teacher appreciation

Anatomy of an action- and algebra-packed middle school class

Ryan Hall watches students work out a graphing equation.

“Every second counts,” teacher Ryan Hall said about the math classes he teaches at Williamsburg Collegiate Charter Middle School.

The Brooklyn teacher, who was recognized by a national nonprofit as one of the top teachers in the country last week, packed a recent eighth-grade class with algebra drills and word problems, presented at a rapid pace to discourage wandering minds.

Last week TNTP named Hall, who got his start as a teacher with Teach for America in 2007, as one of 20 teachers up for the brand-new Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. Though Hall did not win the $25,000 prize, he was one of just two city teachers honored as finalists.

GothamSchools spent Tuesday morning watching Hall teach at his school, which consistently posts top scores on the city’s annual progress reports. After class, Hall explained how he organized the class, grouped students, and assessed progress. Hall’s commentary is framed in block quotes beneath our observations.

8 a.m. By moments after first-period started, Hall’s 21 students were already sitting in silence, scribbling the answers to a set of six mathematical problems. As he does on most mornings, Hall started the class with two timed exercises: the “Cranium Cruncher” and the “Do Now,” which teachers across the city have used to kick off their classes since the Department of Education first mandated the “workshop model” in 2003.

Hall said it typically takes him 30-45 minutes to prepare for the class, which always takes place in the morning.

“The ‘Do Now’ is more like grade-level work, with five to six word problems, and we go over that,” Hall said. “Then there’s one to 12 problems on a ‘Cranium Crunch12.’ It’s a drill sheet — basic skills in isolation, like computation.”

8:25 With four minutes left on the timer, Hall set up on a SmartBoard at the front of the room. He started to write out the problem the way he expected his students to in their notebooks.

8:29 A siren blared to signal the end of the activity. Hall instructed students to exchange papers with partners seated nearby, who acted as graders, then read off the correct answers in one breath. Each student read back his or her score, and Hall entered the information directly into a spreadsheet projected onto the board, showing data on everyone’s performance.

“Double snaps for these folks,” Hall said, pointing to the high-scorers while snapping his fingers in congratulations.

Why break up the math problems over multiple assignments, and time them? Hall said it’s part of a strategy to pace the class over its two-hour block.

“A big part of it is chunking it out. Otherwise it seems really long and can get really boring, if there aren’t what we call “brightened lines” between activities,” he said. “They need to feel like they’re moving fast to stay engaged. The timer keeps them moving.”

That timer also functions to create “a sense of urgency,” he said, which students carry with them to other classes. “Every second matters here,” he said. “We’re making sure that no one wastes time, and any time we see an opportunity to save instructional time we try to do it.”

8:32 The next exercise Hall prepared for students was called “Mental Math” — it consisted of computation problems for students to do in their heads, standing up so they would not be tempted to write in their notebooks. “Drumroll,” he said to signal the start of the drill, and everyone pounded on the desks a few times before leaping up.

“You can’t sit for two hours; you need to stand up at some point,” Hall said, “That’s ‘brightening the lines,’ saying we’re doing a new activity, so we stand up. It’s also about being on your toes—you don’t have a pencil in your hand, you don’t have a notebook to use. And the kids like it because they get to get out of their seats.”

Like the timer, Hall uses the “drum roll” to mark boundaries between assignments.

“It’s just a mental cue to show that we’ve just done one thing, and now we’re doing something new,” he said. “We call it pacing. Pacing is how fast you move and how fast it feels like it’s moving to the kids. [We want] to create the illusion of speed so kids feel the pacing of the lesson is exciting and they know when they’re moving from one thing to the next.”

Ryan Hall works out a problem on the Smart Board while students take notes.

“Sometimes my mental math isn’t challenging enough for you,” Hall said to the group, as he wrote absolute value equations on the white board. “But I think today is going to be exciting. I know this is something you haven’t seen before.” The students called out the answers when they thought of them.

8:49 Hall asked students to think about “real life” examples of the mathematical concepts of exponential growth and exponential decay. Several students quickly raised their hands with some ideas: bacterial growth, the slope of a launching rocket, a race car’s acceleration, and a roller coaster track. Hall wrote the examples on the board.

8:56 “Do you guys want to use our brains or our calculators for the next one?” Hall asked. The students seemed split between the two options, so Hall instructed them to find their graphing calculators, which they used to graph a couple more equations.

9:08 Just over an hour into class, Hall said it was time for “independent practice” — essentially a worksheet with more equations to graph. The students entered data quietly into their calculators, interrupted only when Hall asked a couple of boys to lift their heads off their desks or arms and sit up straighter. They did so without complaining.

9:13 Hall walked around the room slowly, glancing at students’ notebook papers, joined by Nigel Dean, another math teacher who would be teaching during the next period.

Hall’s classroom walls are decorated with dozens of posters, including a copy of the fight song of the University of Colorado (his alma mater), photos from an end-of-year student trip to Costa Rica he chaperoned last year, and “Top 10 List” of skills and students’ names.

“The Top 10 is a list of mastery data — each skill a student has mastered. It’s one of the ways we prepared for the eighth-grade state tests,” Hall said. “You have a chance to master the top 10 skills you need to know to get a 4 on the state exam. Every one that is colored in is a student who aced their mini-quizzes — five questions on an isolated skill. You have to get a perfect score.”

Another poster spells out the acronym SLANT — Sit up straight, Listen, Ask and Answer questions, Nod for understanding, Track the speaker — a common feature in schools that operated according to a “no-excuses” educational philosophy.

9:38 Students partnered up to solve a worksheet with five more problems. In the back row, Gabrielle Ramos read the questions aloud while Julissa Palmero drew a graph. They were stuck on the second problem when Hall interrupted them.

Hall said he usually works on new material with the class as a whole group, and reserves individual work for assessments. But he also requires students to work in pairs on certain assignments that require multiple skills.

“I throw in partner work for two reasons: there’s actual value to teaching kids how to work in partners or teams. Learn how to help somebody, how to ask for help, behavioral things i want to teach them,” he said. “And some activities are better done in partners. You’re forced to verbalize what your’e learning. My partners are paired strategically also. Every low kid is paired with a higher kid to support them.”

9:46 Hall asked the class to take a break to review one student named Sasha’s near-perfect answers on the white board. He told each pair to compare its results to hers, and then move on to problems four and five. “You should be moving much faster,” he cautioned.

“That graphing calculator activity is something that half of them could do well, and maybe half of them would have really struggled,” Hall said. “Each partnership is going to get them through that activity.”

9:55 Another timer siren buzzed, and Hall instructed students to shift gears again. They started taking a quiz, called the “Exit Ticket,” which they needed to complete and submit before leaving class for the day.

The Exit Ticket, Hall explained, “is a daily quiz, which I grade and track every day to see who mastered what I taught today. And that data drives who I target the next day during the lesson, who I tutor, all kinds of purposes.”

After passing in their papers shortly after 10 a.m., Palmero and Ramos told me they weren’t exhausted at all by the two-hour-long marathon of mathematical problem solving.

“We’ve been in school for four years, so we’re used to this,” Ramos said. “Also, technically, everyone here really likes math, so we don’t notice the time go by.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.