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.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.