instructional runway

Teachers model off their real-world approaches to teaching math

Math teachers Amy Hogan, of Brooklyn Technical High School, and Ellie Terry, of the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, present an election modeling project their students worked on last fall.

How much voting power does a New Yorker really wield? How can statistics presented by the media manipulate readers? How do you raise sweatshop wages without sacrificing profit?

These are a few of the questions that math teachers in New York City are asking their students as they try to bring complex and abstract concepts to life. To answer them, students must supplement the equations and formulas found in textbooks by grappling with real-world applications.

The lessons cover a mathematical practice known as modeling that has been around for decades but is now getting a closer look in schools around the city as teachers try to align their math lessons to Common Core standards that require real-world applicability.

Using modeling to present lessons is one of two instructional focuses that the Department of Education has laid out this year for math teachers.

“It’s the practice of solving real-world problems,” said Brooklyn Technical High School’s Patrick Honner, a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School who in December won a $10,000 award for an innovative math lesson he developed.

In the prize-winning lesson, Honner had students design hats out of paper materials. At the beginning of the unit, Honner’s students measured the dimensions of one half of a sphere, then had to create hats that contained the exact same area. At the end of class, the students presented their hats in a fashion show.

Honner was one of several teachers who showed off their modeling lessons to colleagues late last year in 10-minute TED talk–style presentations at the headquarters of Math for America, an organization that offers fellowships to math teachers. The group is preparing to open the fellowships up to science teachers as well and has even caught the attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who wants to replicate its stipend model to reward top-performing teachers.

While the city is encouraging math teachers to tackle modeling, in some ways the practice is at odds with the way that the city and state assess students. In a presentation called “g=4, and Other Lies the Test Told Me,” Honner showed slides of test questions that showed what he said were flawed approaches to solving math problems.

Elisabeth Jaffe of Baruch College Campus High School turned to an unusual source for a two-and-a-half-week algebra unit: newspapers.

“I felt like our students are not aware enough of current events,” said Jaffe, one of 97 teachers from around the country to win the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2012. “You’ll ask them, ‘Who’s the vice president?’ and they won’t know, which is sad and depressing.”

Jaffe said she asked herself, “How can I relate it back to math in a really clear way?”

Jaffe created a website and assigned her students to read articles in the New York Times, focusing on the economics stories that packed many numbers into the stories. Then they had to compare them with the raw data to determine if the stories fairly represented the statistics. On the website, students wrote their critiques.

In another presentation, Amy Hogan, from Brooklyn Tech, and Ellie Terry, from High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology, shared a unit they had recently wrapped up in time for the 2012 presidential election. The students studied the country’s electoral college and examined and mapped on a graph how many votes each state received compared with its total population. They found that California, Texas, and New York had many electoral votes but had less power per voter compared to the voters who contribute to Wyoming’s four electoral votes.

“There was a lot of Nate Silver adoration,” said Hogan, referring to the statistician whose model accurately predicted the election results.

While many of the teachers taught in selective high schools, Mohammed Aminyar, a teacher at East Side Community High School, which has more students eligible free and reduced lunch, said modeling worked in his classroom as well. He said his students responded to data that addressed social issues and inequities. His class has looked at the housing market in post-Katrina New Orleans, Iraq War casualties, and prices of MTA subway cards.

One project assigned students to look at the earning sheets of a fictitious shoe company that used sweatshop labor in South America and asked them to come up with a way to raise the workers’ wages without giving up too much profit.

“When it comes to justice, the students are really kind of, like, up in arms about what’s fair and what’s not fair,” said Aminyar.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.