Algebra for All

This Bronx elementary school is changing the way it teaches math — and it’s showing results

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Fifth-grade students at P.S. 294 in the Bronx were immersed in math problems when Chalkbeat reporter Christina Veiga visited in March.

Fifth-grader Darmairys Henriquez used a green marker to write her answer to a math problem on a big poster board. Her classmates at P.S. 294 stopped by in small gaggles to take a look at her work.

The question: 3 + 6 – 2 x 4.

The students were learning how to use grouping and the order of operations to solve a math equation, but it would be at least 30 minutes before teacher Nicole Lent would stand in front of the class and reveal the answer.

This approach is part of a citywide effort to make sure all students pass algebra by the end of ninth grade — paving the way for college and high-demand careers.

In 67 elementary schools across the city, including P.S. 294, fifth-grade math instruction has been “departmentalized” just like in middle or high school. Instead of sticking with the same classroom teacher for every subject — reading, writing, math and science — students have a teacher responsible only for math instruction.

The idea behind the city’s Algebra for All initiative is to have the most dedicated and effective teachers focus on this critical subject area, an approach backed by research.

“There’s still a lot of anxiety among elementary teachers about teaching math, and they still cling to the textbook,” said Clara Hemphill, who coauthored a report about math anxiety for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “One way to break through that is for an elementary school to pick a teacher who really loves math and [have him or her] teach all the students in fifth grade.”

With a solid foundation in elementary school, the city hopes students will be ready to tackle math in middle school — and higher-level courses such as calculus in high school.

“It is a building block for college readiness,” said Matt Larson, president of National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

P.S. 294 in the Bronx has embraced the model, with specialized math teachers in not just fifth grade, but starting in third grade. One teacher serves as a coach for her fellow math instructors, allowing the strongest teachers to share what works and problem-solve when lessons go wrong.

Along with departmentalization, P.S. 294 launched a whole new way of teaching math, using a method that encourages students to engage in discussions the same way they might debate literary themes in a book club.

“In a lot of schools, literacy takes the forefront,” said Principal Daniel Russo. “What we do here is try to build the strongest, most inquisitive, abstract mathematicians we can.”

First, students try a problem on their own, and then debate it with their classmates, defending their answers or changing their minds entirely based on the input of their peers.

With her classmates gathered around, Darmairys began her defense: “So what I did was I added,” she said, describing her approach. She added parentheses around one part of the equation so it read 3 + (6-2) x 4.

“I got a total of 28,” she said. “I’m ready for questions and comments.”

That was the cue for her classmates to jump in. A boy who came to a different answer — 1 — was the first to speak up.

“You were supposed to just get 1, because you didn’t really need parentheses,” he said. “I thought it was just simple. You were just supposed to add.”

Lent had been floating around the room with a clipboard, but now she stopped by Darmairys’s group to listen in. She asked a few leading questions, like “Do I really need parentheses?” But Lent stopped short of providing any answers, even when her students came up with wrong responses. (The answer, by the way, was 1).

Instead, the students were left to explore the possible solutions and methods together. Eventually, one boy noticed his classmates came to different conclusions depending on where they placed their parentheses in the equation.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students in Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade math class at P.S. 294 debate the correct way to solve a problem.

From the outside, Lent’s teaching seemed largely invisible. But everything was carefully curated, from the type of problem students were asked to solve to the students who were asked to present their particular approaches.

“It’s a lot of thinking on your feet,” she said. “You’re always looking for what is going to bring the most discussion.”

Class had started with a problem that was intentionally different from anything they had seen before. Lent looked over their shoulders as they worked, marking on her clipboard groups of students who used different strategies to come to different conclusions. Next she chose students to present their work, picking those who had some parts correct but demonstrated different misconceptions.

Lent said this kind of teaching “did not happen overnight.” But she “always felt more comfortable” teaching math, and passionate about sharing it with students.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teacher Nicole Lent breaks down the different strategies students in her fifth grade class used to solve a math problem.

P.S. 294 was already using the model, along with “departmentalized” math teachers, when the city announced its Algebra for All initiative. The school joined the program to take advantage of extra training and resources. Teachers involved in Algebra for All receive at least 17 days of training, and P.S. 294 landed a city grant to pay for materials and professional development sessions tailored to the school’s needs after Lent noticed teachers needed help teaching fractions and algebra. Lent said the trainings were instrumental.

“It changed my way of thinking,” she said. “I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case. It really opened up my mind to thinking about the how and why.”

P.S. 294 overhauled its math instruction three years ago and “departmentalized” last year for the first time. Their first round of test results suggest the new approach is paying off.

In Lent’s class, 23 percent of students have a disability, 35 percent are current or former English Language Learners and 29 percent live in temporary housing. Another 19 percent have repeated a grade.

Yet the school’s students outperformed city and district averages on last year’s state math tests, with 53 percent of students passing, compared with 40 percent across the city. Students who are learning English — typically among the lowest-performing subgroup — improved their scores by 9 percentage points.

In the high-stakes environment that schools operate under, Russo hopes schools like his will encourage other principals to try new approaches to math. He understands the pressures well: P.S. 294 opened in the place of a school that was phased-out after struggling for more than a decade.

“If I don’t know for sure that this model is going to push my scores and my children, I’m afraid to try it, because I have so much to lose,” he said. “I think that when the Algebra for All schools come out with some data that’s trending a little bit stronger, that will pique the interest of more schools.”

Russo admits it takes the right teachers and leaders to make an approach like theirs work. The Department of Education has made departmentalization optional at elementary schools. So far, about 400 teachers across the city have gotten professional training to encourage the same kind of strategies that are in place at P.S. 294.

“We’re really focused on helping teachers understand the content and giving teachers … strategies to teach the content,” said Carol Mosesson-Teig, senior director of mathematics for the department. “We want to make sure that kids have a sense that they belong they belong in the math classroom.”

Knock knock

House call: One struggling Aurora high school has moved parent-teacher conferences to family homes

A social studies teacher gives a class to freshman at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

When Aurora Central High School held traditional parent-teacher conference nights, fewer than 75 parents showed up.

This year, by taking the conferences to students’ homes, principal Gerardo De La Garza says the school has already logged more than 400 meetings with parents.

“This is something a lot of our families wanted,” De La Garza said. “We decided we wanted to add home visits as a way to build relationships with our community. The attendance at the traditional conferences was not where we wanted it to be.”

The home visits aren’t meant to reach every single student, though — the school has more than 2,000 enrolled this year. Instead, teams of teachers serving the same grade of students work together to identify students who need additional help or are having some issues. On Fridays, when the school lets out early, teachers are to go out and meet with those families. In some cases, they also schedule visits during other times.

Some parents and students say they weren’t made aware about the change and questioned if it was a good idea, while others welcomed the different approach.

“I felt when we go home that’s kind of our space, so I wasn’t comfortable with it,” said Akolda Redgebol, a senior at Aurora Central. Her family hasn’t had a home visit. “My parents, they thought it was a little odd, too.”

A father of another Aurora Central senior spoke to the school board about the change at a meeting earlier this month.

“There’s been a lot of changes over all these years, but one thing we could always count on was the opportunity to sit down with our child’s teachers during parent teacher conferences,” he said. “I hope this new program works, I really do, but why stop holding parent teacher conference nights at the high school? I haven’t had a single meeting. I haven’t met any of his teachers this year. Also why weren’t the parents told? I got two text messages, an email, and a phone call to let me know about a coffee meeting, but not a single notice about cancelling parent teacher conferences.”

Research examining the value of parent-teacher conferences is limited, but researchers do say that increased parent engagement can help lift student achievement. This year, the struggling Commerce City-based school district of Adams 14 also eliminated traditional parent-teacher conference nights from their calendar as a way to make more use of time. But after significant pushback from parents and teachers, the district announced it will return to the traditional approach next year.

Aurora Central High School is one of five in Aurora Public Schools’ “innovation zone,” one of Superintendent Rico Munn’s signature strategies for turning around struggling schools.

The school reached a limit of low performance ratings from the state and last year was put on a state-ordered improvement plan. That plan allowed the school to press on with its innovation plan, which was approved in 2016 and grants it some autonomy for decisions on its budget, school calendar, and school model.

As part of the school’s engagement with parents, the school in the last few years has hired a family liaison, though there’s been some turnover with that position. The school also hosts monthly parent coffee nights, as has become common across many Aurora schools.

As part of the innovation plan, school and community leaders also included plans to increase home visits.

Home visits have also become popular across many school districts as another way to better connect with families. Often, teachers are taught to use the visit as a time to build relationships, not to discuss academic performance or student behavior issues.

That’s not the case at Aurora Central. Principal De La Garza said it is just about taking the parent-teacher conference to the parent’s home. And teachers have been trained on how to have those conversations, he said.

The innovation plan didn’t mention removing conference nights, however.

De La Garza said that’s because parent-teacher conferences are still an option. If parents want to request a conference, or drop by on Fridays to talk to teachers, they still can.

Those Fridays when students end classes early are also the days teachers are expected to make house calls to contact families.

Teachers are expected to reach a certain number of families each Friday, though school and district staff could not provide that exact number.

Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that it’s important to better engage families, but that balance is needed so not all of the responsibility is put on teachers who are already busy.

Wilcox said he would also worry about teachers having less access to resources, such as translators, during home meetings.

Maria Chavez, a mother of a freshman at Aurora Central, just had a home visit last week. She learned about the school’s strategy when she was called about setting up the visit.

Another, older daughter, was the interpreter during the home meeting with three teachers.

“For me, it was a nice experience,” Chavez said. “As parents, and even the kids, we feel more trust with the teachers.”

Chavez said she goes to parent-teacher conferences with her elementary-aged daughter, but doesn’t always have time for conferences with her high-school-aged daughter, so the home visit was convenient. Chavez also said she was able to ask questions, and said the teachers were able to answer her concerns.

“Maybe I wouldn’t say this should be how every conference happens,” she said, “but it is a good idea.”

How I Teach

How this Colorado drama teacher gets to know her students with a 20-second exercise

One of Kelly Jo Smith's students with her project on theater design.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Kelly Jo Smith, an English, speech, and drama teacher at La Junta Junior/Senior High School in southeastern Colorado, got her start in the arts with a directing gig in fifth grade.

Today, she hopes to spark her students’ creativity the way her own teachers did when she was in school.

Smith talked to Chalkbeat about why she loves teaching her gifted and talented theater class, what she’s learned from watching colleagues teach, and how one mother’s words stayed with her.

Smith is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state’s Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I grew up playing school, helping others with projects, and directing shows, so I think it was instinctual. I was allowed to write and direct my first play in fifth grade, so my love of theater has been lifelong.

I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and received my bachelor’s degree in theater and communication with a minor in English. But I really think it was my high school teachers that had the biggest effect on my life. In everything from drama to band, I thrived and got to test and hone my creative side.

What does your classroom look like?
I decided a long time ago that if I was going to spend so much time at school (and what teacher doesn’t) I wanted my classroom to be cheerful and comfortable. My classroom has posters, student work, pictures — almost every inch of it is covered. I have a portfolio section where students keep their written work to show during conferences and “Student Center” where students can turn in work and pick up makeup work. The carpeted floor makes it easy to move groups to the floor as a way to meet several learning needs.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite classes to teach — or I should say mentor — is the gifted and talented theater course. I designed this when I was getting my master’s degree from Adams State University. Students can begin with an examination of theater history, or an acting or directing project. I have had students create Greek masks, one-man shows, film projects, and currently have one student studying theater design. Students start with the standards, design their project, read articles and text, and blog and journal. Finally, they have a public showing or juried presentation. I love working with students who are fired up and inspired to test their own creative ideas. Teaching kids to explore and how to shape that exploration is key.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
Presenting oral and written instructions are important. That way, students can listen in the moment, but have clarification to refer to at home. I encourage students to ask for clarification and that may come in conferences, emails or thumbs up or down, pairing off and explaining the lesson to their peer. I also have a class Facebook page, where I post updates and assignment links so that parents can get the information as well.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I like using the “catch and release” strategy from Penny Kittle’s book, “The Greatest Catch: A Life in Teaching.” It comes from her experience fishing with her dad. In the classroom, we provide directions and then release students to work, but sometimes we need to catch them again to explain a detail or celebrate an accomplishment. Other times just walking by and making my presence known is all that is needed. I like to have several tricks because no one class is the same.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I like to learn about my students’ history. I share my story: “How did I get to where I am?” My first assignment in my speech class is called the “20/20 Speech.” Twenty slides in 20 seconds — students will include pictures of themselves at different ages, pictures of family, activities, schools they want to attend, future plans, books, movies and music. They begin and end with a quote that represents their essence. It is a great way to learn about students.

I watched a teacher (going to visit other classrooms is the best way to perfect your craft) start the class by opening it up to anything that happened since they last met that needed to be discussed. I like doing that because it gives students a voice in the classroom and then clears the way for focus on lessons.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _________. Why?
My creativity. Kids are kids! If you teach long enough you see cycles come and go and you have probably heard it all. If you approach the class with creativity, a good attitude, and a sense of humor … failures are not the end, just opportunity for a different approach.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a great mom of a student and each time we would leave for a (field) trip, she would tell me, “Drive careful. You have precious cargo.” All our students are precious cargo and the journey we take them on can change their lives.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
I had a principal once tell me, “Kelly, make sure they treat you like a professional.” Teaching is a profession. It is not easy and not for the faint of heart. It is personal and hard, time-consuming and, much of the time, thankless. I am a professional and not all of my attempts in the classroom have been successful, but they have been learning experiences. When I see the light of creativity spark in a student, I know that I am making a difference.