Let's Make Plans

During summer break, teachers find coveted collaboration time

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Just after 9 a.m. last Friday, when the morning sunlight and a mild breeze practically demanded a day at the beach, about 30 teachers sat in a Brooklyn classroom with the lights off listening to a former principal talk about lesson planning.

The speaker was Nate Dudley, the head of the school-support network that organized two week-long course-planning workshops this month – Dudley called them bootcamps – for the teachers it serves. Spread out among the stripped-down summer classrooms at Williamsburg Preparatory High School, this latest group of teachers had spent their week assembling standards, assessments, materials, and activities into “unit plans” that would serve as roadmaps for several weeks worth of lessons.

“This is pretty substantial work,” Dudley told the teachers. If they could finish just one such unit plan by week’s end, Dudley added, “That’s pretty amazing.”

With the new Common Core standards and their associated tests, a new teacher-evaluation system, and new special-education policies that mix students with varying abilities, lesson planning may be more complicated and consequential than ever before. In high schools, where educators often create their own materials and course outlines, that’s even more likely to be the case. And yet, in many schools, teachers are left to do the lion’s share of planning alone.

So when Dudley’s network, known as N403, offered a paid opportunity for educators to plan together – even though it fell in the middle of summer – more than 100 teachers applied for the 70 spots. The alternative, explained Eddie Abdenour, a math teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, was certainly less appealing.

“It’s me,” Abdenour said of his normal planning routine, “in front of my computer, at home, on a Saturday morning.”

Dudley’s network includes 29 schools spread across the city – most are high schools and many are for older students who are behind in accumulating credits. The teachers who signed up for last week’s planning workshop started crafting their units by choosing a few of the Common Core standards, the knowledge and skills New York has decided that students should acquire by the end of each grade. Then they devised end-of-unit assessments for students to prove they had mastered the material.

For a unit on the Industrial Revolution, Michelle Sperandio, who teaches world history at Queens Metropolitan High School, decided to have students debate whether a certain developing nation should adopt capitalism, communism, or socialism.

Ramsey Ess, Caitlin Fagan, and Chris Fazio, who teach freshman and sophomore English at that school, modeled a quiz in their “Antigone” unit on the photo-sharing site Instagram. The students will write comments from the perspective of different characters from the ancient play as if they were chatting on today’s social media. The teachers offered an example from the viewpoint of Antigone: “Never felt so betrayed than by my sister. #disappointed.”

Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Nate Dudley (center), leads the school-support network N403. He organized two week-long workshops this summer where teachers could help each other plan their courses.

The teachers received feedback on their units throughout the week from network coaches and from colleagues. Fazio, for instance, wrote on another teacher’s plans: “Holy cow. Excellent tie to RL.3,” referring to a standard that asks students to track how characters change over time.

Several teachers said such support as they plan can be frustratingly rare.

“You get very isolated,” said Harmonica Kao, a math teacher at Professional Pathways High School in Brooklyn. As the state gradually rolls out new Regents exams tied to the Common Core standards, he added, some high school teachers are just beginning to grapple with how to prepare students for the new tests.

As the teachers at the workshop fashioned their units, they borrowed from each other and online sources, including the state’s Common Core website, Engage New York. Nine of the 11 math teachers working in one classroom on Friday said they regularly draw from the state’s materials. Still, many said the site’s plans must be modified because they often pack an unrealistic amount of material into lessons or include tasks that are too difficult for many students.

Barbara Niederhoffer, a calculus and trigonometry teacher at the College of Staten Island High School, said that more useful than any website is time spent poring over curriculum with colleagues. She had spent the week bouncing ideas off of Abdenour, the school’s algebra and geometry teacher who often spends his Saturdays lesson planning alone.

“One and one,” she said, as she and her colleague put the finishing touches on their plans, “is more than two.”

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

Talent office

With the alarm sounded statewide over shortages, Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

PHOTO: Getty Images

Katrina Johnson was working as a special education classroom assistant in a Greater Grand Crossing school when she received an email several months ago with an intriguing proposal. Chicago Public Schools was seeking applicants for a pilot program that, in two years, would earn her full-fledged teacher status and a master’s degree. 

But there was a hitch. Johnson, who’s 41, would have to juggle graduate-level courses while teaching in a classroom four days a week under a mentor teacher. And she’d be picked out of a pool of applicants to train in one of several high-poverty, “opportunity” schools — places where fewer teachers apply, and educators come and go at rates higher than the district average.

Undeterred, she put in an application. So did about 200 others for 26 positions. And in the end, CPS selected Johnson for the test run of a teacher residency pilot it plans to scale in conjunction with National Louis University and Relay Chicago’s Graduate School of Education. The latter has developed similar programs in charter schools.

Teacher residencies are the shiny new thing in education, with programs up and running in at least a dozen states. But in Illinois, where education advocates say the teacher shortage has become dire, residencies have the potential to address a host of problems, from filling critical vacancies in special education to building an on-ramp for career changers and community members who have deep ties to their neighborhood schools.  

“I thought, I can’t pass this up,” said Johnson, who grew up in a family where you went either into education or the family funeral business. Johnson did neither, choosing finance and only later hearing the call of the classroom.

For career changers like her, the teaching profession can be difficult to crack despite shortages in Chicago and rural areas downstate. A sober report called Teach Illinois, shared this week with the Illinois State Board of Education, stresses that relying on traditional teacher preparation programs to crank out annual batches of freshfaced hopefuls is not enough: The statewide percentage of candidates completing teacher prep programs declined by half from 2000 to 2016.

And while school enrollment statewide is dipping, the number of teachers is declining at an even steeper rate, leaving thousands of vacancies even as students return this fall. When school started last week, 4 percent of the positions in Chicago were unfilled compared with slightly more, 5 percent, at the start of 2017, according to a district spokesman.

Like other districts, Chicago struggles to fill vacancies in special education and bilingual instruction. It also is challenged to find and retain diverse candidates. The residency pilot presents an opportunity there, too. Of the initial 26 Chicago residents, 20 identify as persons of color, according to CPS.

Matt Lyons, CPS’ chief talent officer, said the first cohort drew primarily from paraprofessionals, special-education assistants, and other people who’ve been working in Chicago schools; only a handful came from the community. “There was far more interest among our current employees than we anticipated,” he said.

But as the program grows, he expects it could draw more broadly from the communities around the district’s highest-need schools — another strategy that education experts are hopeful can quell turnover in high-poverty districts.

“Let’s think about how school districts have typically acquired talent,” said Kent Fischer, the communications director for the National Center for Teaching Residencies, which is based in Chicago. “They put out an online notice. Go to college and job fairs. Collect resumes that come in and sift through them. The residency model flips that and puts the school district in charge of creating its own talent pipeline.”

***

Chicago has big plans for its teacher residency pilot, which so far works this way: Residents start master’s-level courses over the summer, then apprentice in classrooms the first year alongside a master teacher. They teach Monday through Thursday and attend grad courses on Fridays and in some evenings, depending on the program. The second year, they teach on a provisional license and finish their coursework and specialty endorsements to earn the master’s.

The first year of the pilot has no strings. But for the 2019-20 class (for which applications are currently open), residents must agree to stay with the district for two years.

“The goal is to grow the program to 60 then to 80 then to 100 in three years,” said Lyons, whose pilot group is currently concentrated in 14 Chicago schools.

Fischer, from the national center, points to early research that shows retention rates above 80 percent among grads from residency programs, compared with closer to half from traditional programs. That stat is welcome news to talent officers like Lyons. “When we looked at the data of the 50 hardest-to-staff schools, they experienced two times as much turnover and were two times as likely to start the school year with vacancies” than the district as a whole, he said.

Residencies, he acknowledged, are but one strategy to address the problem. The district is hiring earlier than usual at its 50 opportunity schools, staffing them with teacher coaches, and building an exclusive professional development program for staff.

Despite all the potential, it’s too early to definitively call residency programs a categorical success. They are costly to establish, and costly to maintain. There’s also conflicting research about how adequately they prepare teachers.

Chicago pays each participant an initial stipend of $35,000, but that’s not enough to cover living expenses plus tuition. There are grants that can chip away at the cost for those who qualify, but some participants have to take out loans to fund tuition.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Yesenia Francois
Chicago teacher resident Yesenia Francois

The stipend doesn’t fully cover Yesenia Francois’ tuition at National Louis, but she’s still “forever grateful.” A resident this year in a bilingual first-grade classroom at Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School in Belmont-Cragin, Francois, 37, gets a discounted rate at NLU, she says, and she’s on a three-part payment plan.

A former paraprofessional at a North Side magnet school, she’s fine with that — she stresses the opportunity to fast-track her career, boost her earning potential, and finally get the master’s degree she’s been trying to earn for a decade, while practically having a job guaranteed on the other side. Her son has special needs, and the responsibility of caring for him has twice derailed her education. This time, it feels different, she says.

“I’m like a sponge,” she said. “As a paraprofessional, I supported diverse learners, but there was a general-education teacher who laid the foundation. As a resident, I’m working with a mentor and starting from scratch. I’m building the lessons and adding in these layers. I have ownership.”

***

Unlike other cities that have relied solely on philanthropy to foot the bill, Lyons said Chicago’s program is designed to be sustainable, with a portion coming from CPS in combination with a federal grant and a small group of philanthropies. “We’re cognizant that we are building something,” he said, “and we want to be intentional about it.”

The other crucial ingredient is cooperation from a traditional teacher prep program, one aspect of the residency model that could limit adoption by districts in, say, more rural areas that don’t have access to colleges.

Chicago split its pilot group into two, with bilingual teachers attending classes at National Louis University, which is building something similar in East St. Louis, and special education teachers going through Relay Chicago.

Janet Lorch, the resident program director at National Louis, thought carefully about how to refashion her general curriculum to fit into summers and Fridays, when resident teachers were available for classes. She stresses building off actual experiences — one assignment, for example, requires residents to organize a family engagement event at the school. She also places high importance on coaching mentor teachers.

“Instead of a traditional (teacher prep) supervisor going in and saying something, like, you need to smile more, we go in and work with the mentor teacher so there is recursive feedback role. There’s a core practice of modeling — we spend time talking to mentors about that.”

Robert Muller, the dean of the College of Education at National Louis, said professors want to guard against burnout. After all, the teacher hopefuls can end up fried by the prospect of the dueling demands of graduate school and their day jobs. That’s where a four-day program design — four days in the CPS classrooms, with Friday as a day at NLU — appears to ease the pressure.

“It’s the design here that is powerful. It’s practice, theory, practice, theory. In some ways, what we do with residencies could inform our more traditional program.”

In fact, it’s Fridays that Yesenia Francois looks forward to — and not just because TGIF. She says her cohort, which started its classes over the summer, has formed an intense bond that extends to chat sessions midweek over group texts. “We’ll share if we have a successful lesson or an experience with a book or video,” she said. “It’s like an extended family.”

Recently, one NLU resident heard about an organization that was giving away classroom supplies. That resident shared it with Francois and the others, and the request snowballed. Just like that, the residents were able to do something good for a district that’s investing in them.