Let's Make Plans

During summer break, teachers find coveted collaboration time

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Just after 9 a.m. last Friday, when the morning sunlight and a mild breeze practically demanded a day at the beach, about 30 teachers sat in a Brooklyn classroom with the lights off listening to a former principal talk about lesson planning.

The speaker was Nate Dudley, the head of the school-support network that organized two week-long course-planning workshops this month – Dudley called them bootcamps – for the teachers it serves. Spread out among the stripped-down summer classrooms at Williamsburg Preparatory High School, this latest group of teachers had spent their week assembling standards, assessments, materials, and activities into “unit plans” that would serve as roadmaps for several weeks worth of lessons.

“This is pretty substantial work,” Dudley told the teachers. If they could finish just one such unit plan by week’s end, Dudley added, “That’s pretty amazing.”

With the new Common Core standards and their associated tests, a new teacher-evaluation system, and new special-education policies that mix students with varying abilities, lesson planning may be more complicated and consequential than ever before. In high schools, where educators often create their own materials and course outlines, that’s even more likely to be the case. And yet, in many schools, teachers are left to do the lion’s share of planning alone.

So when Dudley’s network, known as N403, offered a paid opportunity for educators to plan together – even though it fell in the middle of summer – more than 100 teachers applied for the 70 spots. The alternative, explained Eddie Abdenour, a math teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, was certainly less appealing.

“It’s me,” Abdenour said of his normal planning routine, “in front of my computer, at home, on a Saturday morning.”

Dudley’s network includes 29 schools spread across the city – most are high schools and many are for older students who are behind in accumulating credits. The teachers who signed up for last week’s planning workshop started crafting their units by choosing a few of the Common Core standards, the knowledge and skills New York has decided that students should acquire by the end of each grade. Then they devised end-of-unit assessments for students to prove they had mastered the material.

For a unit on the Industrial Revolution, Michelle Sperandio, who teaches world history at Queens Metropolitan High School, decided to have students debate whether a certain developing nation should adopt capitalism, communism, or socialism.

Ramsey Ess, Caitlin Fagan, and Chris Fazio, who teach freshman and sophomore English at that school, modeled a quiz in their “Antigone” unit on the photo-sharing site Instagram. The students will write comments from the perspective of different characters from the ancient play as if they were chatting on today’s social media. The teachers offered an example from the viewpoint of Antigone: “Never felt so betrayed than by my sister. #disappointed.”

Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.

The teachers received feedback on their units throughout the week from network coaches and from colleagues. Fazio, for instance, wrote on another teacher’s plans: “Holy cow. Excellent tie to RL.3,” referring to a standard that asks students to track how characters change over time.

Several teachers said such support as they plan can be frustratingly rare.

“You get very isolated,” said Harmonica Kao, a math teacher at Professional Pathways High School in Brooklyn. As the state gradually rolls out new Regents exams tied to the Common Core standards, he added, some high school teachers are just beginning to grapple with how to prepare students for the new tests.

As the teachers at the workshop fashioned their units, they borrowed from each other and online sources, including the state’s Common Core website, Engage New York. Nine of the 11 math teachers working in one classroom on Friday said they regularly draw from the state’s materials. Still, many said the site’s plans must be modified because they often pack an unrealistic amount of material into lessons or include tasks that are too difficult for many students.

Barbara Niederhoffer, a calculus and trigonometry teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, said that more useful than any website is time spent poring over curriculum with colleagues. She had spent the week bouncing ideas off of Abdenour, the school’s algebra and geometry teacher who often spends his Saturdays lesson planning alone.

“One and one,” she said, as she and her colleague put the finishing touches on their plans, “is more than two.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

In the Classroom

When students at an Indianapolis high school weren’t talking about Charlottesville, this teacher started the conversation.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Delvonte Arnold started a conversation about Charlottesville in his world history class.

When teacher Delvonte Arnold came to school after a weekend of racist violence, he expected students to have questions. But to his shock, Charlottesville didn’t come up.

“No one asked me any type of questions about it,” said Arnold, who teachers world history at Arlington High School, a far east side school that could close as part of an Indianapolis Public Schools reconfiguration proposal.

But Arnold thought it was important for his students to talk about the white supremacist rally and the car that plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters — a day that ended in tragedy with three dead and dozens more injured.

So Thursday afternoon, in the 20 minutes before the bell rang at the end of the day, Arnold decided to start the conversion. He and two other teachers brought together about 15 students, most of them African American, to talk about the rally.

“They are growing up black in America,” said Arnold, who is black. “You have to know what racism looks like, and we have to figure out a way to do things that will make a change in our communities.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Teaun Paige is a sophomore at Arlington High School.

Teaun Paige, a sophomore in the world history class, said that she learned about Charlottesville from her mother last weekend. Teachers have occasionally brought it up this week, she said, but students haven’t spoken much about it.

But even though she hasn’t spent much time talking about the violence with her friends, she said “it feels like a big deal.”

“I mean, if it happened here it would be way more of a big deal,” Paige added, “but it’s still a big deal.”

One reason Arnold likes to discuss issues in the news is because it gives students a chance to pause the reading and writing they are usually focused on and think about the world.

Because not all of them are paying attention to national news, he needs to start by giving students background information. Thursday, the class started by watching a short clip from “Vice News Tonight.”

“They are engaged, but first they have to find out about these things,” he said. “I have to stimulate the conversation.”

The class also talked about racism and terrorism last week, Paige said.

“It turned into something really serious,” she said. “We started actually putting our feelings out there about racism.”