How I Teach

It’s not just about getting the right answer: How a fifth-grade teacher pushes her students in math class

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nicole Lent is a math coach at P.S. 294, which has departmentalized the subject.

At P.S. 294 in the Bronx, math is often a matter of debate.

In Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade class, groups of students take turns explaining how they solved the math problem of the day, respectfully disagreeing or enthusiastically lending support to their classmates’ arguments.

Lent floats around the room, asking probing questions but stopping short of revealing the right answer — opting to let students figure it out together instead.

“I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case,” she said. “I wasn’t giving them the opportunity to think critically about the problem and explore it in different ways.”

Lent is one of a team of teachers at P.S. 294, The Walton Avenue School, who focus only on math instruction. The city Department of Education has encouraged elementary schools across the city to take the same approach, called “departmentalization,” as part of its Algebra for All initiative. By placing the most capable teachers in charge of math instruction in fifth grade, the city hopes all students will be able to pass algebra by their first year of high school.

P.S. 294 has embraced the shift, starting departmentalized math instruction even earlier — in third grade. That’s in addition to its discussion-based approach. Lent has had a role of ushering both changes into the classroom.

She began using math debates and discussions after visiting another school that used the same model, and feeling struck by what she saw.

“I just remember going to those classrooms and thinking it was the coolest thing to see kids having a discussion,” about math. “I was just like, ‘How do I get my kids to do that?’”

The answer came through professional training offered by the city, along with picking and choosing the teaching resources that worked best for her needs. Soon, Lent’s new method spread throughout the school.

Now, half her time is spent in the classroom, and the rest of her day is spent working with her fellow math teachers as an instructional coach. She visits classrooms and regularly welcomes teachers into her own, all in an effort to provide constructive feedback, troubleshoot lessons and perfect new teaching strategies.

“It’s a different type of rewarding experience than working with children, but you see the same kind of growth,” she said. “We’re always working together to drive our instruction.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I never saw myself at a desk job where every day was the same. The great thing about teaching is that every day is different and truly rewarding, as you get to see your students grow and show progress over an extended period of time.

What does your classroom look like?

The students are the focal point of the room. You won’t find a teacher’s desk in my room. Around the perimeter are bookshelves containing student supplies … and “anchor charts” for students to reference … One example of an anchor chart would be to have the steps to adding fractions with unlike denominators, with the example of each step written out.

Students are permitted to get up at any time to access the supplies they need without asking for permission. We have set the expectation that they are in charge of their own learning and can self-assess when they need a resource to help them persevere through math tasks.

You had to learn a whole new way to teach math. What was the hardest thing about making that shift?

The hardest thing for me when making the shift from a teacher-led classroom to an approach that’s based on student inquiry and discussion was a shift in teacher mindset so as not to associate student conversation with off-task behavior.

What advice would you give to school leaders or teachers who might be considering departmentalizing math instruction?

I would advise them to start small and pilot departmentalizing on one grade first to see if it’s something they want to invest in doing at additional grade levels. We did this at P.S. 294, when I taught fourth grade last year, and it was very successful. We were able to work out any challenges and adjust what was necessary because we started small. At P.S. 294, we are now departmentalized on grades 3-5 for both [English Language Arts] and math. Teachers now receive the support they need and are focused on the content area they teach and have become true experts in their practices.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____________.

I couldn’t teach without my computer because technology now plays a crucial role in education. Without my computer I wouldn’t be able to play instructional videos for my visual learners or have students come up to the Promethean board (an electronic whiteboard) and manipulate math content, which plays a pivotal role in assisting them in understanding math content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach this year was on division of fractions. I always thought we had to teach it using the strategy I learned as a child known as “keep, change, flip.” That’s a strategy used to solve an expression such as 1/4 divided by 3. You would keep the fraction, change the sign from division to multiplication, and flip the whole number from 3 to a fraction of 1/3. The quotient is 1/12.

I didn’t know exactly why this strategy works, I just knew it did.

After attending one of the Algebra for All professional developments last summer, I learned from a colleague at another school how to use visual models: We draw three “wholes” and divide each whole into fourths. The quotient is one piece out of the twelve total pieces you have from all three models (wholes you drew). We ask the students to think about the question: “How many fourths fit in three?” When it came time for me to teach them to my students this year, I knew exactly how to show them to divide fractions by whole numbers and by fractions in a purposeful and meaningful way.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

After a quick check for understanding that takes place after my mini-lesson, students who don’t understand my lesson meet in a small group with me on the carpet, while the rest of the students engage in differentiated math tasks on their level independently at their seats. During this time, I reteach students using a different method than the first time. This includes the use of manipulatives, instructional videos, and whiteboard work. Once I re-teach the concept using a different strategy, I conduct another quick check to see if they mastered the concept, and if so, they then go off independently to try some math tasks on their own.

How do you see your role as an instructional coach? What do you think is the most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice?

My role as an instructional coach is to build capacity across the school in the area of math instruction. Ultimately this means pushing practices down: taking the rigor and instructional approaches used at the 3-5 level and adjusting them to be used at the K-2 level according to the students’ individual needs.

The most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice is to hold debrief sessions following classroom visits, co-teaching sessions, or modeling lessons in their classroom, and providing actionable feedback that they can implement immediately.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Oftentimes, it takes some time to realize a student is lost and you don’t know exactly where they began to get lost. To avoid guessing and confusing them some more by repeating the last thing I said, I will restart and go step by step from the beginning while having that student assist me. Engaging the student along with the teacher has been the best strategy because you know they are listening and following along, because they are personally and directly involved with the teacher.

Your school has a common planning period. Has that helped change the way you teach?

Common planning periods bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects.

During a recent common planning session, we had a consultant from Silicon Valley come and teach us about the difference between re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons. Re-teaching lessons teach content again to a group of students who didn’t master it the first time. Re-engagement lessons allow students to work with a task to build mathematical ideas.

He showed us the data surrounding re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons, which indicated that re-engagement lessons are what build students’ critical thinking skills. I realized that instead of having re-teach lessons built into my math block each day, that it would be much more beneficial to my students to participate in re-engagement tasks more often, as research had shown that that’s what truly pushes their levels.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years back, one of my students who had always been a Level 4 student [top-scoring on state, city and school assessments] started to act out in negative ways, not complete her homework, and be disruptive during lessons. After several warnings, I decided to call home to speak to the parent to notify the parent as to what was going on. As it turned out, this student’s father had recently moved out of state as the parents were getting divorced. Her mother said she was not taking it well and was acting the same way at home.

I asked the student to stay with me during her recess and spoke to her about what was going on at home. After some time, she finally opened up to me and let me know about her parent’s divorce.

We shared our own personal stories, and I was able to connect with my student on a much deeper level, and let her know that I am here for her any times she needs an ear to listen. From that day on, the student confided in me as she needed to and improved her effort and behavior in the classroom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A colleague told me that, “As educators, we learn best from our students.” I thought that had been the silliest thing as I had considered myself the head of the classroom who was supposed to know everything. As I began to dive deeper into my career, I couldn’t agree with her more.

My students have taught me that teaching is not black and white. There is no perfect science to it. Everything we do as educators is based off of what our students know and do, resulting in continuous reflections on our own practices. What needs to be modified? What needs to be revisited the following day? What shouldn’t be done anymore? What can I do further to push or help my students? What worked and what didn’t work? [These] are things we reflect about regularly. My students are the reason my toolbox of promising practices is so strong.

To read more stories in the How I Teach series, click here. 

pencils down

Three things to watch as the release of New York’s test scores draws near

PHOTO: Getty Images

New York’s English and math scores are scheduled to be released this week — at long last. Compared to prior years, the state has delayed their release by a month.

But when the scores arrive, they will come with a big asterisk.

This year, as in the past, the numbers will not be directly comparable to the previous year because of changes to the test itself. Under pressure from teachers, students, and parents who argued that classrooms are too focused on preparing for the exams, the state shortened the tests from three days to two — which means this year’s scores will not allow for an apples-to-apples comparison, state officials said.

By contrast, last year was one of the rare instances in the last decade when the tests did not change, allowing observers to identify trends. New York City posted small gains in reading and math, narrowing the gap with the rest of the state. But with a new test, determining if this pattern has continued will be hard to judge. Here are some questions we’ll be asking as this year’s scores come out.

If the tests aren’t comparable, can they tell us whether students or schools are improving?

The short answer, according to Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas, is not really.

State officials will continue to report the share of students who are considered proficient in reading and math, as in previous years. But because the way the exam is scored must change to account for shorter tests, it will be difficult to know whether the tests reflect real changes in student learning.

If scores improve, “Does that mean they did better, or is that an artifact of the changes in testing?” Pallas said. “The state is probably not going to be able to answer that this week.”

That means it will be difficult to use the scores as an overall barometer of the health of the city’s school system and to see what impact some Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest education initiatives are having (or not). This lack of clarity will be especially evident, for example, when trying to gauge improvements among schools in the city’s $750 million Renewal turnaround initiative. The city is making final decisions about the 50 schools that remain in the program this school year.

Still, it’s possible city officials will seize on the results if they show gains. When scores rocketed up 8 points in English and one point in math in 2016, de Blasio said the improvements were “pure hard evidence” that his policies were paying off — even as state officials said the scores, when judged against the previous year, were also not an “apples-to-apples” comparison.

How strong is the opt-out movement?

In recent years, roughly one in five students have opted out of the state tests in protest. But in New York City, that percentage has historically been much smaller: just 4 percent of students sat out at least one exam last year, a slight increase from the year before.

Still, the opt-out rate serves as something of a bellwether of attitudes toward state education policy. The movement grew in response to a series of reform initiatives, including a law that became controversial because one of its provisions tied state test scores to teacher evaluations, an element that is currently on hold, and in reaction to the adoption of the Common Core learning standards. After the state rolled out new tests aligned with the standards, scores plummeted.

This year, partly in response to parent opposition to testing, state officials have taken steps to lessen its role (and the time testing takes) in schools. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more leeway than they enjoyed under No Child Left Behind, New York policymakers have shifted some of the focus from standardized exams to other metrics such as chronic absenteeism and have introduced interventions, generally seen as less harsh, at the lowest-performing schools.

Will these changes temper some of the fury that prompted the opt-out movement in the first place? So far it’s unclear. But officials said the opt-out numbers will be released alongside the annual test scores.

What about test-score gaps among different groups of students?

Richard Carranza has repeatedly talked about some of the structural and historical  disadvantages found in the nation’s largest school system since taking its helm, and if history is any guide, this year’s test scores will continue to demonstrate these inequities.

Black and Hispanic students have historically performed far below their white peers, a divide that did not narrow significantly last year. We’ll also be on the lookout for trends among English learners and students with disabilities.

But once again, because of changes to the test, how these disparities are narrowing (or widening) over time may not be clear. Nor will there be a full sense of whether the scores reflect the city’s “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which is largely designed to give schools extra resources, but has drawn criticism for not tackling systemic disparities.

State officials said that the tests should now remain the same for the next two years, meaning this year could serve as a baseline to measure Carranza’s new approach— including his promise to address school segregation — even if the verdict this year remains murky.

listening tour

These parents won’t stop chipping away at literacy and the language barrier in Detroit schools

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parent groups have already demanded that the Detroit district hire more bilingual staffers. On Tuesday, it was clear that the same problems exist at charter schools.

If you think it’s hard to navigate Detroit’s troubled school system, try doing it when no one speaks your language.

The latest stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour took a parent’s-eye-view of the obstacles facing English language learners, who graduate from high school at lower rates than their English-speaking peers.

One observation: The parents, who play a key role in helping children learn to read, face plenty of obstacles themselves, especially when it comes to communicating across a language barrier.

“You feel that you don’t have value,” said Gloria Vera, describing her interactions with English-speaking school staff. “You feel that you have fewer chances to ask questions. It scares me.”

Several mothers worried about the effects of Michigan’s “read-or-flunk” law, which will hold back third-graders if they aren’t reading on grade level by the end of next year. By one count, 70 percent of English learners in the state could be forced to repeat a grade.

One mom said she wanted to help her daughter learn to read, but worried her English skills were too limited.

Another, Delia Barba, suspects that her daughter has a learning disability, but says her school in mostly Spanish-speaking Southwest Detroit has been slow to investigate because of the language barrier.

Like virtually every parent present, Barba said a few more bilingual staffers would go a long way.

“We don’t know who to talk to,” Barba said, speaking in Spanish. “They don’t speak Spanish.”

At each stop on Chalkbeat Detroit’s listening tour, parents take center stage to tell us the stories we should be covering. (See the results of our last stop here.) This time around, Chalkbeat joined with organizations that work with Detroit parents to hear  from dozens of mostly Spanish-speaking mothers. They traveled through a Tuesday morning rainstorm to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit, a nonprofit that provides social services like literacy training to families around Detroit.

Some of the parents on hand had already worked with neighborhood organizations like Congress of Communities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation to push leaders of Detroit’s main district to provide more access to Spanish-speaking parents, noting their concerns have been brushed off by previous administrations.

“Community residents feel frustrated in 2018, because they have expressed the need for language access repeatedly over the years and a resolution is continually brushed aside,” said Elizabeth Rojas, a community advocate and parent in the district.

round table 2
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents traveled to the headquarters of Brilliant Detroit through a rainstorm Tuesday morning to share their experiences with Detroit schools.

At a meeting last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti agreed to establish a Spanish hotline and ensure that every school with Spanish-speaking children has someone in the office who speaks Spanish, among other promises.

After surveying  families in the neighborhood, parents are turning their attention to the issue of safety in schools. They’re hoping that schools will hire more bilingual security guards, and that undocumented parents will be allowed to enter school buildings with an alternative form of ID, such as a Mexican passport, a state ID, or even an ID issued by the district itself.

Parents on hand Tuesday reported similar access issues at charter schools in Southwest Detroit. Angelina Romero, who arrived with her family from Mexico within the last two years, worried that her first-grade son wasn’t picking up English at a neighborhood charter school, and that she had trouble communicating with his teacher.

“I’m hoping that the families who came here realize that it’s not just parents at their school that are concerned and active on this issue,” said Jametta Lilly, CEO of the Detroit Parent Network, which co-sponsored the listening session with Chalkbeat.

For Gloria Vera, the language barrier added to the challenge of navigating a broken special education system. After her daughter was diagnosed with autism, officials at a local school told her they didn’t have enough space.

“They told me, no you can’t enroll your child here,” Vera said, speaking in Spanish.

Staff at the school gave her a phone number to call — presumably to the district’s enrollment center — but Vera worried that it wouldn’t do her any good.

“I didn’t know English,” she said. “I felt lost.”

Looming over the conversation was Michigan’s third-grade reading law, which lends a sense of urgency to the already daunting challenge of helping a child read in a second language.

Yesenia Hernandez said she reads to her second-grade daughter in English, but worries that she can’t pronounce words correctly. In these moments, she said in Spanish, it seems that “she’s learning, but I’m just confusing her.”

Working with a group of five other mothers, Hernandez listed out the ways her school could help her to help her daughter. In another  room, other small groups worked on wish lists of their own, and when they compared results, there were striking similarities: The parents wanted to communicate with their children’s schools in Spanish, and they wanted the tools — like classes in English for adults — to help their children learn. One group gave an approving nod to the “parent room” at Priest Elementary-Middle School, where Spanish-speaking parents gather and share information and resources.

wall list
PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Parents broke off into small groups to discuss their English language learners’ educations.

Even as they hurry to help their children build reading skills, parents are uncertain about how their children might react to flunking a grade when the state’s high stakes reading requirements go into effect next school year.

Delia Barba thought the policy made sense: “What if they keep saying pass, pass, pass, and he doesn’t know how to read?” she asked.

But Gloria Vera wasn’t so sure. In her neighborhood, an estimated 8 in 10 students spoke some Spanish at home. How many would be held back?

“In this part of Detroit, there should be a solution,” she said.