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.”

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

Building Better Teachers

How this teacher lost it in homeroom and still managed to win her student’s trust

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
KIPP Indianapolis teacher Katie Johnson, left, with her former student Ronasiea Holland, a freshman at IUPUI.

Educators from around Indianapolis gathered to tell heartbreaking and inspiring stories from the classroom earlier this month at an event hosted by Ash & Elm Cider Co. and Teachers Lounge Indy, a new group that organizes social events for educators.

In the coming weeks, Chalkbeat will share a few of our favorites, condensed and lightly edited for clarity. We start with a story shared by Katie Johnson, a teacher at KIPP Indianapolis.

It was my second year of teaching. I have a student who one day I was very impatient (with). I was asking my class, “Be quiet.” I got an eye roll. “Please stop talking.” I got a lip smack. And that’s when lip gloss was popular — when everybody was real bright and glossy.

That day, I just wasn’t feeling it. I wasn’t feeling like being patient. I said, “Get out of my room!”

And Miss Holland, if you know her, had to do a lip pop. She had to do an eye roll. She had to talk to her friend. That was Miss Holland.

It was the end of the day, afternoon homeroom. And I’m sitting in the middle of the classroom. I have the afternoon announcements in my hand, and I had to make sure all our students got those documents. So when Miss Holland was walking out, I said, “Come back here and get these papers!”

I was not very mature at this time. At this point, I’m like 23 years old.

She comes back in, and she takes these papers, and when she does, she snatches them, and all the papers fly.

Our students wear these really nice uniforms, bright blue shirts, nice ironed collars. Before I realized it, my hands were around the collar of this nice, beautiful polo.

And I was like, “No! Katie, don’t lose your job, Katie Johnson. Don’t lose your job.” I said this out loud in a room of eighth-graders.

She proceeds to walk out. I proceed to like, get my life together. I know I have made a mistake.

It was the end of the day, she was a walker, and her mom usually came to pick her up. I knew, either I was going to lose my job that day, or I had to talk to her parent.

I walk downstairs, and I saw her mom. I walk up to her mom, and I say, “I jacked your baby up.” At this point, we had a relationship, but not enough for me to ever put my hands on anybody’s baby, ever. Her mom said, “Ms. Johnson, you should have beat her ass.” And I knew I had my job after that!

Her mother knew that I cared for her. And the reason why I was really tough on her was because she was extremely intelligent — very smart. And when she had good days, they were amazing. She could lead a class. She could quiet the class. She was great. When she wasn’t having a good day, she could also be a culture-killer and tear my class apart.

I had to get her on my side. And that relationship began to build. Outside of school, I’d take her places. We’d have one-on-one conversations in the cafeteria. Miss Holland was an amazing young lady.

As an eighth-grade (teacher), I got a chance to work with our kids during promotion, and I looked at her and I said, “You know what Miss Holland, not if — but when — you graduate high school and go to college, no matter where you go, I am taking you dorm room shopping. And on my teacher budget, that’s a lot of money.”

For four years, I’ve been engaged with this woman. She’s met my family. And this August, I got a chance to keep my word because she kept hers. She graduated from high school, such a mature and beautiful young lady.

And she called me saying, “Miss Johnson, I’m ready. When are we going shopping? What’s my budget?”

But it was my honor to take her. This is the reward that I get to have for all these years of being an immature teacher. She took it, and she learned, and she grew.

She is now a freshman at Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

She tells me that she wants to be a teacher, and I tell her, “Lord, I cannot wait until you get a Ronasiea Holland in your class.”

Watch the full story:

For more stories about Indianapolis educators, see our “What’s Your Education Story?” occasional series.