First Person

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Ruben Brosbe

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers.

At a recent event held by Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for teachers, Brosbe told a story of one of his favorite recent students, and how he incentivized the third-grade troublemaker to pay attention in math. Held at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share their stories of the “Best (Blank) Ever.” (Brosbe is also a former Chalkbeat contributor).

Below, you can read Brosbe’s story on the Best Incentive Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

A kind of open secret among teachers is that we do have favorites. We’re not supposed to have favorites, we’re not supposed to have teachers’ pets — we try our best not to have them and treat everyone fairly — but we do have favorites. And there’s always someone who, no matter what, no matter how fair you are, you love that kid.

And this is a story about a kid, we’re going to call him Chris, for anonymity. And you know, for me, the favorite in my classroom is always the troublemaker. I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think for a lot of us that’s true. I don’t know if that’s because I’m not a good enough teacher and they demand my attention and so I give it to them. Or I don’t know if it’s my pride, I want to be the one teacher who breaks through and saves him. Or it might just be that I was a pretty good kid, I followed most of the rules, I didn’t get in that much trouble, so I might just envy him. You troublemaker! You go! You break all the rules. I love you, you shiny diamond.

For whatever reason, I love the troublemakers. And Chris last year, my seventh year teaching third grade, he was my favorite.

Third grade is funny because developmentally, physically, they’re not quite broken out of being babies. So Chris was this round, baby-fat adorable Dominican kid.

We were having this conversation last year about the Oscars and how they were super white, and he just does this impersonation: “Oh yeah, I’m a white Hollywood executive, I’m only going to make movies about white people.” And I’m cracking up, because one, he was right, and two, it was hilarious. And OK, you’re a third-grader but you’re also 40 years old.

But he was a troublemaker and had a hard time. Because he knew he was funny and he loved being funny, he loved getting attention. Raising his hand, which is a very important thing in third grade, was not his thing. Every time a thought was in his head, he would share it. He was also very moody. He would get into fights on the playground and when he was in other classrooms.

And math was his least favorite, it was his struggle. I remember one time it just became such a struggle he broke down, he wanted to run out of the room. I tried to stand in front of the door to block him and he ran into me, cursing at me. He didn’t run past me but just broke down into tears.

This is a kid who school is not easy for, and I did my best to figure out what was going on with Chris. I talked to him and sometimes he would just be very closed, he wouldn’t let me know what was going on at all. But at other times I felt that he had low self-esteem. He would say things like “I hate myself,” “I’m so stupid,” “I wish I wasn’t even here,” and those kinds of things that break your heart as a teacher, no matter what age you’re working with, especially 8- or 9-year-old kids.

But he was my favorite, so I worked with him. We had lunch together and I figured out what mattered to him. And he showed a lot of progress that year. He tried a lot in math even though it wasn’t his favorite, and he raised his hand when he wanted to share something and followed along with his classmates.

But June comes around, and things start to slide back. It’s the end of the year, and that’s kind of the time things are hardest. For whatever reason, maybe kids are worried about the summer, maybe they’re just ready for school to be over, maybe they’ve been ready for school to be over for a long time. And Chris forgets to raise his hand. He’s given up on the idea of raising his hand. Homework is also a done concept. There is lots of arguing, arguing with me, arguing with his classmates, and I’m just like, “Chris, we’ve come down on this long journey. Let’s not end it like this.” So I think, “What can I do to help Chris care?”

I know that person’s brain. I know they love being the center of attention. I say to Chris, “If you can make it through the day without interrupting me or arguing with me, I’ll give you one minute of stand-up in front of the whole class.” And it’s hard. He tries, he asks me, “Did I get it?” And I have to tell him, during math, you said, “No, I don’t want to do this,” so not today. But eventually, he gets it. He earns the one minute of stand-up time.

And so kids are packed up, it’s time for closing circle. I get out my phone and time it for one minute. He gets in front of the class and the kids, they’ve all been waiting for this moment, too.

He’s hilarious. He’s the Chris Rock of third grade. They’ve been waiting for this moment, and he gets up in front and they’ve made signs, like “Go, Chris.” He gets up, he is commanding the space with his mannerisms. But once he’s there, the comedy is very physical, this funny dance thing. And the kids are cracking up, they have tears streaming, and I’m cracking up.

It’s not my sense of humor, it’s just not for me, but it’s hilarious. To see the class laughing at him, to see him getting a laugh in.

I’m at a new school now and I miss him. Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, “I see you,” “I care about you,” “I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.”

I’m grateful to him for that, and I’m going to probably have to relearn that lesson a few more times. But the best incentive I’ve come up with is that one.

Ruben Brosbe is a teacher at P.S. 194 The Countee Cullen School in Harlem, where he will teach fifth grade next year.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.