Taking Stock

As crises ebb, educators adjust to new Common Core curriculums

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

While debate over the Common Core rumbles on in public, the new learning standards continue to reshape what happens behind classroom doors.

In recent days, the governor promised to convene a panel to review the tougher standards and the state teachers union withdrew its support for the Common Core until changes are made.

Meanwhile, sixth-grade students in a Common Core-aligned English class at South Bronx Preparatory searched for “rules to live by” in a novel set during the Great Depression, speeches by Steve Jobs and Barack Obama, and a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Like most elementary and middle schools around the city and state, South Bronx Prep is halfway through its first year using a new curriculum aligned to the standards.

Now, after several months with new Common Core teaching materials, educators across the city say they are settling in to the new normal. Some are calling their schools’ new curriculums fundamentally flawed. Even educators who praise the materials say they require serious adjustments and threaten to leave some high-need students behind.

“It is probably the most rich and complex curriculum I’ve taught,” said South Bronx Prep teacher Jennifer Mandel, who uses state-commissioned literacy materials made by the nonprofit Expeditionary Learning. But, she added, in her sixth-grade class filled with English-language learners, many students struggle to keep up.

“There are certain students who I see who are just stuck,” Mandel said, “deeply, deeply stuck.”

A bumpy introduction

Though schools citywide started shifting to the new standards in 2011 and students took state tests tied to them last year, the city Department of Education only recommended Common Core-aligned curriculum materials for kindergarten through eighth grade last spring. (High schools are supposed to be teaching to the new standards but haven’t yet gotten new curriculum recommendations.)

About 90 percent of elementary and middle schools decided to purchase the recommended curriculums, which the city subsidized. For English, 176 schools chose recommended materials made by state-commissioned nonprofits, 610 chose ones made by for-profit publishers, and 77 chose a combination, according to the Department of Education.

Most of the state-sponsored curriculum materials were completed and posted online by December, as the state had promised, though some materials are still missing for a few grades. The materials have been downloaded more than four million times, according to the State Education Department.

Some schools decided not to buy any of the city-endorsed materials. Many worried that the new curriculums were produced in a rush.

“We feel like we need to do some research to find something that is high quality and really Common Core-aligned,” said Joanna Cohen, an assistant principal at P.S. 2 in Manhattan, which did not pick any materials from the city list.

Schools that did buy the recommended materials received them in spurts over the summer and fall, since they were still being produced. Many schools received late or incorrect shipments.

South Bronx Prep’s sixth-grade class, for example, did not get the novels it needed for the first reading unit until October. Teachers had to photocopy the first several chapters of the book for each student.

The curriculums’ rolling release meant that teachers had limited time had to study them and could not plan over the summer for the whole school year.

Francisca Garcia Ruiz, a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 305 in Queens, said her school ordered literacy materials from Pearson, one of the recommended for-profit publishers and the one that also creates the state’s annual tests.

But all the materials did not arrive until November, Ruiz said, so the school used its balanced-literacy program from previous years until then. In November, the school paid for substitutes so its teachers could take several days to get acquainted with the new curriculum mid-year, she said.

Mixed reactions to the available options

Once she starting using Pearson’s curriculum, called ReadyGen, Ruiz said she found it lacking. She said it forces students to study the same text for many class periods, which bores them, and to complete tasks — such as drawing abstract vocabulary words — that are not suited for young children.

“This curriculum is so inappropriate that these children just do not want to come to school,” she said.

ReadyGen, which the city recommended as an option for kindergarten through fifth grade, has elicited more complaints than most of the suggested curriculums, according to the teachers union. Union officials and other educators said ReadyGen packs too much content into lessons, is overly scripted, does not account for students’ varying abilities, and contains some errors.

“It’s pretty bad,” United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew said earlier this month.

Pearson officials did not respond to all the criticisms. But they said that the literacy program’s “rolling implementation” was approved by the city and added that the curriculum’s teacher guides and a “scaffolded strategies” handbook suggest ways to tailor the lessons for students with special needs.

“Supporting all students – including those at different learning levels – was paramount in the development of the ReadyGen curriculum,” Pearson spokesperson Susan Aspey said in an email.

Even teachers who are satisfied with the curriculums that their schools chose said there remains room for improvement.

Several teachers praised the quality of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, saying the readings are challenging but also interesting to students and linked to relevant social studies and science content. But they said the lesson plans, which can fill a dozen pages or more, include too many learning goals and are above the skill level of many students.

Making adjustments as more changes loom

Teachers have found ways to address some of the curriculum issues. Their fixes range from total overhauls that represent repudiations of the new curriculums to smaller-scale adjustments of the sort that teachers make all the time to the programs they use.

Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jane Lam, who co-teaches a sixth-grade English class with Jennifer Mandel, helps students compose literary essays during an after-school session.

Katie Lapham, a teacher who works with English-language learners in several grades at P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, said she and several colleagues have mostly abandoned the ReadyGen student workbooks, which she finds too similar to standardized-test questions. Instead, most create their own worksheets, with separate materials for students with special needs. They also supplement the grade-level texts in the curriculum with books matched to students’ reading ability.

At South Bronx Prep, Mandel and her co-teacher, Jane Lam, focus on just one or two skills per lesson. They also teach students some background information and vocabulary words that the curriculum, with its focus on textual analysis, might leave out. And they customize the curriculum’s worksheets and tests for their students.

“We’ve had to modify a lot,” Mandel said.

High school students will take algebra and English Regents tests tied to the Common Core standards for the first time this June.

The Common Core English exam is optional this year, but Algebra 1 students must take that Common Core test, though they will also take an exam tied to the old standards and can use the higher score.

As teachers try to connect their courses to the new standards, many have used some of the materials on the state’s Common Core website, called Engage New York, along with other resources. (The website includes some sample questions from the new Regents tests, but several teachers said they want the state to release more.)

Scott Taylor, an algebra teacher at Global Learning Collaborative High School in Manhattan, said he updated some old lessons and materials this year, but much he had to create new or find online.

It has been a challenge to help students adjust to the new standards — which call for more conceptual thinking and writing in math — even as he is still digesting them, said Taylor, who worked in business before becoming a teacher.

“If this was the corporate world and I had to do this,” he said, “I would tell them that this is a four-person job.”

making plans

New York City inches towards a diversity plan for middle schools in a segregated Brooklyn district

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
M.S. 51 in Park Slope is one of the most selective middle schools in District 15.

After sustained pressure from advocates and elected officials, the New York City education department is taking steps towards a plan to promote diversity in middle schools across an entire district — which would make it one of the most far-reaching integration efforts under Mayor Bill de Blasio to date.

In the coming months, the department will launch a community-input process to gather ideas about how to create such a system in Brooklyn’s District 15, where the middle schools are sharply segregated by race and class.

But in a show of how difficult the work could be, at least one well-connected community organizer has already declined to join the city’s efforts, saying communities of color haven’t been included in a meaningful way before now.

“It’s a cold-call,” said Javier Salamanca, who has led efforts to fight overcrowding in the district, but turned down the offer to join the unfolding diversity work. “There’s no relationship.”

District 15 has unique potential to integrate its middle schools. While segregation is often blamed on residential patterns, the district uses a choice-based enrollment system that lets families apply to any middle school in the district — even ones far beyond the neighborhoods where they live. The district also enrolls a diverse mix of students from the affluent neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, as well as the heavily immigrant communities of Red Hook and Sunset Park.

However, 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s middle schools, according to an analysis by parents pushing for changes to the admissions system.

“It’s clear that some of our middle schools do not reflect the diversity of our district,” said District 15 Superintendent Anita Skop. “We want to make sure there is equity of access for all children.”

The city awarded a $120,000 contract earlier this year to WXY Studio, an urban planning and design firm, to create a public-input process in District 15, where parents have lobbied for years for changes to the middle school admissions process. Experts said the process could become a blueprint for other districts interested in pursuing their own integration plans.

The firm — which, among other high-profile projects, helped the city create a development plan for East Harlem — has already started to assemble a working group of parents, educators and local advocates. The group of about 15 members will host a series of public meetings to gather feedback and develop a proposal to change student enrollment in the district.

The city hopes to have a plan by the end of the current school year. Earlier this year, the department announced a district-wide diversity plan for elementary schools on the Lower East Side.

Councilman Brad Lander, who represents part of District 15 and has been an outspoken advocate for school integration, called the process a “big opportunity.”

“That the department of education has wanted to commit to this is encouraging,” he said. “Taking district-wide steps to combat school segregation and achieve more integrated schools is a fundamentally important next step.”

Advocates are paying close attention to the makeup of the working group, which has already been the source of friction.

Salamanca, the co-founder of Make Space for Quality Schools in Sunset Park, who declined to join the working group, said that integration is not a top concern for parents in his community — which includes many Mexican and Chinese immigrants. They are more worried about severe school overcrowding, which leads to packed classrooms and limited space for things like science labs, he said.

The working-group invitation felt more like an effort to create the appearance of diversity than a real attempt to listen to the parents in his community, Salamanca added.

“As one of the few grassroots groups organizing parent voices in Sunset Park,” he wrote in a statement posted on Facebook, “we choose not to be tokenized for the purposes of this initiative.”

His reservations reflect a deeper criticism of the city’s budding integration movement: that it’s dominated by white middle-class parents and needs to draw on a wider range of perspectives.

“This issue can have the effect of alienating communities of color,” said Matt Gonzales, who promotes integration policies through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. The tension over the District 15 working group “is one of the clearest indications of that.”

Skop, the district superintendent, said the education department is open to feedback about how the input process should proceed. And she emphasized that the city wants to involve parents from across the district.

“I think as people see we really want to hear their voices, people will be much more eager to work with us,” she said. “We very much want to hear from all areas of the district.”

How I Teach

‘They are world-changers.’ A sixth-grade teacher wants stifled voices to be heard

PHOTO: Lindsey Lucero
Kathleen Anderson, a Language Arts teacher at STRIVE Prep-Kepner, with two students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

When Kathleen Anderson, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at STRIVE Prep – Kepner in Denver, called a student’s mother to discuss her son’s failing grade, she got an earful. The irate mother explained to Anderson that her son was failing all of his classes because he didn’t know how to read.

The startling conversation was a wake-up call and Anderson soon began tutoring the boy after school to help him catch up. She talked to Chalkbeat about why she’s never forgotten the mother’s frustration, what she does to recognize quiet student leaders and how her favorite assignment teaches students to take the moral high road.

Anderson is one of seven finalists for Colorado’s 2018 Teacher of the Year award, which will be announced Nov. 1.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
After attending high school and college at almost all white schools, I realized I had been blind to the opportunity gap that had been present right before my eyes all those years. I was driven to become a teacher when I knew living in a world where injustice and inequity strike down children’s opportunity before they can say the words “race” and “class” was a world I could not continue living in without taking action.

I was driven to become a teacher by my innermost desire to give undocumented students, students of color, and all other stifled voices the tools to be heard and overcome the obstacles set before them. I know that change will come when my students have learned how to have thoughtful, innovative, game-changing conversations about equity and equality themselves. They are the world-changers.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom: bright charts, the Mexican flag, Michael Jordan posters, part of the school library (usually messy — I’m trying so hard but still have yet to get this right!), an American flag, wobbly chairs, writer’s notebooks, flowers, headphones, extra breakfast snacks, and 11 12-year-olds.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my__________ Why?
My resident teacher, Ms. Kelsey Thomson. I did a residency program and I know the first year can be tough. However, Ms. Thomson approaches her job with love, compassion and, above all else, humor. Someone to laugh with throughout the day is irreplaceable. It’s middle school. Enough said.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
After reading the novel “Esperanza Rising” as a class, I asked students to reflect upon how immigrants overcome hardships as Esperanza and her mother do in the novel. The prompt is as follows: Choose two texts from this quarter to explain how the people prove the ideas in the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”

While the curriculum asked students to use two texts, I changed the assignment so my students would have the opportunity to empower their own identity as immigrants with immigrant parents. In the political climate today, many of my students live with constant fear and anxiety of deportation and hear continually hurtful, negative dialogue about Mexican people and other immigrant communities. I not only wanted this to be a lesson in writing fluidly, citing textual evidence, and providing in-depth analysis, but also a life lesson about taking the moral high road.

Students were asked to interview an immigrant they knew personally. We wrote interview questions together and then students completed their interviews as homework. The next day, every student shared a remarkable story about a person in their life who had lived out the proverb, “He who falls today may rise tomorrow.”

One young man wrote about his father being near starvation: “I wanted the immigration police to catch us … That’s how hungry we were.” Another young woman wrote about her mom’s fear of being deported: “I was scared of being sent back with my sisters and brothers. I pretended like I was with a different family.”

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
This year is the first year I can truly say I am re-teaching in an honest way. My first year of teaching, I didn’t re-teach. It was overwhelming enough to get lessons out the door. In the following years, I re-taught lessons when my coach told me it was necessary after observing a lesson fall flat.

In embracing the ‘re-teach,’ I have let go of my compulsive need to have everything created and ready for each day of the week the weekend before. I start by reviewing the standards I’ll be teaching each day and roughly sketch out what I know students need at-bats with to produce an exemplary “exit ticket.” However, Monday night, I will analyze my data within exit tickets, ‘do nows,’ and text dependent questions from that day to see if I need to do a whole class re-teach from a different angle or a small group intervention during our first 20 minute minutes of individualized instruction time.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
Positive Narration. Every student’s actions are rooted in their desire to succeed and feel loved. As students are off task, I remind myself these behaviors are driven by the student’s want for love and attention. However, using public, negative verbiage and the student’s name over and over again only draws attention to off-task behavior. When I need students to redirect, I narrate students who are quietly leading by example.

I was surprised one year when a student muttered under her breath, “Why does he get all the attention?” about a boy who was consistently causing distractions and out of his seat. In that moment, I realized that while I had been scolding him for his behavior, I had said his name over 20 times during the class period. Today, when students are off-task, I remember what the quiet girl said and look to those silent, steady leaders who are setting an example with their respectful and focused actions.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
The restorative practices purposefully embedded within our school have been critical to my students’ academic growth and success, and they have become a bedrock in my own teaching philosophy. STRIVE Prep – Kepner has the lowest number of student send-outs of any middle or high school in our network. At the beginning of the school year, our leader gathered our team together and stated we wouldn’t be allowed to send students out of class. She believed sending students out of class when there was a problem only put more space between ourselves and the student. Ninety-seven percent of our students are Hispanic, and many of these students are already receiving messaging from the socio-political arena that they are not welcome; schools must refuse to send that message. We remediate problems within our classroom so our students do not miss valuable learning experiences when they react to emotional or social stress.

An example of restorative practice was with a student who spoke out of turn several times during our end-of-year award ceremony. I signaled for him to stand and meet me at the back of the room and asked him how he was feeling. He replied in a brash, angry tone: “This is a waste of my time. This is stupid.” “You’re a brilliant scholar,” I replied and told him I knew what it felt like to be at a ceremony and not receive an award. He pushed back with angry, negative comments. I asked him if he was feeling stressed about passing sixth grade. First, he said no, but as I waited silently, he began to cry. As I comforted him, it was clear his behavior wasn’t motivated by disrespect, but by a longing for positive feedback in an academic setting. During this restorative conversation, I discovered the student needed someone to tell him he was loved and needed — someone at school who believed in him.

I know some may argue their students are too tough or too dangerous, and they must be removed from the classroom to make sure that other students can learn. Yet, I argue, with evidence present in my everyday practice in a turnaround school, one must stand in front of each child with the belief that each individual is desperate to learn, to teach, to love, and to be loved. Sending students out the door for someone else to handle creates an abyss between the teacher and student emotionally and academically that is difficult to close.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
Last November, I called families to discuss their child’s failing grade in English Language Arts. One mother’s tone immediately became brusque. “Hablo espanol,” I said. She quickly began speaking in Spanish as she unfolded her son’s truth. Obviously her son was failing all his classes, she said, because he didn’t know how to read.

Her tone went from short to furious. However, she didn’t seem furious with me, but clearly so tired of seeing her son fail again and again plainly because he was a sixth grader who couldn’t read. I told her I would work with him after school. We spent many Wednesdays reading together after school last year. I will never forget this parent conversation because of the earnest frustration in the tone of this mother’s voice. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to see your 11-year-old struggle with basic reading skills but her emotion made it clear to me I must dedicate myself to becoming a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher as well as a full-time reading interventionist.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“To the Left of Time,” a book of poetry by Thomas Lux and “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.