common changes

Teachers explain how Common Core changes could impact their classrooms

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
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When the state released proposed revisions to Common Core last month, there were a lot of changes, but most seemed relatively small. In some cases wording was tweaked; in others, an existing standard was made more specific.

But a key question remains unanswered: How would the revisions affect classrooms across New York state? To find out, we turned to the experts: teachers.

In most states, changes to the standards have not yielded a major departure from the Common Core. And in New York, the teachers we spoke with generally said the recommendations here do not mark a radical shift either.

“This wasn’t really the venue for us to say, let’s start from scratch,” said Bobson Wong, who was part of the state’s math standards review committee and teaches math at a high school in Queens.

Still, even small wording changes, if made permanent, could impact how math and English are taught or understood. We asked teachers to drill down into proposed alterations to individual standards and explain why, or if, those changes matter. Here are their answers:

April Rose is a third-grade teacher in Queens and a member of Educators 4 Excellence.

The current early-grade reading standards have often been criticized for not being developmentally appropriate. Some of the state’s proposed revisions appear to tackle that problem.

For instance, a third-grade reading standard asked that students be able to, “Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.” That standard has been revised to, “Read a variety of text levels with purpose and understanding…”

The wording change is small, but it could have a real benefit for teachers, Rose said.

“What if I have students who are above or below that [grade level]?” Rose asked. “All children come to grades at different entry points.”

Rose said she’ll still expose all students to grade-level and higher-level texts, but it’s important to have the flexibility to meet struggling students where they are, particularly if students are English Language Learners or have a disability.

“I feel like the pressure may be a tad bit off,” Rose said.

Bobson Wong teaches geometry, algebra II, and Advanced Placement statistics at a high school in Queens. He is also a Math for America master teacher and served on the state’s committee to revise math standards.

The existing higher-level Common Core math standards also inspired confusion among teachers. Some of the standards were too vague, some were too specific, and others were entirely misplaced, Wong said. The proposed standards try to clarify those problems, he said.

For example, an old geometry standard read, “Prove theorems about triangles.” It then listed a number of possible theorems and said teachers could consider others. That is too vague for a math teacher, Wong said.

“That could easily be half a year in a geometry course. It could be anything,” Wong said. “As a teacher, it was extremely difficult to read a standard like that.”

The new standard is more specific. It lists the precise theorems that students should know how to prove, including that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and the exterior angles add up to 360 degrees.

Changes like this are unlikely to upend anyone’s teaching style, Wong said, but a teacher confused by the original standard will be aided by the clarity.

Bushra Makiya teaches eighth-grade math and algebra in the Bronx. She is also a Math for America master teacher.

The eighth-grade math standards — which were not as hotly criticized as some of the other grades — were hardly touched by the state’s proposed revisions, Makiya said. Her subject’s standards saw only a few tweaks or clarifications.

When asked if these revisions would change her eighth-grade math classroom, she had a simple answer: “No, not at all,” she said.

Makiya also teaches an eighth-grade class of algebra I, and said those standards had some welcome changes. For example, the old standards asked students to learn about a complicated type of exponential equations. But the committees determined that concept is too difficult for algebra I, and instead, proposed moving it to algebra II.

Makiya said the change is the right move, but her students would not notice a difference in class.

“I honestly wasn’t teaching that anyway in algebra I, because I thought that was too much for kids,” Makiya said. “My guess is that’s probably true for a lot of teachers.”

Katie Kurjakovic teaches English Language Learners at an elementary school in Queens and worked on the state’s English standards committee.

The draft standards are missing something important to Katie Kurjakovic: accommodations for the English Language Learners she teaches.

“I’m very disappointed in the overall final product,” said Kurjakovic, who worked on the state’s committee to revamp English standards.

Kurjakovic said in lieu of creating a different set of standards for English learners, she wanted to see guidelines to help teachers working with non-native English speakers still unable to master the standards in English.

For example, the early grades have standards focused on recognizing and producing rhyming words. Those standards have not been changed, but Kurjakovic wanted them to include a different option for English Language Learners — allowing those students to learn the concept of rhyming in their native languages.

State officials acknowledged that they need to keep thinking about how to make the standards work for English learners. They said the State Education Department has engaged an independent expert, in part to help determine how the standards should be implemented for English Language Learners and special education students.

But that does not go far enough for Kurjakovic, who said accommodations for English learners should have been released at the same time as the draft standards.

One bright spot, she said, is the proposal to combine “Reading for Information” and “Reading for Literature.” That change will allow teachers to focus on reading skills without getting bogged down in whether they are using fiction or nonfiction texts, Kurjakovic said.

Under the current standards, teachers might struggle to achieve that balance, she said. This “allows teachers a little bit more freedom to choose teaching material thematically.”

First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”