Let's Make Plans

During summer break, teachers find coveted collaboration time

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Just after 9 a.m. last Friday, when the morning sunlight and a mild breeze practically demanded a day at the beach, about 30 teachers sat in a Brooklyn classroom with the lights off listening to a former principal talk about lesson planning.

The speaker was Nate Dudley, the head of the school-support network that organized two week-long course-planning workshops this month – Dudley called them bootcamps – for the teachers it serves. Spread out among the stripped-down summer classrooms at Williamsburg Preparatory High School, this latest group of teachers had spent their week assembling standards, assessments, materials, and activities into “unit plans” that would serve as roadmaps for several weeks worth of lessons.

“This is pretty substantial work,” Dudley told the teachers. If they could finish just one such unit plan by week’s end, Dudley added, “That’s pretty amazing.”

With the new Common Core standards and their associated tests, a new teacher-evaluation system, and new special-education policies that mix students with varying abilities, lesson planning may be more complicated and consequential than ever before. In high schools, where educators often create their own materials and course outlines, that’s even more likely to be the case. And yet, in many schools, teachers are left to do the lion’s share of planning alone.

So when Dudley’s network, known as N403, offered a paid opportunity for educators to plan together – even though it fell in the middle of summer – more than 100 teachers applied for the 70 spots. The alternative, explained Eddie Abdenour, a math teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, was certainly less appealing.

“It’s me,” Abdenour said of his normal planning routine, “in front of my computer, at home, on a Saturday morning.”

Dudley’s network includes 29 schools spread across the city – most are high schools and many are for older students who are behind in accumulating credits. The teachers who signed up for last week’s planning workshop started crafting their units by choosing a few of the Common Core standards, the knowledge and skills New York has decided that students should acquire by the end of each grade. Then they devised end-of-unit assessments for students to prove they had mastered the material.

For a unit on the Industrial Revolution, Michelle Sperandio, who teaches world history at Queens Metropolitan High School, decided to have students debate whether a certain developing nation should adopt capitalism, communism, or socialism.

Ramsey Ess, Caitlin Fagan, and Chris Fazio, who teach freshman and sophomore English at that school, modeled a quiz in their “Antigone” unit on the photo-sharing site Instagram. The students will write comments from the perspective of different characters from the ancient play as if they were chatting on today’s social media. The teachers offered an example from the viewpoint of Antigone: “Never felt so betrayed than by my sister. #disappointed.”

Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.

The teachers received feedback on their units throughout the week from network coaches and from colleagues. Fazio, for instance, wrote on another teacher’s plans: “Holy cow. Excellent tie to RL.3,” referring to a standard that asks students to track how characters change over time.

Several teachers said such support as they plan can be frustratingly rare.

“You get very isolated,” said Harmonica Kao, a math teacher at Professional Pathways High School in Brooklyn. As the state gradually rolls out new Regents exams tied to the Common Core standards, he added, some high school teachers are just beginning to grapple with how to prepare students for the new tests.

As the teachers at the workshop fashioned their units, they borrowed from each other and online sources, including the state’s Common Core website, Engage New York. Nine of the 11 math teachers working in one classroom on Friday said they regularly draw from the state’s materials. Still, many said the site’s plans must be modified because they often pack an unrealistic amount of material into lessons or include tasks that are too difficult for many students.

Barbara Niederhoffer, a calculus and trigonometry teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, said that more useful than any website is time spent poring over curriculum with colleagues. She had spent the week bouncing ideas off of Abdenour, the school’s algebra and geometry teacher who often spends his Saturdays lesson planning alone.

“One and one,” she said, as she and her colleague put the finishing touches on their plans, “is more than two.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”

draining the pool

New York City principals balk at plan to place teachers in their schools; some vow to get around it

PHOTO: Maura Walz
A social studies class at New Design High School, where Scott Conti is principal.

Many New York City principals are unhappy that the city is planning to place teachers directly into their schools — and in some cases, they’re vowing resistance.

Department of Education officials announced last week that they would place up to half of the 822 teachers who currently do not have positions into jobs that haven’t been filled by Oct. 15. Those teachers are part of the Absent Teacher Reserve, a collection of educators moved to the pool for disciplinary reasons or when their positions were eliminated. They remain on the city payroll in an arrangement that has generated political tension for years.

The move by the city reverses Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s promise in 2014 to avoid “forced placement” and raises questions about principals’ already fraying sense of autonomy. The city claims the plan is not forced placement because it would only apply to vacancies, as opposed to displacing teachers who are already employed. Regardless, many principals aren’t on board.

Some say they’ll avoid any attempt to place teachers at their schools, even if that means obscuring open jobs from the city’s hiring systems past October.

“I’m going to make sure my school doesn’t have a vacancy,” said one Bronx principal who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the topic. “I’m not going to post a vacancy if someone will place an ATR there. I’ll be as strategic as I can and figure out another way.”

Some principals raised concerns about the quality of the teachers in the pool. Education department officials could not readily provide the percentage of teachers in the pool who are there for disciplinary reasons, but a 2014 report estimated it at 25 percent. The same report said another third had received unsatisfactory ratings and half hadn’t held a classroom position in two years or more.

“Many of them have been coming from schools that have been closed down or subject areas that were cut,” said Scott Conti, principal of New Design High School in Manhattan. “The majority of them were at schools that were highly dysfunctional.” He noted that some may have been out of the classroom for years and not getting proper professional development, effectively hindering their performance as teachers.

Conti said he did hire a teacher from the ATR pool three years ago, through the standard procedure he would use to hire other teachers. He objects to the idea of being forced to hire someone whose effectiveness he could not fully judge.

“It’s never good when somebody from outside a school decides to fill in a vacancy in a school,” Conti said. “ It’s scary that some teacher could be put in your school that you have no choice about.”

Other principals were more harsh. One Bronx principal said multiple experiences working with ATR teachers sent to the school for monthly rotations in the past left the impression that those in the reserve are “not qualified, with very few exceptions.” Other principals agreed, suggesting that if the teachers were high-quality candidates, they probably would have found positions on their own.

To circumvent the new policy, some principals said they might check in with all their teachers early in the hiring period to be aware of potential future vacancies. If there is a vacancy in October, others said they’d consider hiring a long-term substitute to fill the position rather than leaving it open to an ATR placement.

The city says the new approach will be more stable than having teachers in the ATR rotate monthly, and will allow schools to more closely support and supervise the teachers in their building. It plans to work closely with principals on the hiring.

“We will work to find the right fit, and hear and work through concerns that they might have,” education department spokesman Will Mantell told Chalkbeat last week. “But ultimately, we do have discretion to place an educator in a vacancy that exists, and it kind of makes sense.”

Schools will still have final say over whether the teachers are permanently hired. If at the end of the school year, the teacher is rated as “effective” or “highly effective” in the observation portion of their evaluation — performed by principals or other school administrators — that teacher will be permanently hired to that school.

It is unclear if any of the ATR teachers placed into schools this coming fall could have a background of poor disciplinary conduct, or if the teachers placed would come solely from the share that are in the pool because they were excessed.

“The DOE has discretion on which educators in the ATR pool are appropriate for long-term placement, and may choose not to assign educators who have been disciplined in the past,” education officials said.

Last year, the city offered an incentive system to encourage schools to hire from the ATR pool. During that school year, 372 teachers were hired from the ATR pool under a DOE policy that subsidized the cost of the teachers’ first-year salaries by 50 to 100 percent. Those incentives will not be offered with the placements expected this fall.

Daniel Russo, principal of Walton Avenue School in the Bronx, said he has had positive experiences with the two teachers he hired from ATR pool in previous years. He added that though ATR teachers sometimes have a gap because they are coming from a different school — and sometimes not a high-performing school — his school is able to fill that gap and assimilate the teacher to the school’s culture and expectations.

Still, he noted, finding the right fit between candidates and schools could be a “challenging undertaking” for the city.

New Design’s Conti fears that challenge will disproportionately fall on schools like his that struggle with fluctuating enrollment.

“These teachers are not going to end up at Lab, they will end up at places like New Design where the positions will open up,” Conti said, referring to the selective and successful NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies. “Schools with the most unstable populations, serving the neediest kids is where the low-functioning teachers will end up.”