to explain how they answered a question, use math in real world situations and spend more time practicing and memorizing math facts.
"Boy, that's a trip back to when we were in school and everybody had to memorize math facts," Fox said.
The superintendent said she and Saranac Lake Teachers Association co-President Don Carlisto will deliver a more in-depth presentation about the new standards at the board's Dec. 4 meeting.
Contact Chris Knight at 518-891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.