A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.
A group of Explore teachers listen to a teaching training session on cognitive engagement in literacy at Brooklyn College on Wednesday.

When second-year teacher Alyssa Reyes saw her fourth-graders’ state exam scores, she was surprised. Math was a lot higher than she thought it would be and literacy was lower than she expected, she said.

The Explore Excel Charter School teacher attributed the disparity to the fact that last year her school didn’t have a literacy coordinator, while it had a full-time math coordinator who was “exceptional.”

“She really challenged me as a first-year teacher to not only get good at planning but also be much more reflective about execution and coming back to help students with different learning styles,” Reyes said.

Explore Schools picked up on this network-wide weakness in literacy and has responded by adding full-time literacy coordinators to join the ones in math and increasing the time that teachers have to work together. It is also strengthening its shared literacy curriculum and pushing teachers to tackle bigger-picture goals like “cognitive engagement” in their classrooms.

New York schools have known about the new Common Core standards for nearly three years now and were supposed to tie their instruction to the new standards for the first time last year. But the results of the state tests released earlier this month have made the changes a reality, and educators across the city are spending the waning weeks of summer considering how to adjust their teaching in light of the scores.

At Explore, which convened all teachers for five full days of training this week and new teachers for an additional week, network officials said they had planned a renewed focus on literacy before the test results were released. But the network’s scores — the four schools posted math scores higher than the state and city averages, but fell far short in reading, in keeping with a trend at city charter schools — reinforced that choice.

At the heart of the literacy focus is an overhaul to the network’s literacy curriculum and the way it is delivered. The network has had a single math curriculum for a few years, which has allowed teachers to focus on tailoring lessons to meet students’ needs rather than creating lessons from scratch, said Miriam Barry, the network’s literacy coordinator. Now, the network’s standard literacy curriculum will be augmented with additional materials created by network educators and others. The same will go for the literacy curriculum, she said: Instead of having to waste time hunting down the perfect text, they’ll be able to draw on resources that have already been compiled.

In a network that is still adding grades at most of its schools each year, the more robust curriculum materials will also let new teachers put their energy into how they teach, rather than what they teach, Barry said.

That emphasis will carry over into the network’s new “professional learning communities.” In previous years, teachers would have a 45-minute weekly meeting to plan lessons, but the conversations never went into depth about how the lessons would work or could be better, according to Marni Greenstein, the network’s director of curriculum and instruction. So now literacy teachers will work together in three 45-minute weekly sessions. Math teachers will have one 90-minute weekly meeting.

In these meetings, Greenstein said teachers will be talking about or rehearsing the actual lesson they will teach instead of just planning it. The idea is to help teachers learn from each other and collaborate more.

“Some teachers are really into the theoretical side and then you don’t see it in the classroom. And some teachers are natural and intuitive in the classroom, so we want to get them talking about how they’re thinking about it, and meld that with teachers who are more theoretical so it transfers into practice,” Greenstein said.

The additional scrutiny on what makes lessons work — or fall flat — is meant to allow teachers to strive for more than just academic knowledge among their students. The network has also set a goal of achieving “cognitive engagement,” or essentially getting all students to pay attention and think deeply about the work they’re doing.

In a math training session on Wednesday, Greenstein drew a cloud around the words “Cognitive Engagement” and asked the teachers what it meant to them. The group of Explore teachers shouted out words such as curiosity, ownership, grappling, investment and minds on (as opposed to hands on).

The brainstorm continued for another half hour until Greenstein organized everyone’s thoughts into a single definition: “Cognitive engagement is when all students are constructing and deepening understanding of content for themselves and others. This is evidenced through ‘minds-on’ work where students are synthesizing, grappling, applying and reflecting on content.”

Later, teachers watched videos of math and literacy lessons and pointed out what they observed that indicated students were “cognitively engaged,” and what the teacher could done differently. They also spent time talking about the tension between engaging students and getting through the material they need to cover in the time they have.

Mitha Nandogopalan, a fifth-grade literacy teacher in her second year, said the session made her realize she wants to focus on making her students do more of the thinking.

“Particularly as a new teacher, it’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about how you’re presenting the material … because that feels like it’s in your control,” she said. “But if you aren’t stepping back and letting students do the work and doing the thinking, you can explain it beautifully and it will not have penetrated their heads.”

Greenstein said that while teachers get excited talking about this kind of learning, it takes a lot of practice to actually make it happen in the classroom, which is why the professional learning communities will play an important role.

And in a nod to the pattern that so often plays out in schools, in which big plans fade as teachers retreat into their own classrooms and the nitty-gritty of the school year gets underway, Barry began the literacy session by telling teachers that Explore’s emphasis on cognitive engagement “is not an initiative.”

“It’s not one of those things we’re going to talk a lot about and then stop talking about it when it gets hard,” she said. “This is how we’re going to reach that excellent instruction for our children.”