Teaching teachers

How do you get students fired up about fractions? Reinvent math class.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Math Lab co-founder Peter Cipparone walks teachers through the morning's lesson before students arrive.

Earlier this week, Peter Cipparone was ending a meticulously planned lesson when the student he’d called to the board suddenly slipped. Kris, a rising fifth grader, was, Cipparone later said, a “plant” — selected because Cipparone felt confident he could clearly explain the fractions problem at hand to the rest of the class.

But when Kris got to the board, his understanding seemed to vanish. He was supposed to be placing the fraction five-thirds on a number line, but instead he marked off five and one-third, almost four points too far.

With just a few minutes left in class, held at the High School for Fashion Industries in Manhattan, Cipparone had to make a split-second decision: Should he offer the correct answer, or let students leave for the day without a clear resolution?

It was a tough call, but Cipparone knew he had backup. Unlike a traditional lesson, where educators teach in isolation, in this case, Cipparone was surrounded by 21 other teachers who would pore over every element of his teaching once the class ended.

The lesson is part of a New York City program, now in its second year, that is tasked with teaching two groups of people simultaneously: A group of rising fifth-graders like Kris, who spend two hours each day learning about fractions — and a group of educators from across the city who have signed up to improve their own teaching.

The program, known as the New York City Math Lab, gives educators an opportunity to perform the surprisingly rare work of watching each other teach. It also lets them hone an approach encouraged by the Common Core learning standards that many of the participating teachers said they have struggled to perfect: Getting students to learn math not just by practicing problems, but also by having conversations.

“With rules-based teaching, if you don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, then that rule only applies to that very specific type of problem,” explains Kim Van Duzer, a teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 29 who co-founded the lab program along with Cipparone and Kate Abell, who have both taught in New York City schools. “If you have an underlying understanding of operations and the number system, you can build on that to answer other sorts of questions — that’s what reasoning is.”

***

For a week during the summer, Van Duzer, Cipparone and Abell host roughly 25 educators with a range of teaching experience who watch the trio perform a sequence of lessons on fractions, sitting on the sidelines of a large classroom as the class works. Then, when the students leave, returning to a summer program offered by the Hudson Guild, the teachers talk about what they saw.

The Math Lab’s emphasis on learning math by talking and thinking about it is clear almost as soon as the students enter the room. A list of the class’ “math community agreements,” posted on a board, reminds students to “add onto each other’s thinking” and “analyze and observe each other’s work.”

Teachers observed students taking in Tuesday's lesson.
PHOTO: Elizabeth Green
Teachers observe students taking in Tuesday’s lesson.

To help students internalize that philosophy, Van Duzer led an activity called “convincing a skeptic,” where students were asked to fold pieces of green paper into squares one quarter the size of the original and then convince their partner that the new shape was, in fact, one-fourth of the original.

Some students struggled to articulate why the squares they folded were one-fourth of the whole piece of paper. “Sometimes my partner asked questions I didn’t understand,” one student admitted. But encouraging students to challenge each other’s ideas paid off later that morning.

After introducing the idea of representing fractions on a number line, Cipparone asked students to begin thinking about whether eight-sixths is greater than one. Nine and 10-year-old skeptical voices quickly emerged.

One student declared that eight-sixths is less than one, only to be told by someone sitting nearby that he had the numerator and denominator confused. The ensuing debate ended when the first student admitted his mistake and leapt at the chance to offer a correct answer in his own words.

Many of the teacher observers said the lab was the first time they were able to watch another educator teach consecutive lessons. Watching others teach, they said, helped them become more confident in their own ability to guide students through conversations about fractions.

“You can read a [lesson] plan, but they do so much more that’s not in the plan — how to elicit students’ thinking, or how to get them to respond to each other,” said Julie Heller, a teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 29, where Van Duzer also teaches.

Laura Burns, a 20-year veteran teacher from P.S. 73 who also attended last year’s lab, said the experience gave her ideas about how to tweak her instruction, including posting a schedule outlining the elements of the day’s lesson so students have a sense of where they are headed.

“I can just watch and see everything – the language, the materials, the way they’ve laid stuff out. They’ve agonized over every decision,” she said.

***

As teachers reflected on Tuesday’s lesson, a debate of their own emerged. They began wondering about how Cipparone handled what the group would begin calling “Kris’ problem” — the moment that morning when Kris misplaced five-thirds on the number line and Cipparone had to make a split-second decision about whether to correct him before the students left for the day.

Deirdre Flood, a teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 11, said it could make sense to end the lesson ambiguously if “every single [student] made a decision before they left, so they were thinking about it on their way out.”

Another teacher wondered whether withholding the correct answer might leave Kris feeling tricked when he inevitably discovered his answer had been wrong all along. Meanwhile, Abell, one of the Math Lab’s facilitators, suggested a different approach altogether.

“It feels like a terrible thing to not let him finish his idea,” she said. “The question for the community is, ‘What is Kris thinking?’ Because he’s thinking something that makes sense.” Instead of debating whether to correct him or not, she argued, teachers should encourage other students to explain why he came to equate five-thirds for five and a third — because he mistakenly considered five as the whole, rather than the number of parts.

For his part, Cipparone never pointed out Kris’ error that morning. He threw the question back to the class for a quick debate. And even though some students argued their classmate was wrong, Cipparone stood back and facilitated.

“Sometimes you have questions and you don’t get the answers all at once,” he said, just moments before students filed out. “If you’re not convinced, that’s OK!”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.