Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Setting the Record Straight: My Experience at an Urban Charter School

I recently attended an education forum in Newark, NJ where two mayoral candidates spoke to several educational issues. Beneath the exterior of good old-fashioned debate, though, some well-worn myths about high-performing urban charters reared their ugly heads. We’ve all had that experience: the family dinner where you’re asked - no, told - for the umpteenth time that “students have to take a test to get into your school, don’t they?”, or the casual conversation where an acquaintance finds out that you teach in Newark and immediately responds in a sympathetic tone with some vacuous comment like, “It must be so difficult when the kids have so many other issues to deal with.” Education is a funny thing, because everyone feels like they’re a little bit of an expert. (Heck, we’ve all been to school!)


I’m all for discussion - but let’s get some facts straight.

First, a little about me: I am a math and computer science teacher at North Star Academy College Preparatory High School in Newark, NJ. I began my teaching career at High Tech High in San Diego, California - a project-based charter school that I loved and that continues to shape many of my classroom activities and goals for students. I am a product of a large, suburban public high school. I have my Bachelors’ and Masters’ Degrees in Mathematics, and took an “alternate route” to my teaching certification. I have been teaching in public charter schools for 5 years - and I am about 5 years overdue in writing a response to the incessant questions on the very existence of charter schools (based in varying degrees of fact), as well as unfounded attacks on methodologies employed by some of the highest-performing urban charter schools, like North Star. I do not speak for my school, for the “education reform” movement, or for anyone other than myself and my students who have turned themselves into into amazing, college-bound young adults with a little help from us. And so, the high-performing urban charter movement as I see it:

The Data Myth

Based on some of the scathing critiques of exit tickets I’ve read (see this rant by a former KIPP teacher), I have to come right out and say it: If you are that critical of the very idea of an exit ticket, then clearly you and I have different ideas for what an exit ticket is.

An exit ticket is just a way for you as a teacher to figure out what your kids learned in a given class period or series of class periods, and what they didn’t learn. It’s a low-stakes, immediate form of assessment that is used to inform your teaching tomorrow and next week, because goodness knows that not everything we teach gets “learned” the first time around. It’s an acknowledgement that, yes, while I might be teaching the same curriculum as I taught last year, I’m teaching it to a different group of students who are going to have different needs. How do I know their strengths and weaknesses unless I gather that data? Not on some standardized test at the end of the year. Not even on a unit test, or a weekly quiz. But sooner. That day. Why wait until a high-stakes assessment to figure out what your kids know?

For this reason, I am sure you can understand my confusion around the attacks on exit tickets. Call it an exit ticket or call it something else, but if you’re not assessing what your kids have learned before moving on, then what kind of teacher are you?

The Robot Myth

My students are not little minority robots, relegated to a classroom where silence, obedience, and multiple choice tests reign supreme. Instead, they are budding intellectuals, realizing the potential and the brilliance that all students of any race or socioeconomic circumstance have within them. On any given day, they are discovering the subtleties of object-oriented programming in Java through inquiry-based labs, debating a mathematical question in a hands-down discussion, or playing a ridiculously fun game to practice their Unit Circle facts because, yes, black or white, sometimes you just need to jump through some hoops to be able to get to the next level in life. In my English, History, and Science colleagues’ classrooms, you will be confronted with a similar level of intellectual engagement that would be astonishing even at a suburban school. Without reservation, I would send my own children to North Star.

Do we have systems that some perceive as “over-the-top” - a relentless uniform policy, daily homework detention, mandatory after-school tutorials? Yes, we do. And I assert, unapologetically, that those systems are the very means by which our students are able to achieve to the levels that they do (see above), and that similar systems would benefit any student, of any race or socioeconomic background. And yet, I understand the realities. If I were a teacher at a suburban school, I might not freak out to the extent that I do now if a student didn’t turn in their homework one day. Of course, systemic poverty is an ugly thing and forces us to be a little more relentless on our mission. Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that teaching underserved students requires a different set of tricks, has clearly never taught an underserved student. Even Diane Ravitch would agree with that, right?

Bottom line: My students are not robots. I am not an ivory-tower outsider who is inherently disrespecting them and underestimating the unfortunate circumstances they were born into. On the contrary, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to unsurface the scholars - the budding philosophers, engineers, computer scientists - that lie beneath the sometimes-ugly picture that is life for a child in Newark, NJ.

“There’s nothing that charter schools are doing that public schools couldn’t be doing if they wanted to.”

I am paraphrasing a quote from Shavar Jeffries, a brilliant son of Newark who is currently the underdog in the race for mayor of that city. I am beyond sick of hearing complaints that the most successful charters are benefiting from an uneven playing field, from more autonomy that the public schools are allowed. The conclusion that some draw that we should all be subject to the same inefficiency (economic and otherwise), bureaucracy, and paralysis by teachers’ union that has sucked the education out of urban public schools is the true disservice.

Indeed, that conclusion is exactly 180-degrees incorrect. There are immediate, instruction-based changes that any school could be making in its classrooms tomorrow if it wanted to replicate some of the best practices of some of the best charter (or public, or magnet) schools - that’s something we do constantly at North Star, and it almost always results in more student learning. If it doesn’t, we stop doing it. It really is that simple.

Thinking longer term, a strangled public system that has proven a failure for our most vulnerable population should not be stuck in the status quo just because it’s not “fair” for some schools to be better than others. The system needs a slow, careful, and deliberate overhaul.

A “corporate agenda”?

Slow, careful, and deliberate is the name of the game. The best charters have been subject to so much criticism because they don’t immediately serve the highest-need students in the same quantities that public schools do. Factually, this is correct. Rather than a criticism, though, I see this as a necessary part of the reform process. You don’t perfect a long-term successful model by immediately subjecting it to the highest possible amount of stress. Instead, you start with a small test group - 50 kindergartners, say, or 25 fifth-graders - and you slowly expand. Because of the level of control possible especially at those early stages, you are able to experiment with systems and determine which ones work and which ones need to be changed. Six or eight years later, you find yourself serving 2,000 students, many of which are coming to you with significant challenges. Now, though, you are in a position to actually serve them using a model whose components have been refined and might just actually work.

This is how real, sustainable progress happens in any sector - technology, business, or education. And if that’s a little too “corporate” for your tastes, you’ll get no apologies from me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Have an hour to fill with your students?

Something amazing is happening at my school right now: the kids are all abuzz over - WAIT FOR IT - the prospect of a computer science class next year! I mean, yes, there is also talk of prom and all other aspects of teendom, but for the past few weeks there has also been a tangible excitement over coding.

It started when my school decided to hold an "Academic Festival" - one day when we were encouraged to deviate from our curriculum, throw guided practice to the wind, and teach something that we are passionate about. I decided on a one-hour introduction to programming, which was really a thinly disguised pitch for the computer science course we'll be offering for the first time next year. I had my students warm up with a Do Now asking them to identify some of the many ways they rely on coding in their everyday lives, without even realizing it. I used this PowerPoint as a basis for our discussion, which led into this (now semi-viral) video put out by Code.org, and finally some live coding in Python (the Word Smoosher was a big hit). The anxiety I felt prior to this lesson can only be compared to the anxiety I felt nearly every day when I taught in a project-based environment: What if the kids don't find programming interesting? What if the lesson is a flop? What if we speed through the PowerPoint in two minutes flat and they have NO questions and they fall asleep during the live coding???

Of course, that did not happen - not because of anything special I did, but because my students had never before been exposed to the world of coding. In fact, I had to pinch myself at one point, when I announced to one group that there would be a coding class next year and they actually - no exaggeration - cheered wildly. "Okay," I thought. "They're really into it now. But they've never actually tried coding. What if they find it boring/frustrating/uninteresting?" 

I thought I'd have to wait until next fall to get that question answered, but just a couple of days ago North Star was lucky enough to be paid a visit by Jeremy Keeshin, cofounder of CodeHS.com. Thirty-two (out of 74) juniors from across the academic spectrum signed up for an after-school workshop that Jeremy ran to introduce students to some of the basics of coding as well as the terrific online platform for learning coding that he has developed. The program is such that students are able to watch short tutorial videos and work on challenges at their own pace, and Jeremy and I mainly circulated to help students troubleshoot -- what a great model for true differentiated instruction in computer science! In less than an hour, kids were already getting at some pretty big concepts softened only by the cuteness of Karel the Dog and the entertaining challenge names (Mario Karel!): "How can I teach the dog to turn right using ONLY turnLeft() commands?" "What if I want to make Karel move over and over - is there an easy way to do that?" 

When it comes down to it, what I'm feeling right now is probably what every teacher feels at some point - the magical epiphany that "A few weeks ago, my students didn't know [what programming was], and now they're [running home to work on coding challenges] and [saying that they want to study computer science in college]." 

They say that what we do every day changes lives, but some days that just feels especially true. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Fun Twist on the Jigsaw

Like every teacher in the universe, I am constantly searching for review activities that are both engaging and effective. I have played with the idea of a jigsaw before, but have struggled with engagement in my lower-level classes when the students returned to their home group to teach each other.

Nothing much was different about the setup this time - students in my classes sit in groups of 3-4, and so each "home group" got split up and students joined one of four groups, each of which was responsible for mastering a particular review problem. The small twist came when students returned to their home groups. They had about 10 minutes per problem to work through a packet that contained the 4 different problems that the different groups had mastered. However, during the 10 minutes when a student's group was working on the problem that they had already mastered, instead of doing the problem himself and just serving as a "resource" (the approach that had led to disengagement and non-ideal group work in the past), that student actually had to STAND UP and circulate around the group just as I would during independent practice. We modeled what this would look like beforehand, which the "teacher" closely monitoring all other students' work, watching for errors, and asking guiding questions if a student got stuck.

There was something about the physical aspect of standing up that completely changed the dynamic of this activity from a thinly veiled guise for getting students to simply to more practice problems, into an opportunity for each student to delve more deeply into the intricacies involved with actually "teaching" a problem and identifying common errors. For me, it was incredibly fun to watch my students - especially the lower-performing students who don't typically take on a teaching role in class - hover over each other, get frustrated at their peers for not understanding and themselves for not being able to explain something as well as they thought they could, and then ultimately figure out what exactly was confusing their "student."

Overall, I really liked the accountability that was built into this activity. One other nice (and rather selfish) unexpected consequence was that students all commented on how "hard it is to teach something without giving away the answer" -- I couldn't agree more!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Back-to-Back Pictionary!

Last week in my highest level class (Calculus A, a class for juniors that combines all of Precalculus and the first half of AP Calculus AB) I was astonished to see how abysmal my kids are at describing graphs using the kind of terminology that their tests and exit tickets would *indicate* they understand - words like increasing, decreasing, concave up or down over the interval ... , symmetric about ... , etc. This occurred to me as I was having a student review a Do Now with the class and when he called on a student to describe the graph of f(x)=x^(2/3), the student described it as "the bird." It was clear then that we had a problem. Students could define the terms above and use them in the context of multiple choice test questions, but they are far from fluent in graphical lingo.

Enter Back-to-Back Pictionary.  I played this today in one of my regular Precalculus classes and it turned out to be a blast and also extremely productive. Partners sat back-to-back, each of them with a different sheet of nine graphs each. Some of the graphs were recognizable based on the types of functions we've studied, and others were strange piecewise concoctions. They also had their mini whiteboards. Students took turns choosing a graph to describe to their partner, the caveat being that they could only use sentence starters from the word box: "The graph is increasing/decreasing over ...", "The graph is concave up/down over ...", "The graph is symmetric about ..." etc. I told students that they weren't even allowed to reference the name of a parent function in their description (let alone make bird noises, as one student asked). The sketcher listened to his partner and drew the graph on his board; when he thought he was finished, he'd show to graph to his partner. The team got a point if the graph on the whiteboard matched the graph on the sheet.

I modeled one with a student, and then they played for around 15 minutes. The room was loud and slightly chaotic, but it was exciting to hear students screaming at each other "I TOLD you it was MONOTONICALLY INCREASING!!!" Not something you hear every day (but hopefully something I'll hear more often, going forward).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The 33-50-95-100% Model

Every so often I have an epiphany about life or about teaching, and even less frequently I have one that lies in the intersection of the two. I realized recently that my OCD, type-A, control freak nature (while often productive and even, some say, endearing) has just as much an effect on my classroom as it does on my life outside of school. Although it would be healthy for me to take a step back and learn to relinquish a little control in both realms, I'll spare you the details of my personal life and stick to my teaching. This "relinquishing of control" is something I'll call the "33-50-95-100% Model".

I'll start off by explaining the model I had been using, which I'll call the "100% Model." In the 100% model, I'd introduce a new concept, design a class period or maybe two of very thoughtful, methodical guided practice, assess the objective on an Exit Ticket, and foolishly hope that 100% of students had mastered the topic. Undoubtedly they wouldn't, and so I'd hurriedly try to patch the holes using Do Now's or spiral homework assignments over the next couple of weeks, so that all 100% would at least master the objective by the time of the unit test. Which, of course, they wouldn't.

Right now my Precalculus class is finishing up their last unit, on limits & continuity. The first topic in that unit was reading the graph of a piecewise function to determine one- and two-sided limits, function values, and types of discontinuities at certain points. And, as with anything graph-related, there was a group of students (about one-third of the class) who immediately caught on (aced that day's exit ticket) while the rest seemed to have forgotten everything they ever knew about reading a graph. Ordinarily I would have done a significant amount of spiral review, but due to timing constraints I had to give a quiz prematurely. Of course, the 33% who understood the material aced the quiz, and the 67% who didn't, didn't.

I had a little more wiggle room during the week after the quiz, so when I handed back the quizzes I did so in groups of 3, basically putting one of the stronger students in charge of tutoring 1-2 peers who were struggling. They had 30 minutes to figure out their mistakes on the quiz and then complete a practice sheet with similar problems. At the end of the period there was an independent exit ticket, again with similar problems. Results of the exit ticket suggest that around 50% have mastered the content, while all but a few are on their way and much closer to mastering it than they were at the time of the quiz.

I suspect that spiral review (through Do Nows, quick drills, etc.) will be much more effective now that a critical mass of students have mastered the objective - hopefully so much so that by the time of the unit test, only a few students will still be struggling. And those are precisely the students that I will be able to focus my attention on during after school tutorials.

I think the only real difference between the two models is that in the 100% model I was operating on the (obviously false) premise that if I just taught a particular topic "well enough" the first time, all students would be able to master it at the level I required and on a timetable that was convenient for me. The latter model is simply acknowledging the unreasonableness of this assumption by allowing kids to move on with a slightly new topic so that they don't feel like they're beating a dead horse every time they walk into class, and then coming back to the original topic in a few days or weeks with a fresh set of eyes and a built-in set of peer tutors. The buzz in the classroom was focused and productive during the peer tutoring session; the strong students were challenged to explain problems and forced to ask questions about the subtler points that even they struggled with, while the weaker students got the one-on-one targeted instruction that they needed but would have never gotten in a large group review.

Of course, this was not easy for me. I had to accept that 100%-or-Bust only has one possible outcome, and I had to trust both my student tutors and tutees to do what they needed to do while I merely facilitated or clarified a point here or there. But at the end of the day, I think I have myself a new paradigm for thinking about how my students actually learn (as opposed to how I wanted them to learn).

Saturday, March 3, 2012

An antidote to senioritis?

The state tests are coming up next week, so I've spent the entire week cramming (er ... "re-accessing prior knowledge") with my juniors. To be honest, it's actually been a nice break from a jam-packed and rather tedious precalculus curriculum - HSPA, New Jersey's state exit exam, actually tests a lot of good math and my students have tackled some legitimately interesting open-ended problems (more on those to follow). But, in any case, the point of this post is not my juniors (who I'm really hoping rock the HSPA next week (not that I really believe in the validity of a single standardized test (but still ...) ) ), but my seniors. I had to find something to do with them during the two weeks (one for review and one for the test) devoted to junior testing. Since I've been griping (mostly to myself) all year about why these particular seniors are taking precalculus (which is essentially algebra for the THIRD time) and not, say, statistics or computer science, I decided on a two-week statistics unit.

Now, it's interesting for me to work at a place where having a two-week window open up in the curriculum is an extreme rarity, and it was made clear to me that this unit was to last two weeks, period. I knew I wanted my students to do some sort of mini-project the second week so I had to really hone in on a few specific topics for the first week, which we just wrapped up. I decided to introduce the bell curve (of course) and focus on teaching students to use the z-tables for the standard and non-standard normal distributions. What I really wanted to get to by the end of the week was calculating margin of error and constructing confidence intervals, because that's what they'll need for next week's project. The idea is similar to a project I did at my old school, but in about 25% of the time. Students will be designing an experiment (like a Pepsi challenge) or a survey, writing an analysis of their results, and making a presentation. In their analysis they need to do things like construct their own confidence intervals and determine whether there is a statistically significant difference between two subgroups of their choice, like males and females.

So, back to the content: margin of error and confidence intervals. While I had used the "guided practice" model to teach students about normal distributions and the z-tables - "guided practice" is just my school's nomenclature for showing students a new skill and then gradually loosening the reins until they are doing it on their own - I decided to go for a college lecture on confidence intervals. Again, "college lecture" means something very specific at my school, but in essence the point is to give students a taste of what a 300-person college class will actually feel like. The teacher takes on the role of "professor" (which, I'm not going to lie, is a lot of fun) and delivers a PowerPoint lecture, preferably at super-speed and without much, if any, audience interaction. Of course we scaffold good teaching strategies in to make sure that our students don't flounder, such as intermittent note checks during the lecture and a comprehension check exit ticket afterwards.

My favorite part about the college lecture format is what happens the next day: students work in study groups on a college-style problem set, interrupted only by a brief chance to ask "the professor" questions during "office hours" (okay, so maybe we take the analogy a little far...). This brings me to the actual point of my post - sorry you had to read all the other stuff - which is: giving my seniors this independence and responsibility turned them from slouchy, grouchy second-semester seniors into a spitting image of actual college students. The transformation was unreal. They were engaged with the material 100% of the time (which is not usually the case in this class), challenging each other's understanding and use of terminology, referring back to lecture notes and the text when they got stuck ... essentially, everything we'd want them to do as college students in just a few short months. I use another teacher's room for that class, and that teacher actually asked me in the middle of the class if she could commend the students at the end of class because she's seen so many classes where their performance has been ... less impressive.

As I write this, I'm realizing that it's not rocket science. There's not much in the way of "guided practice" in college. And not to glorify some rather shoddy teaching methods, but maybe there is actually one good reason (albeit many bad reasons) for that - when people get to be a certain age (like, say, 18?) they crave less hand-holding and more independence. Based on some previous classes with my seniors, it might seem that they get easily frustrated with difficult math and take every opportunity to zone out. Now, I'm not so sure. These statistics topics are probably the most conceptually challenging ones we've done all year, and not even the usual suspects could be found zoning out. So maybe doing more of the lecture/problem set/legitimately interesting project or discussion is what they need? In other words: If I keep treating them like college students, will they continue to act like college students?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Finally, something to talk about!

Have I committed blog suicide by not posting in several months? I'll take the fact that you're actually reading this as a plus (thank you!) and start with a feeble excuse: I moved across the country this past summer and began teaching at a new school whose culture has taken some ... getting used to. This school's driving mission is to close the achievement gap between low-income, urban students and the rest of the country. This is an important task in a city where only 4% of high school freshmen will ever graduate from college, and they do an incredible job at it. The flip side is that my days of dedicating several class periods to wacky problems or to projecting balls off the roof seem to have come to an end, at least for the foreseeable future. For this reason I've felt at a loss for what to write - I'm teaching a fairly standard and very rigid Precalculus curriculum to juniors and seniors, with very little time for exploration or out-of-the-box discovery. What could I possibly blog about?

Well, finally with a few hours to collect my thoughts over Thanksgiving break I now realize that the same rigid nature of the school that has forced me to bite my philosophical tongue for several months has actually allowed me to experiment with some cool ideas that I'd love to get more input on, even if they're not as (dare I say?) glamorous as projecting balls off the roof.

Idea #1: Study groups. This is by no means novel, but I had never used study groups in my own classroom until my students were studying for their big end-of-quarter assessment a few weeks ago. I put them into groups of four and gave them a choice of six activities; their first item of business was to set their agenda and pick 3 activities that they would prioritize. They had 20 minutes for each activity and had to stick to their agenda, even if they weren't completely finished with an activity after the allotted time. Two options included reviewing previous exams, and I provided them with solution guides that they could use. A few of the activities were practice sets on particularly difficult topics that I knew most students were struggling with (like graphing transformed sinusoids - does anyone have a great way of teaching this?). The remainder of the activities involved making study materials of some sort. One such idea came from one of my seniors, who struggles tremendously in math but has found success in other classes making "process cards" and wanted to give it a try. Process cards are similar to flashcards, but instead of emphasizing one fact or formula each card provides a quick reminder of how to execute a particular process or solve a recurring type of problem (like graphing a transformed sinusoid). These are great for those complicated problems that involve a series of steps of which students invariably forget one (like factoring out the period to find the phase shift), because they can tailor the cards to their needs with individualized reminders using language that makes sense to them.

In any case, students were on task for the entire time and the illusion of choice (I mean, let's be honest - in the end, they were just doing practice problems) seems to have been effective. I also like that once I set them up, the remainder of the period was entirely student-led. To add a measure of accountability, I had students complete an exit ticket in which they graded their peers according to a study group rubric and wrote down one specific thing they learned during each activity.

Idea #2: Hands-down discussions. I stole this idea from an English teacher colleague whose room I share and whose classes by default I spend a lot of time observing. I adapted it to my math class as follows: Students solved a problem as a class while I served only as the "scribe", writing exactly what they said on the board. As an example, one problem was to simplify the expression cot(arcsin(1/5)). Students had to take turns providing steps or asking clarifying questions. As the name of the activity implies, they didn't need to raise their hands but instead took their turn when they felt they had something to contribute. Removing myself from the action, so to speak, had some positive effects:
  • Students were forced to direct questions at each other and to be critical of each others' work, since I gave little indication as to whether a particular step was right or wrong;
  • They had to be precise and specific with their language; I was obnoxiously literal in transcribing what they said, which was handy in getting them to struggle with algebraic nuances.
On the other hand, it took an awfully long time to do just one problem, so I'd like to find ways to speed up this process while preserving its organic nature. My English teacher colleague uses the hands-down discussion as a way to review several questions that students have had time to work on individually, which is nice because it gives the weaker students a chance to process their ideas and decide what they want to contribute to the discussion beforehand. He also sets a timer (we set a timer for everything at this school), and the students only have the allotted time to complete the problems. Turning the hands-down discussion into a race against the clock by offering some sort of class points as a reward also increases the sense of urgency.

Seeing as this is the time of year to give thanks and not to complain, I need to remember that there was a reason I came to this school, and that there is so much I can learn within their framework if I stop harping on what I am not able to do.

Happy Thanksgiving!