During a training session this summer, fifth-grade teacher Tina Colella came to a realization: Her teaching style relied too heavily on lecturing.
"We used to teach procedure," said Colella, a 12-year Pasco County educator. "It was our thinking. This is what you do first. This is what you do second."
It left little room for students to figure out things for themselves.
All that changes this year. Florida's official and complete transition to new academic standards demands it.
Those new expectations, which come along with new tests, call upon children not only to come up with correct answers, but also to demonstrate their thinking.
That means they have to understand the material, not just regurgitate it.
"Now, we guide them," Colella said. "Our job is to teach them the understanding."
All across Florida, teachers have spent hours during their break learning how to make that happen. Districts brought in experts from around the state and country, aiming to help educators unlearn ineffective strategies, and replace them with new methods of instruction and better ways to plan.
The training is part of a gradual move to the Florida Standards, a slightly altered version of the Common Core standards. The phase-in began three years ago, especially in the lower grades.
"We've gotten very far away from rote memorization," said Pam Moore, Pinellas County associate superintendent of teaching and learning.
Repetitive questions, often found on worksheets, likely will be replaced by more complicated "real world" problems that incorporate academic skills. Rather than figuring out the area of 20 different shapes, for instance, classmates might work collaboratively to measure their classroom walls and calculate how much paint they'd need to cover the surfaces.
In reading, teachers will have to stop pre-telling, instead giving students time to review materials, determine the meaning themselves and answer questions using the passages for justification.
Students will need to communicate their reasoning, too, and not just say they "figured it out."
The challenge might not be easy. Students might make mistakes.
Kids and their parents need to accept that it's okay.
"Wrong answers are what you use to teach," said Kyle Ritsema, a sixth-grade math teacher.
Students might make the same error. The teacher can use that situation to ask the class where their thinking veered and determine how to get back on track. Those who got it right might help with the explanation portion or receive more advanced materials to keep progressing.
When the children have moved through that process and feel comfortable in their knowledge, the teacher can introduce a formula to assist in the future.
Teachers must take the time to help parents with the system, just as they are instructing the children, while also learning new approaches themselves, said Lauren Vaughan, a first-grade teacher.
"We went into education because we wanted to educate kids," Colella said. "When we get something new that enhances what we have, we want that."
"Parents come in and say, 'I don't know what to do,' " she said. "A portion of our conferences will be instructing and explaining to the parents."
Of course, all of this takes place in a high-stakes environment, with only a one-year pause on the penalties for missing the mark. That reality only adds to the stress.
Even so, many teachers have expressed excitement for this approach, which the state adopted four years ago.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.