How I Teach

Indy math teacher: Students are “thinkers, not human calculators”

PHOTO: Provided
Chris York fourth grade math teacher at Washington Irving School 14.

In a feature we are calling How I Teach, we spotlight how great teachers approach their jobs. Interested in submitting your own? Fill out our brief form, also at the bottom, and email a photo of yourself (school picture, snapshot or picture of you in the classroom) to [email protected].

Name: Chris York
School: Washington Irving School 14
Current subject/grade: fourth grade math

How did you get into teaching?

I got into teaching because I love to learn. I love getting up every morning, at 6 a.m., knowing that I am going to learn and experience something new. Education is always changing. We are always learning new ways to teach, to engage, and to enrich the education experience for students. I love knowing that next year, I may teach a specific skill in a new way.

How do you plan your lessons?

I do a lot of googling! In our technological age, there are hundreds of resources online. I will watch countless videos on different ways to teach a concept. I will read best practice articles on ways to teach a concept. I am always looking for different ways to adapt a lesson, always looking for another tool to add to my belt in case a student doesn’t understand the initial concept.

I also use data to drive my lessons. I always give some type of formal weekly assessment. This data doesn’t always go in the grade book to never to be seen again until report cards come out. This data is used to group students based upon need. If I give an assessment and I find out that nine students in my class didn’t understand the standard from the week before, I will be pulling those students over in a small group setting the next week to figure out what is causing the frustration. Data drives my instruction and small group work.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand something?

Honestly, it varies depending on the student. I would love to say that I am understanding every time a student doesn’t understand, but that’s not true. If a student really tried and gave me their best and still didn’t understand what we were trying to do, I would pull those students over and work in a smaller group. I would try to explain in multiple ways to see where they can connect from. I truly believe in the definition of insanity. If I just keep doing the same lesson over and over, expecting different results, then it’s me who is not understanding, not the kids. I need to be able to change my methods on the fly.

Now, if a student was lacking the “want to,” I would have a long conversation about their attitude. Kids that persevere and keep working, even when they don’t understand, usually end up figuring the concept out. If they are struggling with wanting to understand, then it’s my job to coach them to understand their need for it.

What’s different about your classroom?

My classroom is different because of what I focus on. Meaning, I tell my kids that, “I don’t care if you can give me the right answer. I care if you can think.” I consistently tell them that getting a math answer right in fourth grade isn’t going to get them a job. No job application, or job interview, will ever ask them what their fourth grade math scores are. If they can’t learn to think, it doesn’t matter. I tell them, “you can know all the math in the world, but if you can’t learn to think and make good choices for yourself, then it doesn’t matter.” Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to learn math. I have high standards for my students and expect them to know how do a math problem. However, if they can’t walk out of my classroom and treat people with respect, treat themselves with respect, and make smart choices, then knowing answers in my math class won’t matter in the future. I want them to be thinkers, not human calculators. Thinkers change the world, not calculators.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One: Laughter is the best medicine. I always heard this, but once I read a study about how beneficial laughter is to the body. I started applying anecdotal evidence to my experience with laughter. I realized that all my best memories came from times that I was laughing. I could remember something from 10 years ago specifically because I was hanging out with my friends or family, laughing about something. Kids in my class come with added stresses. I tell my students if they laugh at my jokes, they get extra credit. It’s hard to be agitated and upset when everyone around you is smiling and laughing. Laughter is contagious and improves the climate in my classroom.

Two: People mirror what they receive. This is psychological but I believe it’s true. If I give a smile, the mirror neurons in your brain will reciprocate that back to me. If I laugh, you will laugh. If I say ‘hello,’ you will say ‘hello.’ If I speak in a good tone, you will speak in a good tone. If I yell, you will yell. I believe this is also true for trust. This is the greatest component that a teacher must build with children from any background. If a student doesn’t trust you, it’s hard for them to want to learn from you. I try to mirror trust for my students. I let them know that I trust them to do the right thing. I try to give them some confidence to trust themselves. If trust they will do what is right, then hopefully they will do what is right. Too often, our society tries to push people down. We are made to believe that we can’t trust anyone. Therefore, nobody trusts anybody else and we always have our guard up. I think my classroom is made better because I look for the best in them and try to build upon that. Would I trust them all to house sit? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean I can’t trust them to do something else. That something else is what I focus on.

 

Achievement School District

Tennessee’s turnaround district gets new leadership team for a new chapter

PHOTO: TN.gov
Malika Anderson became superintendent of the state-run Achievement School District in 2016 under the leadership of Gov. Bill Haslam.

Tennessee is bringing in some new blood to lead its turnaround district after cutting its workforce almost in half and repositioning the model as an intervention of last resort for the state’s chronically struggling schools.

While Malika Anderson remains as superintendent of the Achievement School District, she’ll have two lieutenants who are new to the ASD’s mostly charter-based turnaround district, as well as two others who have been part of the work in the years since its 2011 launch.

The hires stand in contrast to the original ASD leadership team, which was heavy with education reformers who came from outside of Tennessee or Memphis. And that’s intentional, Anderson said Friday as she announced the new lineup with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“It is critical in this phase of the ASD that we are learning from the past … and have leaders who are deeply experienced in Tennessee,” Anderson said.

New to her inner circle as of Aug. 1 are:

Verna Ruffin
Chief academic officer

PHOTO: Submitted
Verna Ruffin

Duties: She’ll assume oversight of the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by former executive director Tim Ware, who did not reapply. She’ll also promote collaboration across Achievement Schools and the ASD’s charter schools.

Last job: Superintendent of Jackson-Madison County School District since 2013

Her story: More than 30 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, director of secondary curriculum, assistant superintendent and superintendent in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. At Jackson-Madison County, Ruffin oversaw a diverse student body and implemented a K-3 literacy initiative to promote more rigorous standards.

Farae Wolfe
Executive director of operations

Duties: Human resources, technology and operations

Current job: Program director for the Community Youth Career Development Center in Cleveland, Miss.

Her story: Wolfe has been city manager and human resources director for Cleveland, Miss., where she led a health and wellness initiative that decreased employee absenteeism due to minor illness by 20 percent. Her work experience in education includes overseeing parent and community relations for a Mississippi school district, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Leaders continuing to work with the state turnaround team are:

Lisa Settle
Chief performance officer

PHOTO: Achievement Schools
Lisa Settle

Duties: She’ll oversee federal and state compliance for charter operators and direct-run schools.

Last job: Chief of schools for the direct-run Achievement Schools since June 2015

Her story: Settle was co-founder and principal of Cornerstone Prep-Lester Campus, the first charter school approved by the ASD in Memphis. She also has experience in writing and reviewing curriculum in her work with the state’s recent Standards Review Committee.

Bobby White
Executive director of external affairs

PHOTO: ASD
Bobby White

Duties: He’ll continue his work to bolster the ASD’s community relations, which was fractured by the state’s takeover of neighborhood schools in Memphis when he came aboard in April 2016.

Last job: ASD chief of external affairs

His story: A Memphis native, White previously served as chief of staff and senior adviser for Memphis and Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton, as well as a district director for former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

A new team for a new era

The restructuring of the ASD and its leadership team comes after state officials decided to merge the ASD with support staff for its Achievement Schools. All 59 employees were invited in May to reapply for 30 jobs, some of which are still being filled.

The downsizing was necessary as the state ran out of money from the federal Race to the Top grant that jump-started the turnaround district in 2011 and has sustained most of its work while growing to 33 schools at its peak.

While the changes signal a new era for the state-run district, both McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam have said they’re committed to keeping the ASD as Tennessee’s most intensive intervention when local and collaborative turnaround efforts fail, even as the initiative has had a mostly lackluster performance.

“Overall, this new structure will allow the ASD to move forward more efficiently,” McQueen said Friday, “and better positions the ASD to support the school improvement work we have outlined in our ESSA plan …”

In the next phase, school takeovers will not be as abrupt as the first ones that happened in Memphis in 2012, prompting angry protests from teachers and parents and outcry from local officials. Local districts will have three years to use their own turnaround methods before schools can be considered for takeover.

It’s uncertain where the ASD will expand next, but state officials have told Hamilton County leaders that it’s one of several options on the table for five low-performing schools in Chattanooga.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”