getting to know you

This Great American Teach-Off team thrives in a classroom of chatty students

Eleanor Vierling and Kaitlin Ruggiero are competing in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off.

Eleanor Vierling and Kaitlin Ruggiero relish a boisterous classroom. And with more than 30 students in most of their classes, they usually get just that.

The two math teachers at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology believe students learn best when they’re bouncing ideas, equations, and questions off each other.

“It’s important that the students recognize that everyone in the room is someone who has knowledge,” Ruggiero said.

Together Vierling and Ruggiero represent one of the two teacher teams Chalkbeat readers chose to participate in the first-ever Great American Teach-Off. The live event, which debuts at the SXSW EDU conference March 7, is designed to elevate the craft of teaching and showcase the many decisions that go into just one lesson.

Each team of teachers will demonstrate a mini-lesson on stage in front of a panel of judges and a cheering audience. A lively discussion among judges, coaches, and the teacher teams following the lessons will help attendees “see” teaching with new, clearer eyes.

Before Vierling and Ruggiero head to Austin, we caught up with them to discuss the Teach-Off and their teaching philosophy. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What inspired you to apply for the Teach-Off?

ELEANOR: I follow Chalkbeat on Twitter. And right after I saw the Teach-Off on Twitter, I texted Kaitlin and asked her if she wanted to do it with me. We both look for ways to make our jobs fun and challenging. You teach for 180 days — that can be isolating. It’s good to find ways to shake it up a bit. And we thought the Teach-Off would be a way for us to show other people all the decision-making that goes behind the scenes of teaching.

Plus, this is going to become a long-running reality TV show, right?

KAITLIN: You’d make such a great character.

How do you describe your teaching style?

KAITLIN: I think it’s really important for students to figure out strategies that work for them. That’s something I didn’t get to do a lot as a student. Back then, there was a lecture and just one way to solve the problem. I didn’t appreciate that as a student. So, something I’m conscious about as a teacher is to make sure my students have the confidence to try to solve a problem different ways.

ELEANOR: In a similar way, we have student-centered philosophies. If students aren’t understanding, I won’t plow through the lesson. I never say, “Just listen.” I won’t impose something that isn’t working. I’m always trying to be creative and come up with different ways to come at the same subject.

How do you two currently work together?

ELEANOR: We’ve pushed for our math department to meet on a daily basis. We’ve never co-taught, but we’ve gravitated toward each other because neither of us uses the exact same stuff from the year before.

KAITLIN: We also are conscious of what we’re doing in the courses that line up. This year, Ellie is teaching pre-calculus. So many of the students she’s teaching will move to my calc class next year. Being aware of what’s going on in her classroom is helpful.

ELEANOR: We’re both interested not just in what we’re teaching but how we’re teaching.

Describe your classroom?

ELEANOR: They’re packed full of students. I have one class with 34 students and one with 37.

KAITLIN: I have classes with more than 32.

ELEANOR: Both of our classrooms have lots of opportunities for students to talk. We’re the facilitators, not the deliverers of information. It’s not one-directional.

How do you manage that many students?

KAITLIN: It’s important that the students recognize that everyone in the room is someone who has knowledge. Just because I’m the teacher in the room doesn’t mean I have to be the expert. What my students bring into the room is just as valuable as what I bring into the room. We’re hanging on each others’ words.

What do you expect the audience to see at the Teach-Off?

ELEANOR: We don’t really know what’s going to happen. I can see moments where we’ll have to talk to each other and figure out which ideas we’re going to share out. There will be teacher-to-teacher talk, happening live.

KAITLIN: We’ll give students something to do and then circulate. Part of the instructional goal is to highlight misconception and highlight structure. It’s OK for there to be a misconception that’s shared with the whole room. That’s an opportunity for learning. Someone might say that’s wrong and it shouldn’t be shared. But it should.

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

KAITLIN: I remember my first year teaching: I was teaching two different classes. It was really isolating and overwhelming. My mentor, she basically said, “Every day isn’t going to be your best day at work.” She saw how much time I was spending planning every lesson. She said, “Set an alarm. Give yourself some time, and stop making changes and edits all night. Commit to something and try it. If it doesn’t go good in the morning, you change by the afternoon.”

ELEANOR: All assessments are formative. Any assessment is an opportunity to learn.

What else would you like to share?

ELEANOR: I’m 6’2”.

KAITLIN: I’m not.

What's Your Education Story?

We can’t wait for you to hear these Indianapolis teachers’ stories — join us April 19

PHOTO: Ronak Shah

Indianapolis teachers have more stories from their classrooms to share this spring.

Over the past year, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

The stories dealt with how a teacher grappled with coming out to his students, a class that organized to save historic trees in their community, and the unexpected lesson of a mouse in the classroom.

Next month, Chalkbeat is partnering with Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media, and the Indianapolis Public Library to host a story slam. The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, will showcase tales from across Circle City classrooms. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 19, 2018
Central Library, Clowes Auditorium
40 E. St. Clair St., Indianapolis, IN
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”