First Person

First Person: Bringing the Olympic spirit to my fifth-grade classroom

PHOTO: Mackenzie McCluer
Track and field star David Oliver joined students from 51st Avenue Academy at Madison Square Garden in 2012.

Last spring, I felt as if all of the energy and momentum of the first half of the year was being sucked into a vortex. Was it caused by consecutive years of teaching the same grade, or was the inevitable arrival of test season to blame? I knew my students were feeling it too; I found myself refereeing more than the usual number of disputes over pencil ownership and hurt feelings. It was about that time that a link appeared on GothamSchools: “How to get an Olympian into your classroom. Teachers, apply here to adopt an Olympian to work with your school.” It sounded like something that would be good for kids, so I applied. The truth? I am a full-on Olympics fanatic, so I applied.

The organization behind this intriguing offer was Classroom Champions. Their stated mission is to use Olympians and Paralympians as role models for success and goal-setting, while increasing students’ digital literacy. They would accomplish this by connecting athletes and students via blogs, videos, and live video chats.

I teach a fifth-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class that includes general education students and students with special needs. Engagement and community are always issues. I was hoping that Classroom Champions would give me a boost in these areas. It sounded so cool; what kid wouldn’t want to meet an Olympic athlete? But I’m never really sure that what thrills me will have the same impact on my students.

Each class is paired with an Olympic or ParaOlympic hopeful, and each month the program has a theme, such as Community or Goal Setting. I know that my students hear me remind them to treat each other well or to do their best. I suspect that to them, I sound like the adult in a “Charlie Brown” cartoon- mwa, mwa, mwa. It turns out, however, that they do listen when their athlete sends them a greeting and a message in a video. At first, they just sort of parroted the sentiments: I will treat people with respect; I will set a goal and work toward it. But the videos that the students create using the program-provided Flip video camera show that Classroom Champions is touching something deeper. Sometimes their videos have the raw intensity of a reality-show confessional:

Some people laugh at me; how I dress and talk. I want them to stop. But I know that I also need to be nicer and friendlier.

If you were the new kid, I would show you around and sit with you at lunchtime. I would make you feel at home.

I want to be a better friend.

I’m going to read at least one book a week to raise my reading level.

Kids think I’m bossy. Sometimes I get involved in issues that are none of my business.

I started to see my students in a different light. I thought that they would be reticent about having others see their videos, but the exact opposite has been the case. They write, revise, and film their own thoughts and skits, and can’t wait to share them. One child, who never speaks, not even to her teachers, has recorded three videos. On camera, she shines like the sun. My principal has commented that my students are unafraid to express themselves, and I believe that she meant it in a very positive way.

It turned out that Classroom Champions has put some powerful bait in my room. The self-motivated are all over it, and the reluctant learners are sitting up and taking notice. Students who struggle to complete writing assignments will write and revise in order to use the Flip camera. Geography is more interesting when you use map coordinates to track your athlete. It’s more fun to do a landmark data project when you use your athlete’s stats, and see your work posted to the program’s website. Classroom Champions does not make the content connections for me; it’s been a conscious effort on my part to integrate the program into the curriculum. Teachers have to post two lesson plans per month to the networking site, so I’m sure that as the program grows, so will the bank of lesson ideas.

Through its technology sponsors, Classroom Champions has provided its classrooms with teleconferencing equipment for “live chat” with our athletes. We are preparing for this now, and it would have been the high point of the year, except that my class had the unexpected thrill of watching our athlete compete live and then meeting him in person at Madison Square Garden. It was an intense experience for some of the kids, one of whom cried with joy, and another who found it a bonding experience and told me in a letter that “it felt like we were a family.”

Last spring I clicked on a link and made three wishes: to engage students, to improve their communication skills with the use of technology, and to provide them with some useful life lessons. The program, for us, has delivered. It is a resource, not a cure-all. Some of my students still don’t like each other, but they manage to get along. Not everyone is sticking to their plans in order to reach their goals, but many are. Yes, it requires a little extra work on my part. I have to find ways to integrate it into my plans, but I like being able to mold it to my needs. I never know when our athlete’s video will post, so it’s up to me to keep the momentum going. This is not difficult, as we enjoy all the photos and videos that the other athletes and classes are posting. Every time we make a video, I wish we kept the room neater. C’est la vie; I stopped stressing about it. Our athlete may not always come in first, but there are lessons, important ones, to be learned about how to handle disappointment and adversity. The bottom line is that Classroom Champions is what you make of it. You can choose to bring it to the forefront, or you can keep it in the background and draw from it as needed.

Classroom Champions said that it would connect students and athletes, and it has. David Oliver, a 110-meter hurdler, is our athlete. You can be sure that my students and I will be watching all of the Classroom Champion athletes competing this summer in London, but we will be cheering longest and loudest for David. He is my students’ hero, and he is their friend.

Lois Kivelson teaches at 51st Avenue Academy in Elmhurst, Queens. Classroom Champions is accepting applications for next year’s class-Olympian partnerships through March 31.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.