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.

 

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”