Many primary teachers in Oregon were back in the classroom teaching students last week. But at the Earl Boyles Elementary school in the David Douglas district in eastern Multnomah County, teachers were the ones learning. The topic was their newly adopted "Forward" curriculum -- an instructional approach the district bought from textbook publisher, Pearson Education.
The David Douglas district is hoping that the new curriculum will help as the rigourous new Common Core era begins, replacing state-level standards in 45 states. The new standards aim to determine what students should know at different grade levels.
The emphasis is on skills like critical thinking, and getting students to prove answers, rather than check off boxes. The standards are high, but they're standards, not content, or curriculum.
First grade teachers at Earl Boyles say they graded students last year against the Common Core standards. But teacher Nicole Rauch says last year's curriculum didn't really help kids meet those standards.
"When we had to teach only these lessons for reading, you can't possibly hit the Common Core, so it's so unattainable, that as a teacher, you already feel pressure and it's like 'How is this going to happen, when these are the resources I have?'," Rauch says.
The Common Core has drawn questions and criticism across the country. David Douglas is pinning its hopes on the Forward curriculum. The product from Pearson Education overhauls math, reading, writing, science, and social studies from kindergarten through 5th grade.
Carrie Foster is helping implement Forward at David Douglas. She says it reflects the Common Core's shift to complex thinking.
"So it's no longer just being able to regurgitate facts -- that we're looking at building those skills that can transfer to various subject areas," Foster says.
Critics warn that Common Core could reduce teacher creativity.
But Earl Boyles first grade teacher Karen McDonald, says the old curriculum was too restrictive.
"We were given curriculum and it was pretty prescribed -- we basically had to do all the lessons, we didn't have a whole lot of choice about how we taught. And now, we have an opportunity to really use real literature to work with our kids; really meet them at their needs," McDonald explained.
The teachers say some lessons look familiar, like the emphasis on foundational words in reading. But teacher Heather Gerritz says the new Forward curriculum goes deeper.
"It's not just 'check off they can count to 100' - it's 'OK, do you understand how to use these numbers to 100 in lots of different ways?' Or 120, actually, now," she said. "There's so much instruction needed to get all the skills met and the standards met, but - but even just after a year, we have a better idea of 'OK, we just have to introduce these things in little mini-lessons earlier' and our kids are quite capable of doing it."
The curriculum change in five subject areas is landing with mixed reactions. First grade teacher Diane Tarbet says the new curriculum is an improvement - but a bit overwhelming.
"It will take time. I see this first year as a learning experience. Some lessons will go well and some won't. But we're all learning," Tarbet said.
The teachers say it's a bigger challenge in upper elementary, where older kids will face high-stakes standardized tests right away.
"Those pieces now that we're adding in with the Common Core, those 5th graders haven't had yet maybe. So they need those years to catch up. These kids that you're following now -- we should see a big difference, when they get up to the testing years," Gerritz said.
Overall, Rauch says the shift has her feeling better about teaching.
She says under the old guidelines, she had started to question whether she wanted to continue teaching.
"And in the past few years, this got to the point where personally, I thought 'Maybe this isn't for me - I don't feel like this is what I know, and what I believe.' Now, I think we're making this shift back to why I got into teaching."
David Douglas is spending a million dollars on the Forward curriculum, and is the only district in the country to implement that product in all its K-5 buildings. It's one of many new curriculum products available to school districts as they move to the Common Core.
This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.