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Baltimore school tour offers food for thought

National and local union leaders spent time on Nov. 1 in two Baltimore City public schools that are turning an AFT Innovation Fund grant into food for thought—and laying the groundwork for constructive implementation of the Common Core State Standards in the process.

Under a grant announced this summer, the Innovation Fund is supporting teams of upper elementary and middle school teachers at Lakeland and Violetville schools. These educators are working with outside partners to develop deep, interdisciplinary investigations with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) focus—hands-on units that help students zero in on healthy lifestyle decisions as they delve into topics like urban gardening, healthy food choices, and food distribution and availability in urban communities.

Weingarten and Baltimore teacher James Triebwasser
Teachers began the work over the summer by developing a range of interdisciplinary activities—from student food journals and science labs that highlight cell structure in plants and food, to mapping exercises that describe the distribution and availability of grocery stores and fast-food restaurants in the community. These activities, Violetville sixth-grade science teacher James Triebwasser (pictured with Randi Weingarten) explained to the AFT guests, challenge students to answer fundamental questions like, "Why are we eating the foods that we eat?" and "Why is the nation heavier than it should be?"

"Questioning in the classroom that helps students get to the 'Why?'—that's the deeper understanding" at the heart of well-implemented Common Core State Standards," AFT President Randi Weingarten observed after visiting the science teacher with AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson and Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English, who is also an AFT vice president.

Later, the AFT leaders talked with a group of teachers at Lakeland to get a faculty view of how the project was progressing, and there was widespread enthusiasm for the additional resources that the Innovation Fund grant had brought to the school—particularly the extra opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion and planning.

Without this opportunity for teamwork, "the day can feel chopped up" for groups of students like English language learners, said fourth-grade ESL teacher Caryn Horrigan. Thanks to work supported through the Innovation Fund, "we are able to have a common thread that really makes the day cohesive for them."

[Article by Mike Rose at AFT, November 8, 2013. Photo by John Harrington]

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