Asael Castillo studied the words on each paper strip, moving them around like matchsticks across his desk. A green strip here, a blue strip...

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Asael Castillo studied the words on each paper strip, moving them around like matchsticks across his desk.

A green strip here, a blue strip there, and suddenly he spotted the word pattern of a proverb straight from Wales.

“Three Things Best To Avoid,” the proverb reads. “A strange dog, a flood, and a wise man who thinks he knows it all.”

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“Ooh, I found another one!” said Castillo, 12, turning to his classmate at Highland Middle School in Bellevue. “See how good I am?”

Across the Bellevue School District, this is how middle-school students are learning language arts, by piecing together proverbs from all corners of the world — Ethiopia to Ireland, China to Czechoslovakia.

It’s all part of a new curriculum called SpringBoard, designed by The College Board to prepare sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for the rigors of college. Bellevue is one of only 29 school districts in the nation so far to use the year-old curriculum, which is written by teachers and based on the latest research about how kids learn.

The program is also available at the high-school level. But this is the first middle-school curriculum produced by The College Board, a national not-for-profit association of schools, colleges and universities that created the SAT and the Advanced Placement program at the high-school level.


SpringBoard curriculum:

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The College Board will only sell the SpringBoard curriculum, which costs Bellevue about $8 per student, to school districts that promise to use it with every student, regardless of ability.

“We do not allow cherry-picking,” said Photo Anagnostopoulos of The College Board. “This is not a tracking system for the honors kids.”

At Highland Middle School, English is a second language for nearly 40 percent of students. About 37 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. In one of teacher Melissa Rodda’s classes, more than half of the students have special needs.

“The coolest thing [with SpringBoard] is that these kids are getting the exact thing that everyone else gets,” said Rodda. “That wasn’t always happening in the past.”

Superintendent Mike Riley gave the middle-school teachers the option to accept or reject the curriculum after a sample run last year. The math teachers saw SpringBoard as too similar to the curriculum they had already crafted. But the language-arts teachers asked the district to adopt it.

Each SpringBoard lesson ties into The College Board’s vision of what students really need by the time they graduate from high school. And each lesson revolves around the latest research on how kids learn: Get kids to perform a task. Expose them to different cultures. Connect the lesson to their lives.

All of those strategies were playing out in the Highland classroom recently, as Rodda roamed the room.

The students were bent over their desks, reading words aloud to each other, trying to reason how the words might fit together. There were shouts of “I got it!” and “There it is!” There was fist-pumping and high-fives. And then the students settled in to find the meaning of it all.

Some struggled. At Rodda’s request, one boy mulled over a Texan proverb in his mind: “When you throw dirt, you lose ground.”

“If you’re throwing dirt and making someone else dirty,” he reasoned, “you’re making yourself unsecure.”

Even as the students struggled, they were practicing critical thinking, a skill many educators say is in short supply among high-school graduates these days.

One SpringBoard lesson had the middle-schoolers watch a clip from the hit movie “Toy Story” about a toy who feels passed over by a boy who has outgrown it.

In another, more standard curriculum, an assignment might ask students to analyze changes that occur in the toy’s relationship with the boy.

But the SpringBoard lesson connected to the students’ lives, asking them to consider favorite toys they themselves had left behind in elementary school. The assignment: Write a letter from the point of view of your old toy, explaining how it feels to be abandoned.

Then teacher Rodda took it a step further by asking the students to bring their toys into class while they read their letters aloud. So one by one, the children stood at the front of the room with things they once had loved. A doll. A book. A clown.

In education terms, the lesson was meant to teach all kinds of things, from presentation skills to finding meaning in a video clip.

But Rodda said she saw something else. It was giving her students a chance to connect with each other — at a time of life when connecting is not always cool.

Cara Solomon: 206-464-2024 or