Anatomy of a lesson

In a third-grade class, students use a script to lead discussions

A third-grade teacher at Success Academy, reads to her students.

In a thick Russian accent, Sasha Growick imitated the voice of Rifka, the main character in “Letters from Rifka.” The book, which Growick is incorporating into a unit on immigration, tells the story of a young Jewish girl’s journey from Russia to the United States in the 1900s. Her 23 students sit cross-legged on a blue rug with colorful dots, completely enthralled by the story.

Every day during the last weeks of the school year, Growick spent about 40 to 50 minutes reading aloud and getting students to discuss the reading. The  teacher has worked at Success Academy Bronx 2 for the last three years, where her students routinely post the highest test scores in the entire charter network. Growick’s record recently earned her finalist status for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, awarded annually by the nonprofit TNTP.

GothamSchools sat in on her daily read-aloud lesson last month as students discussed Rifka’s reaction to her new country. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included both a description of what we saw, and in block quotes, a description of what the teacher said she was thinking.

9:28 a.m. Growick is finishing up the end of a chapter about Rifka arriving at Ellis Island and experiencing life in America for the first time. Rifka finds her younger brother wasting toilet paper and scolds him and says they will be sent back to Russia. Rifka tells another character in the book, Nurse Bowen, what happened and Nurse Bowen laughs at her.

Growick pauses and asks her students why she thinks Nurse Bowen is laughing at Rifka. She snaps her fingers and each student immediately turns to another and begin discussing the question. Growick bounces from group to group for about 45 seconds and then quickly comes back to the front of the classroom and raises her hand. The students stop talking.

“So a lot of you were highlighting the difference in perspective,” Growick says. “Where Rifka thought this was a terrible crime because of her experience with it in Russia, now that she’s come to America, she’s experiencing a very different reaction to something that would have been this horrible crime in Russia … let’s see what Nurse Bowen has to say to her.”

These are called “turn and talks,” when Growick asks students questions and then gets them to discuss answers with a partner. She said she likes to use this strategy because it allows students to understand what she is thinking about the book and also gives them an opportunity to talk about what they think is happening.

9:37 a.m. Growick finishes the chapter and asks students, “Even though Rifka is stuck in Ellis Island, she’s finding comfort in many different things. What is Rifka finding comfort in?” Again, Growick snaps her fingers and the students turn to each other to discuss for about 30 seconds. Then Growick starts counting down.

“10, 9, 8, 7…”

The students immediately move into three different groups, each sitting in a circle.

9:41 a.m. Growick has listened in to a few different conversations and addresses the class again to say she doesn’t think the students are quite on the right track. She says she hears many students talking about how Ilya, Rifka’s brother, has brought her comfort, but there is something else that Rifka is doing that brings her comfort.

“At the end of chapter we learn … she’s starting to write her own poetry,” Growick says. “And since the entire school has been writing poetry lately and we’re going to have a poetry slam on Wednesday … I want us to discuss this idea of how writing poetry can comfort you or make you feel better. Why is it that writing poetry is making Rifka feel better about her situation? Discuss.”

Each group has a group leader who leads the conversation.

“They make sure they’re following kind of like a script that we established with them starting in the first grade,” Growick said. “They’re very seasoned at it at this point.” The group leader repeats the question, calls on students to answer and then make sure the conversation continues without coming to a stop. The group leader is also responsible for making sure students who are speaking are “actually answering the question and taking the conversation in a productive course,” Growick said.

Growick said she usually chooses group leaders based on how well they are understanding and answering the questions during the turn and talks.

Growick said she sometimes whispers help or guiding questions to group leaders to help them refocus or redirect the conversation or gives them reminders about the structure that they have to keep in place.

9:43 a.m. In one group, the student who has been designated the group leader, repeats the question to the other students in the group. He calls on a classmate and she asks if he can come back to her. He calls on another student and that students asks if the group leader can please restate the question. The group leader looks at Growick, who is standing nearby, and she says, “That’s fair. Please do so.” He repeats the question and the student responds, “It helps, because, like … what was the boy’s name again? Ilya? Because Ilya … it makes her feel better, to have somebody to have company with.”

Growick asks the group leader if the other student answered the question. The group leader shakes his head.

Growick says,”I think your group needs some more think time. Let’s really think about why poetry can be comforting. Think about when you write poetry … how it makes you feel.”

9:45 a.m. One student says writing poetry helps Rifka because she’s trying to “combine all her sadness into one big ball and express it out to the world.”

“That’s an interesting concept and an interesting metaphor,” Growick says. “Why would focusing on your sadness … make you feel better?”

The student replies, “If you keep it inside of you, you’ll feel bad about it.”

“I thought that the group leader was doing a good job of making sure people were answering the questions,” Growick said about this particular group’s conversation. “It wasn’t as cohesive as I would have liked it to be. I feel like there were two or three students who kept talking, and then some of the other students began to evaluate what they were saying. But I didn’t feel like it was super rich. But I do think they were able to answer and discuss the questions on a more than basic level.”

Growick shares the student’s response about why Rifka finds writing poetry comforting with the whole class and then asks a follow-up question, which the student discuss again.

“I thought that was something that they could have unpacked a little bit more and I wanted to see what the other students thought,” Growick said. “So that’s why I ended up sharing it out to the entire group.”

Growick does this a couple more times so that students end up discussing what type of poetry Rifka will write and whether it will be influenced by Pushkin, one of the Russian poets she has been reading.

9:51 a.m. Growick wraps up the conversation. “A lot of people think Rifka’s poetry will end up sounding like Pushkin’s poetry because that’s what she’s been reading this entire journey. As great readers and writers, we are often influenced in our writing by what we read,” she says. “As we finish these last two chapters … try to make a connection between Rifka’s poetry and Pushkin’s.”

Then she asks students to return to the carpet and starts counting down from 10.

Compared to the beginning of the year, Growick said she has seen a major change in the students’ use of vocabulary and ability to speak in complete sentences. “I’ve also seen a major change in the children’s ability to hold themselves accountable,” she said. “They want to speak, they want to be called on, they know the group leader could call on them at any time, So they’re kind of holding themselves accountable to make sure they’re actually actively listening to their friends.”


To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.