How I Teach

This NYC teacher was skeptical of training programs like Teach for America — so she completed a teaching residency instead

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Adriana Garcia spent her teaching residency at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side.

When Adriana Garcia decided to become a teacher, she liked the idea of learning the craft by doing it.

So when she heard about a new teacher residency program at New York University based on the medical model where doctors-in-training begin practicing medicine under supervision of an experienced mentor, she jumped at the chance. Part of a growing push for teacher-residency programs across the country, the program allows student-teachers to spend a year in the classroom under close supervision while earning a master’s degree.

Unlike conventional preparation programs that are sometimes knocked for being heavy on theory but light on practical skills — or alternative programs, like Teach for America, where participants get a weeks-long crash course before being plunged into the classroom — Garcia was drawn to the idea of a residency. It would allow her gradually take on more responsibilities in the classroom under the watchful eye of a mentor, so that when she eventually stepped into a bigger role, “it wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone — either for me or for the kids,” she said.

Now, after a yearlong residency at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side and intensive online coursework, Garcia teaches economics and U.S. history at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, an alternative district school for students who struggled in traditional schools.

In this installment of “How I Teach,” Garcia shares her thoughts on the residency program, her attraction to an alternative high school, and how she juggles teaching in three different languages.

What attracted you to the teacher residency program at NYU as opposed to a more traditional teacher prep program or an alternative route into the classroom like Teach for America?

The gradual nature of the program was very important: I wanted to enter the classroom in the most responsible way I could since any mistakes I made would impact the education of young people in a high-need area. Alternative routes generally do not offer you that, and student teaching through a traditional teacher prep program tend to be semesterly and do not allow for the continuity with students that a yearlong residency does.

What drew you to your current school and do you feel that the residency prepared you for the job?

I was initially attracted to the school because a majority of its students are English Language Learners. The languages I speak and the cultures I am familiar with allow me to work well with students from Spanish-speaking countries and China, and my school has large populations of both. [Garcia studied Japanese and Chinese in college, speaks fluent Spanish, and once taught in a Japanese fishing village.]

When I walked into the school, I noted the trilingual posters in the hallways and many different languages floating through the hallways; conversations with teachers and leadership confirmed that this was a place where all were welcomed and supported.

What I really appreciate about my residency now is that although at times readings and materials seemed overwhelming, I actually have a lot of tools to reference when I’m working through challenges in my classroom.

My classes were never, “This is what your assessments should look like,” but rather, “Here are general guidelines for what makes assessments authentic for you and for students, here are some examples, now create your own for your students, and share them with the class for feedback.” When working with students who have very low literacy in their home language, or have anxiety about speaking in front of others, I go back to my notes about assessments and find ways to give every student opportunities to show me what they know and how they have grown.

What are the biggest challenges you’re working through during your first year of full-time teaching?

I was initially concerned about building relationships with students and managing my classroom since I’m pretty young and am frequently mistaken for a student, but I have found it to be one of the most fun parts of my role. Something I found challenging in a middle school was classroom management, and I wondered how it would work in a situation where my kids are only a few years younger than me.

The nature of transfer schools is that students are dealing with a host of situations that are often out of their control and impact their ability to be physically and mentally present. My goals are to have my students feel safe and loved, learn the content, pass my class, and graduate feeling ready for their next steps.

So my guidelines that were more suitable for middle schoolers had to relax: I let my students eat in class because I firmly believe that I would rather have them eating and learning inside my classroom than going outside to buy food and missing out on our lesson. I don’t take away a student’s cell phone in class because I trust them to manage their possessions and show respect for me and their peers; a simple reminder of what we should be working on or asking everyone to give the speaker 100 percent attention is generally enough to refocus.

You’re teaching classes in English, Spanish, and Chinese. What are your routines for preparing for those classes?

I plan in English first and then I translate. I have to look up and learn key vocabulary so that I can explain concepts and events in both languages. My classes are technically bilingual so I strive to balance the amount of English and home language that we use.

Sometimes the materials I want to use simply do not exist so I create my own. Primary sources I either translate myself, modify and add vocabulary support, or if it’s an especially famous document like the Constitution or Wilson’s 14 Points, I may be able to find a translated version online.

And then, during class, I have to be ready to laugh at myself when I do make mistakes. It’s actually been a wonderful opportunity to model for students how to correct yourself and not let a mistake ruin your flow.

You completed your residency at a charter school and now teach in a district school. Are there any big differences in the kind of teaching you’re expected to do?

Not really. I’m teaching different content and different students so my end goals are a bit different, but the standard for professionalism and good teaching is the same.

Last year, I was thinking more about exposing my students to history they may not have the opportunity to study again until college — like Stonewall [the 1969 riots at a Manhattan gay bar that helped launch the L.G.B.T.-rights movement]. But, right now, I’m focused on helping my students, almost all immigrants, see themselves in the history of this country that they now call home.

What’s the best teaching advice you’ve received?

During class last year my “content mentor” from NYU (Diana Turk) said something along the lines of: “Your students need to like you, otherwise they’re not going to want to learn from you.”

I’ve found it to be so true: Building relationships are the cornerstone of my teaching. My students trust and respect me, and they know that what we learn in class is for their benefit and their future success.

I’ve learned to be intentional about greeting every student when they come in, assuming the best, giving second chances, and being transparent about what I do and why. And when it’s a particularly difficult day and students want to give up on a challenging document, or when I go into work not feeling my best, that’s when the relationships we have built become extra important, and we are able to persevere.

new schools

Denver approves more schools that will wait ‘on the shelf’ to open, despite pushback

PHOTO: Photo By Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Grant Beacon Middle School student Jeriah Garcia works out an algebra problem on his school-supplied tablet in 2012.

In a split vote, the Denver school board last week approved three more middle schools — but none will open right away.

Though they are modeled after successful existing schools, and though district officials feel an urgency to improve school quality districtwide, the three will wait with more than 20 others until a school building becomes available.

That could happen if the district closes a struggling school or builds a brand new one. But slowing enrollment growth means it will likely not build many schools in the coming years.

The number of approved schools on hold until they find a campus has grown over the years, even as the school board adopted a policy in 2015 that calls for replacing chronically low-performing schools with new ones deemed more likely to succeed.

This approach earned Denver a national reputation in education reform circles, but the growing backlog of schools with no clear path to opening has led to frustration among charter school operators and questions from some supporters about how committed Denver is to this model.

The makeup of Denver’s school board has changed, and not all of the new members believe closing struggling schools is good for students. In voting on the three new middle schools, three of the seven board members expressed concerns about the concept of keeping approved schools “on the shelf” because it presupposes existing schools will be shuttered.

Carrie Olson, a former Denver teacher, campaigned last year for a seat on the board on a platform of opposing school closures. Her candidacy was backed by the Denver teachers union, which also supported board member Jennifer Bacon, another former teacher.

Olson and Bacon voiced the strongest reservations about approving the three schools, temporarily called Beacon Network Middle Schools 3, 4, and 5. The schools would be run by the same administrators who oversee Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon middle schools.

Kepner Beacon and Grant Beacon are “innovation schools,” which means they have more financial and programmatic freedom than traditional district-run schools but not as much independence as charter schools. The two schools focus on personalized learning, partly by giving students access to technology that allows them to learn at their own pace. Each is rated “green,” the second-highest rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale.

Olson and Bacon said they don’t doubt additional Beacon schools would serve students well. Rather, Bacon said, she’s concerned about having too many of the same type of school and about the length of time schools should be allowed to wait before opening. Being approved by the school board doesn’t guarantee that a school will open.

In the end, the three Beacon schools were approved to open in the fall of 2019 or thereafter. Olson voted no on all three. Bacon voted no on two of them and yes on the third.

Board president Anne Rowe, vice president Barbara O’Brien, and members Lisa Flores and Happy Haynes voted yes on all three. Angela Cobián, who was elected last fall along with Olson and Bacon, voted yes on two schools and abstained from voting on the third.

Cobián said her votes were meant to reflect that she supports the Beacon schools but shares her fellow board members’ concerns. She said she’s committed to making sure the district supports existing schools so they don’t get to the point of closure or replacement.

There are at least 24 schools already waiting for a campus in Denver. Nineteen of them were proposed by four homegrown, high-performing charter school networks. The district’s largest charter school network, DSST, has eight middle and high schools waiting to open.

District officials said they plan to spend time over the summer thinking through these concerns.

Jennifer Holladay, who leads the department that oversees charter and innovation schools, said staff will develop recommendations for how long schools should be allowed to sit on the shelf and whether the district should continue to accept “batch applications” for more than one school at a time, which has been common practice among the homegrown networks.

Payment dispute

Disputes with Tennessee testmakers aren’t new. Here’s an update on the state’s lawsuit with Measurement Inc.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

The testing company fired by Tennessee’s education department two years ago may have to wait until 2019 to settle the case, according to documents recently obtained by Chalkbeat.

As the future of the state’s current testing company, Questar, remains uncertain after a series of testing snafus this year, Tennessee continues to build a case against the first company it hired to usher in online testing three years ago.

The $25.3 million lawsuit, filed by Measurement Inc. of North Carolina, says the state owes about a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout. So far, the state has paid the company $545,000.

The 2016 test was meant to showcase TNReady, the state’s new, rigorous, online testing program. But the online exam crashed, and the state abandoned it, asking Measurement Inc. to pivot to paper tests. After numerous delays in delivering the paper tests, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen fired the company.

Measurement Inc. filed a lawsuit last June, and the state Department of Education responded in January with a counterclaim saying the company did not fulfill its duties. Now, the state and the company have through spring 2019 to build their cases and call witnesses. (You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim below).

The company argues that the state’s decision to cancel online testing and switch to paper was a series of “unrealistic, arbitrary, and changing demands,” and therefore, the state shares blame for the canceled test.

But the state department countered in its January response that Measurement Inc. breached its contract and didn’t communicate truthfully about the status of the online exam.

After Measurement Inc., Tennessee entered into a two-year contract with Minnesota-based Questar to revive the TNReady online exam. In 2017, the state opted to only use paper exams, and testing went smoothly for the most part, outside of delays in returning test results.

But things didn’t go well this spring, when Tennessee tried to return to online testing under Questar. The reasons for the complications are numerous — but different from issues that ruined the online test’s 2016 debut.

Although Tennessee completed its online testing this spring,  it was beset with technological glitches, a reported cyber attack on the testing system, and poor internet connectivity. Many districts are not planning to use the scores in student grading, and teachers can opt out of using the scores in their evaluations.

The state is negotiating with Questar about its $30 million-a-year contract and also is asking Questar’s parent company, Educational Testing Services, to take on the design work of TNReady. McQueen did not offer specifics about either, but any changes must be approved by the legislature’s fiscal review committee.

Questar’s two-year contract ends Nov. 30, and the state either will stick with the company or find its third testing vendor in four years.

You can view Measurement Inc.’s claims, and the state’s counterclaim, in full below:

Measurement Inc.’s June 2017 claim:

The Department of Education’s January response:

Measurement Inc.’s February response: