Anatomy of a lesson

A Common Core math class where students "complain with smiles"

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Revamping algebra instruction will take teacher training, curriculum changes, and setting up students early on to grasp more advanced concepts.

Marisa Laks’s geometry students might not have realized it when they shuffled into class earlier this month and grabbed “Do Now” worksheets covered with quadrilaterals, but they were on the cutting edge of the Common Core.

While the city’s elementary and middle schools have already started testing students on the new standards, that hasn’t happened yet in high schools. High school students will take their first Common Core tests this year and, after a recent state policy change, they have several extra years before they must meet the higher standards in order to graduate.

But Laks, the math department chair at Global Learning Collaborative on the Upper West Side, isn’t waiting to teach to the tougher standards.

She started connecting her geometry lessons to the new standards last year, and she also applied to join a group of “master teachers” from around the country who are paid to help fill a free online archive of Common Core-aligned lessons operated by a company called BetterLesson. Eventually, Laks will upload a year’s worth of lessons, some with videos and student work attached.

Chalkbeat spent a morning last week in Laks’ class observing a lesson she created where her students — mostly juniors, with a few sophomores and seniors — use a computer program to “sketch” quadrilaterals. As when we chronicled other classes in the past, we spoke to Laks about the lesson afterwards, and have included her commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

10:25 a.m. The Do Now sheets asked the students to determine which of the pictured quadrilaterals — a parallelogram, square, rectangle, or isosceles trapezoid — did not belong and why. As the 13 students got to work, and chatted a little, Laks began to pass out laptops to partners.

After a timer sounded, the class discussed the question, which led into Laks’ “mini-lesson” — a review of various quadrilaterals and their properties.

At one point, a girl noted that the other quadrilaterals in the Do Now “look more equal” than the trapezoid. Laks quickly corrected her.

“Be specific. Be precise.”

Laks said one of the Common Core “mathematical practice” standards she most often returns to is, “Attend to precision.”

“I don’t allow ‘that thing,’ ‘that one,’” she said, adding that when students are pushed to use correct names and definitions, they are forced to consider the relationships among concepts.

10:42 a.m. After the discussion, Laks directed students’ attention to the classroom’s electronic SmartBoard. She launched a dynamic geometry software program, called The Geometer’s Sketchpad, and asked students to do the same on their laptops. Then she reviewed the basics of the program.

Laks has her students use the program about once a month. Following the standards, students also use more traditional tools, like compasses and rulers, but Laks said the geometry software offers some advantages. For example, it makes sketching quicker and includes features — such as only allowing students to measure the length of segments, not lines — that reinforce geometry concepts.

One student noted that there were enough laptops for everyone to work alone, but Laks said, “I want you to work together.”

“This way they have to talk to each other,” she said. “It’s all about the language and reinforcing the mathematical language. This really helps them get a conceptual understanding.”

10:49 a.m. In pairs, students used the computer program to sketch figures by following directions on worksheets that Laks had made. The worksheets featured slightly different prompts depending on students’ skill levels, but all asked students to sketch a figure, identify it, and describe its properties.

Some students got right to work, but others seemed stumped. “Miss, I don’t even know where to start,” one boy called out.

Laks' class uses dynamic geometry software called, The Geometer's Sketchpad, to create digital "sketches."
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Laks’ class uses dynamic geometry software called, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, to create digital “sketches.”

The small class size allowed Laks to rotate among the groups. She performed the “drag test” on some of their digital sketches, in which she drags a figure’s vertex with the cursor — if the sides’ new slopes are different, then the lines are not parallel.

During this time, some groups asked basic questions about how to operate the computer program. But others wanted to know what figure they were trying to sketch (a parallelogram or rectangle, depending on their worksheet).

Laks refused to tell them. Instead, she asked them questions about the figures (“Are the sides parallel?”). When one student, senior Hiram Dueño, asked if his shape was a rectangle, Laks smiled back, “I don’t know.”

“Yes you do, you’re a teacher, you’re supposed to know this,” Dueño replied. “You got a degree for this!”

“It’s making students accountable for their own learning,” Laks said. “We’re not giving them the information; they are working to discover it.”

“They struggle with this,” she added. “But I feel that it’s a satisfying struggle. They complain, but they complain with smiles.”

During the group work period, a few students became distracted. One boy put his head down and some girls surfed the Internet.

Laks said management issues occasionally bubble up because students grow frustrated with the more challenging Common Core work. Also, the standards assume strong math foundations that many students lack, she said.

Laks added that group work and technology can steer some students off task, but that the risk is worth it.

“In my opinion, the benefits of enhanced comprehension and learning from their math discussions outweigh the negatives of off-topic conversations,” she said.

11:01 a.m. The timer beeped again and the class briefly shared observations about their sketches.

Then Laks passed out “exit tickets,” ungraded assessments that help her see what students took from the lesson. The slips asked students to explain why rectangles are always parallelograms, but the reverse is not always true.

Laks will eventually post the lesson on the Common Core website, called BetterLesson. She said she joined the lesson-sharing project because she believes in the goal of the Common Core — to prepare students for college through more rigorous instruction — but felt teachers had been given too little training and resources.

“We’re not quite ready,” she said. “I just hope we stick with it.”

As students packed up their things, Dueño still hadn’t identified the figure he had been trying to sketch. He asked Laks again to tell him (“It’s going to keep me up at night!”), but she kept pushing him to solve it himself.

Picking up his backpack to leave, Dueño said Laks’ approach could be frustrating, but it works.

“I learn more on my own,” he said. “It’s more independent than counting on the teacher.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.