focus on stem

Robots, Legos, and a famous chef at city’s new summer STEM training

PHOTO: Sabrina Rodriguez
Former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses shows teachers how to make yeast.

Eileen McManus-Reddan, a special education teacher at Brooklyn’s J.H.S. 62, found herself watching a former White House pastry chef make steamed buns on Thursday.

The demonstration by Bill Yosses, who made soufflés for President Barack Obama until 2014, presumably used far fewer ingredients than he would have found in his old kitchen and relied on just a hot plate. The goal, he explained, was to give McManus-Reddan and her colleagues a new way to explain the science of food, featuring homemade (or school-made) yeast.

“It’s something that students at any level can enjoy learning,” McManus-Reddan explained after the workshop.

She was taking part in STEM Institute, a new three-day training program for city teachers that finished its second session on Thursday. Its workshops skewed toward the unconventional, combining academic topics with cooking, video games, gardening, and Legos.

The program, which officials said was attended by more than 400 teachers, continues the city’s effort to expand and improve teaching in math, science, engineering, and technology — and to highlight those efforts. Chancellor Carmen Fariña made a separate appearance at a STEM summer program on Thursday, and officials said the city was releasing a new STEM-focused teaching guide this week as well.

“Science teachers are really going to actually, this coming year, have more extensive training than any year prior to this,” Fariña said at the kickoff of Summer of STEM, a collection of programs run out of New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering for teachers and students.

In a brief speech, Fariña said that she wants to see more teachers of younger students incorporating science and technology into their classrooms, starting with pre-kindergarten.

“There was a feeling and a time that STEM was for high school kids,” Fariña said.

The two STEM efforts are made possible by outside funding. The NYU event was celebrating a major grant from the National Science Foundation and venture capitalists Fred and Joanne Wilson, which will help further fund its teacher training programs. Some of the separate STEM Institute workshops were also put on by vendors, like Legos, which makes materials for teaching math.

The goal of the STEM Institute, which trained a first group of teachers this spring, is to introduce elementary, middle, and high school teachers to hands-on projects that connect to specific Common Core learning standards. The city is also trying to make those connections clearer with new guidelines for teaching a variety of science, technology, and engineering topics in each grade, similar to the “scope and sequence” it released in June for science alone and last September for social studies.

Jessika Rosen, a special education teacher at J.H.S. George J. Ryan in Flushing who co-facilitated a robotics session, said she often worked with teachers who weren’t sure how to do hands-on projects while facing pressure to align their teaching to the new standards.

“That’s my big part — showing how they don’t have to be scared to stray away from their curriculum,” Rosen said. “There’s just so many skills you can get from a robot.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?