Anatomy of a lesson

P-TECH students act as teachers in summer geometry course

Seifullah (left) cuts a paper cylinder into circles to teach P-TECH students at one table for a lesson on how to calculate volume.

All but a handful of ninth- and 10th-graders at Pathways in Technology Early College High School have an ambitious summer goal: to pass the Regents exam in geometry before school starts in September.

To that end, they are enrolled in a six-week long summer enrichment class meant to get them up to speed on the information technology-themed school’s academic expectations and prepare them to take the state’s geometry exam this month. Classes are long — two to four hours each morning — and involve a mix of group projects, drills, homework, and writing assignments.

GothamSchools spent the morning in one marathon math class two weeks before the Aug. 16 exam. As the students worked in pairs on projects, four teachers hovered above, sometimes chiming in with explanations of geometry concepts and sometimes reigning students in when they wandered off-task.

After class, the lead teacher, Jamilah Seifullah, explained how she kept track of the students and what she wanted them to learn. As when we chronicled Ryan Hall’s math class in May, we’ve included Seifullah’s commentary in block quotes beneath our observations.

Seifullah, who taught geometry to a small cohort of advanced math students last spring in the school’s first year, took turns directing the class with Rachel Jamison, an English teacher who is pitching in with math instruction this summer. Jamison is also offering English lessons, but not for credit and during a shorter class period. With the Regents exam approaching, she and Seifullah agreed to combine the classes for longer math sessions, but weave in tasks that build literacy skills.

10 a.m.  Already, 32 P-TECH students had been working in pairs on a major assignment for almost an hour. Sitting at round tables in groups of five or six, each pair was using a computer to put the finishing touches on presentations on various geometry concepts, such as surface area and the isosceles triangle theorem, they would later present to their classmates.

Each presentation included of formulas, definitions, and practice problems. After each presentation, a pair of students at each table moved to a different table to present their projects to other classmates. Students had been teaching lessons to each other over the past week, and on the day we visited, five pairs were presenting.

Seifullah said she picked the concepts to assign based primarily on the Regents exam required for graduation.

“I’ve looked at the most important topics in geometry, as far as the Regents are concerned,” Seifullah said. “I assigned those topics to students and they then worked with me and Ms. Jamison to develop a powerpoint lesson plan. The plans needed to have independent practice, guided practice, as well as homework.”

10:20 a.m. As Seifullah flitted among groups, she paused over one student who was looking up geometry terms on Yahoo! Answers, a website most teachers consider unreliable. Seifullah explained that in her assignment instructions, she directed the class to seek help on more reliable sites, such as the Regents Prep web site maintained by an upstate school district or another site called Math is Fun.

“Every time I come over here you’re on a site that I haven’t recommended,” she said. “I could never verify the information on all the sites out there.”

Most of the students were typing out notes into slides on the computers or writing on notebook paper, but several were listening to music with headphones plugged into the computers. And at the table behind them, a student was reading a comic book.

“[There were] only two or three that I really saw going off task,” Seifullah said. “They’re moving around so often that they really don’t have an opportunity to.

“If they’re working on something independently, some of them ask if they can listen to music. Most of them stay on task because it is part of their grade, and most of them do think it’s important to teach the lesson. They don’t want to get up in front of their peers and not be prepared.”

10:30 a.m. Seifullah told all the students except those who were presenting to rearrange themselves at the tables and return their computers to the class’s cart. Each table would have two lesson presenters, she explained, and the other students would listen to each lesson for 20 to 40 minutes before hearing from a new set of classmates.

“Get ready to take notes,” Jamison told the students. “This is your classwork credit. Don’t just sit and stare.”

Seifullah said the students learn more when she asks them to teach each other.

“This creates that supportive environment, where they are supporting each other to do the best job that they can,” she said. “When they put in even the minimal amount of time to learn what they need to learn to teach, they learn more than if they just sat in the classroom listening to a teacher talk the whole time.

“When I’ve give quizzes after lessons that previous students have taught, the students who taught the lesson have gotten almost every question right on it.”

10th grader Brandon Scott shares his presentation on calculating the volumes of cylinders to a group of students.

10:37 a.m. With their audience in place, ninth-graders Justine Maximilien and Ettienne Durand began passing out worksheets with multiple-choice drill problems called a “Do Now.” Most of the problems had to do with determining and changing the angle measurements of various isosceles triangles, or triangles with two equal sides. The other students copied the definitions and formulas on each slide and then shared their worksheet answers.

Durand said it has been easier to stay focused during the lengthy math lessons than he expected when he accepted his slot at P-TECH, which was his third-choice high school. He said he was intrigued by school’s information technology focus but didn’t initially realize summer classes would be a requirement.

“I didn’t know we were going to do geometry, but I’m okay with it,” he said.

10:53 a.m. At a table across the room, 10th-grader Brandon Scott shared a PowerPoint slide about how to calculate the volumes of different three-dimensional shapes. The “aim” of that lesson, another slide read, was to learn “what are the different formulas for volume,” and answer the question “What do you think volume means?”

Yaayaa Whaley, a math teacher who had been hired just two days earlier, listened patiently at the table. During a lull, she explained the difference between a rectangular and triangular prism to the group.

Seifullah later walked over to Scott’s table and passed around blocks shaped like various prisms and cylinders. She also took out a paper towel roll and cut it into small circles.

“A cylinder is a shape made up of lots of circles, stacked together,” she told the group, using the prop to illustrate the concept.

“I like to give them a real world example,” she later explained. She used other props to make similar points throughout the morning. For example, at other tables she offered the groups hollow cylinders into which they poured bags of uncooked rice to illustrate their different volumes.

11:13 a.m. After the students collected their notes and moved en masse from table to table, and the presentations began again — though it took up to 10 minutes for some groups to get back to work.

As Seifullah and the other teachers watched the presentations, they used grading rubrics to mark the presentations on creativity, the accuracy of the slides, students’ communication skills, and audience engagement.

12:36 p.m. Jamison put up the final task of the day on the room’s SmartBoard: to complete, in writing, three sentences: “In today’s lesson(s), I understood…” and “I could teach someone to…” and “I was productive when I…”

“This is your ticket out of here,” she said, to groans from some of the students. One student refused to write at first, and Jamison led him into the classroom doorway for a private talk.

Jamison said the writing exercises are essential as P-TECH works to integrate writing across its math and science-heavy curriculum, but they are usually not welcomed by the students.

“They are not writing enough,” she said. “This is just another medium for them to explain the process they went through today. As you saw, many of them really have a hard time with that. Many of them were resistant to it.”

Seifullah echoed her concerns. “In technology, you’re expected to read all kinds of documents and eventually to write them,” she said. “They’re being prepared for a career in [information technology], so they have to be the kinds of students who can read, and prepare, and write code.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.