GULFPORT - Boca Ciega High School's lunchroom was abuzz with laughing and horseplay Tuesday, but when the bell rang more than 3,000 teachers scurried off to their respective classrooms, backpacks in hand.
It's a scene that will be replicated across the state this summer, as teachers receive their first hands-on training in the new Common Core academic standards from Florida Department of Education officials and about 150 teachers nominated to instruct their peers on suggested lesson plans and curriculum.
For many, the lessons presented on the first day of the voluntary two-day training session have created more questions than answers.
At Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary school, finding the balance between the new standards and the current curriculum will be a "juggling act," said fourth-grade teacher Donna Quinn.
"Our biggest challenge for teachers right now is having the time to plan out how we're going to start tailoring our lessons toward the Common Core but still make sure kids can perform on the FCAT," Quinn said. "Common Core is very different for each grade level and assumes that students come in already knowing everything they were supposed to learn. So now we have to make sure that they really know everything we expect them to."
The Common Core standards will be fully adopted by 45 states by the 2014-2015 school year, but teachers and parents remain skeptical about how they'll be translated to the classroom. Florida Parents Against Common Core is expecting 1,000 people or more at a planned protest of Common Core trainings in Orlando Friday and Saturday.
Teachers don't have too much longer to figure out how to work with the new standards. Schools are heading into what state leaders call "the blended year" - the first year that teachers in all grades are required to start aligning lessons to the Common Core standards, while still making sure students learn information under the current Sunshine State Standards that may be on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. When Common Core is fully implemented in 2014-2015, there will be a new standardized test - the PARCC.
Florida school districts implemented the standards in kindergarten classes two years ago, and many school districts have already implemented them in elementary classes.
During Tuesday's training, teachers split into groups to watch and create Common Core lesson plans. Technical teachers that will have to teach students computer programs, such as Microsoft Excel, learned how to blend Common Core math requirements into their lessons. Science teachers practiced experiments aimed at getting students to do more writing, including a fake assignment from a computer company urging them to figure out a way to keep their supercomputers from overheating.
The Common Core standards require students to do more reading and writing in every subject. They provide teachers with an outline of what skills their students are required to know but give them the freedom to choose the materials and lesson plans they use to teach those skills.
The Common Core changes sound good, in theory, teachers said Tuesday; but many worry that the changes appear to be almost too simple.
"We'll be here for two days, and they keep asking us, 'How would you present it? How would you bring these standards into the classroom?' I almost want to say, 'How about you tell me then come back to me a year from now and ask me that question?' " said Anna Maria Steepy, a special education and fourth-grade from Monroe County. "You don't throw a med student into an operating room and say 'How do you think you'd perform this open heart surgery?' You have to show us the right way to do it first, instead of just expecting me to reinvent the wheel."
Districts throughout the state, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, have implemented their own Common Core workshops over the past few years; the state is not requiring Common Core training, though, and state education officials are concerned that teachers may not get enough, said Mary Jane Tappen, Florida's deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services.
Jason Murphy, a fifth grade teacher at Chain of Lakes Elementary School in Winter Haven, said he worries that the lack of centralized training will make it difficult for students who transfer from different states or other Florida school districts to be on the same page academically - one of the key selling points of having a nationwide set of standards.
Leaving it up to school districts to determine how to implement Common Core also raises questions about how the state will evaluate teachers.
"Of course, all of us are worried about how this is going to be reflected in our evaluations - how big of a hit we're going to take as we're teaching kids in a completely different way and they're taking a completely different standardized test," said Nicole Walsh, an eighth-grade math teacher at Pinellas Secondary School in Pinellas Park.
"It's all a little scary, especially when you know all you can do is try your best."
About 1,500 teachers are expected to return to Boca Ciega Thursday and Friday for another round of workshops, and the Department of Education is holding workshops elsewhere in Florida this summer.