planning ahead

For some high school math teachers, a Common Core head start

Math teachers from New Visions schools gather for a Common Core training. (Courtesy Tim Farrell, New Visions)

The city’s teachers union has been clamoring for more time for teachers to prepare for the elementary and middle school state tests, which will be aligned to new curriculum standards this spring. Not so for the city’s high school teachers, who have another year to prepare for new tests.

The Department of Education is requiring high school teachers to align two units each semester this year to the Common Core. But beyond that, some teachers have said that without assessments to plan backwards from, they are at a loss about how to proceed, while others view the extra year as license to delay making more substantive changes.

But some high school teachers are seeking out help with the Common Core now, reasoning that it’s smart to work with the new standards while there’s still time to troubleshoot before students face tests based on them.

For math teachers at 14 Bronx schools, support is coming from the network hired to support their schools, New Visions for Public Schools. With a $13 million, five-year innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the help of the Silicon Valley Math Initiative, New Visions is piloting a Common Core-aligned ninth-grade algebra curriculum in the hopes that it will challenge students more and build teachers’ skills.

In math, the Common Core expects teachers to cover fewer topics and instead push students to understand a few concepts thoroughly and apply that knowledge to solve real-life questions. So the New Visions curriculum, called “Accessing Algebra through Inquiry,” or A2i, provides teachers with abundant multi-step word problems and tasks that require students to think outside the textbook, then explain in writing how they used math concepts to solve practical questions.

The curriculum also asks teachers to structure their units differently than they have in the past, using special group projects and midpoint assessments to check students’ understanding.

Schools using A2i this year get a visit from a New Visions coach each week and send their teachers for extra training at least once a month.

Janet Price, New Visions’ director of instruction, said she expected to face trouble getting math teachers on board with the new curriculum, knowing that they might not see an immediate payoff from it this year.

“The kids still have to be prepared for the Regents, and whoever writes the Regents is not listening to the other part of the State Education Department,” she said. “They’re including a lot of questions on topics that the Common Core suggests should not be part of the math [tests], and that’s creating a big problem for us.”

But at a Friday-morning training at New Visions’ Chelsea offices last month, teachers said they thought the value of pushing their students to tackle more challenging work outweighed the risk of giving short shrift to some topics that will appear on this year’s state tests.

“Asking a student to take new information and make sense of it, and solve a problem that’s longer than a minute, I think that’s really valuable,” said Eric Benzel, a ninth-grade algebra teacher at the New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science.

“In general I feel like students think my class is a lot harder … but I think they enjoy it,” he added. “Students are used to failure being a really bad thing in math, but this is the first class where failure isn’t necessarily bad. A problem is something you actually have to try, and fail, and try something else, to get the answer.”

The paradigm shift has made for a bumpy start to the school year, some of the teachers said.

“It’s just so challenging because the kids weren’t taught like this before. In the past, the teacher models the problem and similar problems to work with,” said Michaela Pestejo, a math teacher at the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science.

In A2i, “formative assessments” are key to helping teachers get their students through the heightened struggle of learning something new. Two thirds of the way through each unit, small groups of students are asked to complete a worksheet about what they learned up to that point, and whether they can apply that knowledge to new problems.

After the group activity, the teacher returns the assessments to students and allows them to “fix up” their answers, Price explained, giving them a chance to rethink their work before handing it in for grading.

“You’re finding out whether they have the math or not while there is still time to do something about it before that final test and closing the book on that unit,” Price said. “The only way you’re going to know if the kids understand it or not is to look carefully at their work.”

Russell West, New Visions’ senior lead instructional specialist, said what makes A2i remarkable is not its individual elements — many schools already have them in place — but the way they are assembled.

“This is actually nothing brand new; this is stuff people have been working on for twenty years,” he said. “We’re just pulling it all together to support what the teachers are doing around the Common Core.”

The curriculum — which New Visions is rolling out to more of its schools, and in more grades, next year — is mostly new to New York City, West and Price said, though it has been used by a few schools in the past year, including the La Raza Network, which has a school in Brooklyn. The assessments are also being piloted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Georgia. The Shell Center, creator of the math assessments, has created about 60 math Common Core assessments for schools to use this year. It will be making more, and New Visions will be expanding the program to more schools next year.

The expansion will come as students are set to take Common Core-aligned Regents exams in math for the first time. Until then, teachers using the A2i curriculum are hoping that it doesn’t compromise their ability to help students pass this year’s test.

“We’re trying to hit two birds with one stone, in very different areas,” said Francesca DiPietro, another Collegiate Institute for Math and Science teacher. “That makes this year more difficult for us.”

The teachers said their solution so far to keep students from shutting down when faced with the tougher math problems has been to offer more tutoring, and to review lessons over multiple days, but they said it’s hard to do that while also covering the material students will see on exams they need to pass to graduate.

It’s true that the state’s old standards and the Common Core diverge at several points, West said. But he said A2i lets teachers cover their bases by including topics from the old standards as they prepare students to answer more complex questions.

“Triangles are the perfect example of a ninth-grade topic that isn’t in the ninth-grade Common Core,” he said. Instead, trigonometry is a 10th-grade topic. So, West said, “during this transition we’re making sure the kids are being asked to use the skills with triangles in the tasks that we’re giving them this year.”

Benzel said working with A2i has underscored his wish that high school exams would be overhauled faster — exactly the opposite of what some elementary and middle school educators say they want.

“What we’re really assessed on as teachers and students right now is … the ability to solve these single-step, algorithmic, terrible problems that the Regents is built on,” he said. “I’m trying to make the transition, but we’re anticipating the future while we’re still stuck in these 40-year-old assessments.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.