How I Teach

How one Brooklyn teacher found the perfect job — by checking the wrong box on an application

Deirdre Levy didn’t set out to teach students with special needs. In fact, she says, she fell into her current role by accident, when she checked a box on her New York City teaching application saying she’d be comfortable working in District 75 — without realizing it was the city’s stand-alone district for children with disabilities.

But in the five years since, Levy has grown passionate about her students at P.S. 369K in downtown Brooklyn. This year, she’s teaching fourth- and fifth-graders on the autism spectrum.

“With a neurotypical child, it’s easy to get the expected answer,” she said. “With my students, every day it’s surprising to see what strengths they have and how hard they work.”

That’s partly why Levy, a Queens native and former New York City Teaching Fellow, wanted to hold a science fair. She asked her students to pick topics that interested them — and they did. One chose to grow plants; another wanted to see how a motor powered an electric fan; a third was determined to figure out the best way to cook rice. “I thought it was cool that it showcased all the things they really loved,” she said. “No project idea was denied.”

Levy got the materials she needed, including medals for the science fair winners, by posting her requests on Donors Choose. A program called Science Everywhere matched each donation, ultimately spending $500,000 nationwide in small grants to teachers like Levy.

Her class worked on their projects for a month, Levy said, adding math and writing activities to the science. On the day of the science fair, the students’ families were invited into the classroom, and the school’s psychologist and occupational therapist judged the projects based on appearance, content knowledge and enthusiasm (the electricity project was a big winner).

“I think that it’s important for each student to know how to question things that occur in everyday life,” Levy said, reflecting on what they learned. “How to conduct a procedure, develop results and come up with their own conclusions.”

Here’s more on how Levy approaches her job. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Chalkbeat: What does your classroom look like?

Levy: It is a 6:1:1 classroom — I have six students and two paraprofessionals that assist the students. We have stations, where students rotate to learn multiple skills within the school day. Every 15 minutes they rotate. So today, my station worked on punctuation. One para had a reading station. And the other one was spelling and phonics.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I think it takes at least four weeks to get to know someone. I try to find out what their interests are because students really appreciate when they are listened to. I also think that it’s important to have a warm and strong demeanor. I love to have a silly time with my students, but I also hold them accountable for their actions.

How do you keep your students on task?

I never want to embarrass a child for off-task behavior, but I want to make sure that they understand the concepts that I’ve taught.

I try to center my work on positive reinforcement. The students can earn points and that leads to rewards. Like if they get 50 points, they can watch movies, go to the gym or go to a “girls club.” We make sure they earn points rather than penalizing them. We’re all motivated by things we want to do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In the beginning of the school year, one of the social workers for one of my students came up to me and told me that my student was one of six children at home with no father. I quickly understood why she had a hard time turning in her homework.

I told her that if she had any issues completing her homework, she had to come to me so that we could work on it together. But I let her know that she was still responsible for turning in her homework on time. Regardless of the circumstances at home, it’s important to teach children how to take responsibility for their own actions.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Work hard and be patient with yourself. I have always had high expectations for myself and sometimes I got frustrated if things didn’t go the way I planned. I realize now that good things always take time. That’s why it is important to work hard, but to recognize that things will eventually fall into place when they’re ready to happen.

transfer talk

This seemingly small change could make it easier for guidance counselors to send students to transfer schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A guidance counselor at Bronx Academy of Letters

New York City is planning to make it easier to refer students to alternative high schools — part of a broader effort to remove obstacles for students seeking admission to them.

The change will affect the city’s 52 transfer schools, which are designed to catch up students who have dropped out, are over-age or behind in credits. Guidance counselors at traditional high schools will be able to electronically recommend up to three transfer school options for students they believe would be better served in different settings.

That change might seem minor, but it is at the center of a wider debate playing out behind the scenes between the city’s education department — which has indicated that transfer schools are being too picky about who they admit — and transfer schools themselves, some of which worry the new policy could lead to an influx of students who have been pushed out of their high schools.

“There’s a significant fear from transfer schools that these will essentially be over-the-counter placements,” said one Manhattan transfer school principal, referring to a process through which the city directly assigns students who arrive after the admissions process is over, often mid-year. “It doesn’t necessarily make for a better fit for a student.”

Unlike most high schools in New York City, transfer schools admit students outside the centrally managed choice process. Instead, they set their own entrance criteria, often requiring that students interview, and meet minimum credit or age requirements. The schools themselves largely determine which students they admit, and accept them at various points during the year.

Some transfer school principals say this intake process is essential to maintaining each school’s culture, which depends on enrolling students who genuinely want to give school another try after dropping out or falling behind elsewhere.

But city officials have quietly scaled back the type of sorting transfer schools can do, banning them from testing students before they’re admitted, for example, or looking at attendance or suspension records. The transfer school superintendent also now has the power to directly place students if they are rejected from three transfer schools.

Given those changes, some transfer school principals are wary of the latest policy, which will allow guidance counselors at traditional schools to electronically “refer” students for up to three specific transfer schools, and requires transfer schools to track their interactions with those students.

The city says the new system will make it easier to find the right match between schools and students. It will “make the transfer high school admissions process easier and more transparent for students and families, while also ensuring better tracking and accountability,” education department spokesman Will Mantell said in a statement.

He noted the city is still working on implementation and the change won’t will happen before spring 2018. (The education department currently doesn’t have a way to track how many students are being recommended to transfer schools versus how many are actually accepted.)

Mantell could not say whether guidance counselors would need a student’s consent before electronically referring the student to a transfer school, and could not point to any specific policies on when it is appropriate for guidance counselors to refer students — though he noted there would be additional training for them.

Ron Smolkin, principal of Independence High School, a transfer school, says he appreciates the change. He worries about students who have fallen behind being told they “don’t qualify” for a transfer school, he said. “That’s why we exist.”

But other principals say it will make it easier for traditional schools to dump students because they are difficult to serve, regardless of whether they are good candidates for a transfer.

“There’s a greater risk of pushouts,” the Manhattan transfer school principal said.

Transfer school principals also worry about the consequences of accepting students who might be less likely to graduate than their current students — a potential effect of the new policy. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires high schools to graduate 67 percent of their students; those that don’t will be targeted for improvement.

Some transfer schools have called that an unfair standard since, by design, they take students who have fallen behind. The state has said transfer schools will not automatically face consequences, such as closure, if they fail to meet that benchmark, but it remains to be seen whether that entirely solves the problem.

One transfer school principal said the city’s desire to better monitor the admissions process makes sense, but won’t prevent schools from gaming the system — and is being implemented without adequate input from principals.

“Our voices haven’t been heard in this process,” the principal said, “and there are a lot of reasons to distrust.”

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.”