Category Archives: Math

Looking at the world’s best school systems. Hint: They’re not in the USA

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The education book of the moment is a work of journalism that shows how the countries with the best educational systems are succeeding — while the U.S. treads water.

Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way tracks the experiences of three American exchange students who spend a school year in Poland, Finland and South Korea. Each of those countries outranks the U.S. in international comparisons.

In each place, the American kids are “startled by how hard their new peers work and how seriously they take their studies,” says The Economist‘s review of Ripley’s book.

Maths classes tend to be more sophisticated, with lessons that show the often fascinating ways that geometry, trigonometry and calculus work together in the real world. Students forego calculators, having learned how to manipulate numbers in their heads. Classrooms tend to be understated, free of the high-tech gadgetry of their schools back home. And teachers in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard.

Ripley finds that much of Finland’s success comes from ensuring high-quality teaching from the beginning, “allowing only top students to enroll in teacher-training programs, which are themselves far more demanding than such programs in America,” says reviewer Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Those better-prepared teachers can be given more autonomy, making them more likely to love their jobs and stay in the profession. It’s just the opposite of how we do it in America, where teaching’s mediocre status and pay attract few top students in the first place, and teachers are subject to morale-killing “complex performance evaluations and value-added data analysis,” as Paul puts it.

Just as important, Ripley finds: School systems excel when they demand high-quality work of every student.

The Economist:

Schools work best when they operate with a clarity of mission: as places to help students master complex academic material (not as sites dedicated to excellence in sport, she hastens to add). When teachers demand rigorous work, students often rise to the occasion, whereas tracking students at different cognitive levels tends to “diminish learning and boost inequality”. Low expectations are often duly rewarded.

Not all is rosy in these high-performing countries, Ripley reports. South Korea’s pressure-cooker culture — all study, all the time — is a “hamster wheel” that has “created as many problems as it solved.”

All three counties revamped their education systems when they grew alarmed by the poor state of their economies and national sense of worth. Ripley thinks that America might soon reach a similar moment.

“She cites the World Economic Forum’s most recent ranking of global competitiveness, which placed America seventh, marking its third consecutive year of decline,” The Economist writes. “Meanwhile Finland, that small, remote Nordic country with few resources, has been steadily moving up this ladder, and now sits comfortably in third place.”

Not that Ripley’s findings are entirely new. PISA, the international survey of 34 countries’ education systems, has reached many of the same conclusions. Check out this video:

What vacation? These schools work to avoid the summer slack-off

Back to School Summer Learning

Educators at a Chicago elementary school spent the summer redesigning their reading program for the first and second grades.

They came up with the “CY-BEAR.” This fall, each student will receive a stuffed animal to read aloud to.

Sounds goofy, but principal Shawn Jackson says it reduces the anxiety to read in front of others and can help improve scores for the many children whose parents don’t read to them. That accounts for a lot of Jackson’s 930 students at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. About 85 percent read below grade level and nearly all are from low-income homes.

It took about two months to come up with the plan — an example of how schools increasingly are seizing the summer break as an opportunity to innovate.

“During the school year, there are so many other variables that can come into play. Day-to-day operations, sometimes we get into their own silos, teachers have to worry about the 30 students in front of them,” Jackson told the Associated Press.

According to a story by AP reporter Philip Elliott, Jackson and his team competed in the Chicago Public Education Fund’s Summer Design Program, an innovation challenge that offered educators up to $10,000 to test their ideas.

“Most people would take the time to relax,” Jackson said.

Instead, he and his team rewrote the school’s reading program, overhauling how his youngest students spend two hours each day.

Elsewhere, educators are seeking to prevent the learning loss that many students experience while school’s out for summer

Without classes to attend, most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in mathematical computation skills over the summer. Low-income students also lose more than two months in reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle-class peers make slight gains.

That’s according to the National Summer Learning Association, But summer learning programs targeted to low-income students can help close the achievement gap, the association says: “The effects of summer learning programs endure for at least two years after participation,” long-term studies indicate.

In Harlem, 40 students attended a day camp this summer intended to keep up their reading skills. At LitWorld Camp, they could read whatever they wanted over the six-week period.

Elliott writes:

If students show an interest in cooking or animals, hip-hop or vintage toys, leaders find books that match up with their interests. Students wrote songs based on books on hip-hop and designed their own toys based on the ones they read about from the Depression, Colonial times and ancient Egypt.

Read more about creative uses of summertime here.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews: Youngsters attending LitCamp.

“Long-overdue technological revolution” under way in education: The Economist

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A revolution is under way:

At its heart is the idea of moving from “one-size-fits-all” education to a more personalised approach, with technology allowing each child to be taught at a different speed, in some cases by adaptive computer programs, in others by “superstar” lecturers of one sort or another, while the job of classroom teachers moves from orator to coach: giving individual attention to children identified by the gizmos as needing targeted help.

In theory the classroom will be “flipped”, so that more basic information is supplied at home via screens, while class time is spent embedding, refining and testing that knowledge (in the same way that homework does now, but more effectively).

The promise is of better teaching for millions of children at lower cost—but only if politicians and teachers embrace it.

So says The Economist in its current issue.

The British-based news weekly takes a global look at what its headline writer calls “e-ducation.” What it finds is mostly hopeful. (“Used properly, edtech offers both the struggling and the brilliant a route to higher achievement. The point is to maximise the potential of every child.”)

But it also notes that “edtech will boost inequality in the short term, because it will be taken up most enthusiastically by richer schools, especially private ones, while underfunded state schools may struggle to find the money to buy technology that would help poorer students catch up.”

[That passage underscores the importance of  Innovations for Learning's mission: We work in America's largest urban -- read "cash-strapped" -- school districts as a nonprofit seeking to make tech-based education in the primary grades as available as possible.]

It’s an excellent overview, showing the impact of a phenomenon that has started in America and spreading across the world. It’s well worth your time.  Here’s the full version.

Illustration: The Economist

Hallmark, move over: A tutor says goodbye by greeting card

DSC_0013Some of the people who volunteered as tutors this year became pretty attached to the children they helped learn to read.

Take Lisa Mach. An engineer for the Port of Seattle, she tutored a first-grader named John at Seattle’s Martin Luther King Elementary School, speaking to him every week by phone from her desk at work, going over his lessons for a half an hour as each looked his reading assignment on their respective computer screens.

When it came time to meet John in person at an end-of-the-year party for tutors and students, however, Lisa had to be out of town. She felt badly about missing the chance. So she composed a card for John to be delivered in her stead.

She put a picture of herself on the cover. On the inside, she listed  a dozen suggested “Summer Books After First Grade” and wrote a message:

Hi John,

I can’t be there to visit you at school today because I am on a trip visiting my baby grandson.

I sent this card to tell you what a really GOOD reader you are. I liked that you sounded out every single word until you knew what it was. I also liked that you used your voice and gave the words feeling. If the story was fun, you made it sound happy. When a boy or a girl was scared, you made it sound a little scary. Soon you can read longer stories about people and their adventures.

I hope you can visit the library during the summer and get books to read so you will be a strong reader when you go back to school for second grade.

Have a fun summer!

Lisa

“I am really glad the card worked, though I sure would rather be there to meet him in person,” Lisa said last week in an email. “This is my first time with TutorMate. I have a small sense of what it might be like for teachers to say goodbye to their little ones at the end of each year.”

 

Tutors, sign up now to meet your students!

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It’s the time of year for Innovations for Learning tutors to be making plans for end-of-the-year get-togethers with the students they’re helping learn to read.

About 1,300 adults are devoting a half-hour each week to communicating, via telephone and the computer, with children in low-income neighborhood schools. From their desks in corporations like AT&T and agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard, the grownups are giving first-graders some precious personal attention and encouragement to get them started on a successful path through school.

To cap the experience, the volunteers will travel to the kids’ classrooms to read stories, play word games, enjoy story-building exercises, and — very often — bask in the glow of the kids’ appreciation.

dan's screen grabThis year, the process for signing up and planning for these school visits is streamlined, thanks to a new computer program on the IFL web page for tutors that allows tutors to sign up with a click on the “RSVP” button and to see instantly who else among their coworkers is planning to attend. The new tool also lets classroom teachers and TutorMate coordinators see how many visitors to expect.

The new system went active earlier this month, thanks to crucial help from IFL’s partner for technical matters, Photon, based in India.

Until now, organizing the end-of-year visits was rather haphazard. “We never knew who was going to come,” said Cary Zakon, IFL’s director of TutorMate operations. “Now, it gives us some foresight. If we see that registration is lagging, we can send out reminders to the coordinators. And if we get fewer than three people signed up, we’ll cancel the event.”

Hopefully, that won’t happen very often. Because one thing that tutors, teachers and students all have learned — these are great events.

As one tutor told us after a visit last year: “It was so great to have an opportunity to meet our students — we had an amazing time! The students were so excited to meet us in person and and they loved the books and our token gifts.”

For more information on the visits and registering for them, click here.

Photo: JP Morgan Chase employees at classroom party, 2011. From IFL video.

Common Core sets uncommon challenges for students and educators alike

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It’s one of the biggest changes in American education in ages.

Forty-six states and the District of Columbia are beginning to run their schools under the Common Core Standards, a sweeping initiative produced by the nation’s governors.

The name is misleading; this isn’t just some effort to make sure everybody is working toward the same goals or adhering to similar lesson plans.

This is a marked upgrade in what students will be expected to do — from kindergarten through high school graduation.

It won’t be enough, for example, that students read well and write a sensible book report. In English, history and science, they’re going to be expected to evaluate evidence, form coherent arguments, state logical positions, read between the lines and discern what an author truly means to say.

In math, they’ll be expected to know the “whys” of math as well as the practical skills of doing computations. They’ll struggle with difficult problems, show they can reason abstractly and apply the math they know to the problems of everyday life.

The over-aching goal is to make American students better prepared for college and careers.

It’s going to require huge shifts in teaching. And fast. New systems of assessments are expected to be introduced by the 2014-15 school year.

The general public hasn’t been paying attention. If you aren’t an educator, it’s possible you’ve barely heard a thing about it.

But teachers are hearing the stirrings of an avalanche.

“It’s upon us,” says Tamara Jochinke, a teacher coach in New York City. “We’re living it. We’re getting dirty with it.”

In the educational world — if almost nowhere else — signs of the change are everywhere. Across the Internet, many teachers and instructional experts are posting packages of lessons, or ideas for structuring lessons, available for free, to help teachers make the change.

Yet only half the teachers recently surveyed by the publishers of Education Week said they were “prepared” or “very prepared” to teach the new standards. Their doubts grow larger when it comes to children with special needs or who lack English.

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Janet Price

“We’re in a horrible transitional period,” says Janet Price, director of instruction at New Visions for Public Schools, a New York non-profit that’s training teachers for the Common Core deluge. “If teachers don’t change now, they won’t be ready for ’14-’15.”

Some teachers are already making the change — but school systems aren’t adapting at an equal pace. New York State, for example, hasn’t yet switched its yearly mandated tests to the Common Core, a problem for students who are starting to be taught to the new standards.

New Visions is a leader in the transition. Its staff members fan out to 77 New York City public schools to work closely with principals and teachers to create new types of lessons geared to the higher standards. The nonprofit also runs four charter public high schools, with two more planned for next year, all seeking to discover the best ways for teachers to raise their game, given the heightened expectations.

Tom Vander Ark, who writes extensively about changes in education, calls New Visions “the most productive intermediary in the country,” adding, “Thousands of students each year graduate from high school and go to college because New Visions created high schools.”

New Visions is interested in innovations in teaching that can be spread across the public school system.

“We try to build community across schools — teachers and school leaders sharing with each other — to help with spread,” Price said.

Over a week in February, I sat in on high-school and middle-school classes and teacher conferences and coaching sessions around New York to get a look at how New Visions is preparing teachers and students for the big changes. Here’s a sampling of what I found:

Constance Fenner in 7th Grade English class

Constance Fenner teaching 7th Grade English

At the The Young Women’s Leadership School, in East Harlem, Constance Fenner is leading about 30 seventh-grade girls in a lesson concerning the disastrous yellow fever plague that decimated Philadelphia in 1793.

This is a Language Arts class, not history. But the Common Core agenda calls for English classes to deal heavily in non-fiction. And so, besides a historical novel for young audiences, Fever 1793, the girls spend part of the hour reading a separate article about the role of black people in the epidemic.

Fenner asks the students to concentrate on the vocabulary in the article. In each girl’s copy of the text, she has circled such troublesome words as destitute, approximately, parishioners, huddled, fatigued, controversy, flatulency, foetid, appalling, pestilence. Now she breaks up the class into small groups, assigning bits of the list to each group, and gives them 10 minutes to figure out their meanings from the context of the sentences.

When they get back to their seats and Fenner pries out their answers, it turns out they did very well.

For homework, they’ll have to write an answer a question that’s on the board: “How did the Free African Society develop, and how was it helpful during the yellow fever epidemic?”

At the start of the class, Fenner asked a few girls in random, surprise fashion, what did they read yesterday? They’d better have an answer. One told the teacher she’d read “about Dorner,” the ex-cop who was then on a murderous rampage in Los Angeles. Another said she read something in the Dora The Explorer series.

These were all Common Core-related tasks, instructional specialist Kristina Kasper explained later.

DSC_0025“It’s a lot more than just reading for content,” Kasper said. A lot more, in other words, than following the plot. When the girls read the book Walk Two Moons, about a girl separated from her mother, they had to answer the question, What’s more important, the needs of moms or kids? As they read, they had to list the needs of both. In answering the question, they had to give the evidence for their conclusions.

Fenner said the girls enter her classroom with huge deficits. “They don’t read on their own, so their vocabulary is extremely limited,” she said. “There’s a disconnect between knowing the definition of a word and really using it.” Hence, the exercise in figuring out vocabulary from the context. The girls I saw did surprisingly well at it.

This is a lot more work for teachers, but Fenner said the push is worth it. Society is expecting the schools to produce citizens who can understand information and make well-reasoned decisions. “I think it’s a step forward,” Fenner said.

Later, I sat in on a meeting of teachers who were figuring out how to assign essays that will fit the new standards — an assignment such as this one: Read an article on the recent ban of large beverage sizes in New York City. After reading it, write whether you agree or disagree. Then write three reasons to support your position, using information from the article.

One of the Common Core goals is for students to be able to write a thesis statement for just such an argumentative essay.

To do that, leaders of the session told the teachers, they would have to break the assignment into smaller pieces. They’d have to explain to students that a thesis statement is the sentence or paragraph that begins the essay; that the statement should contain both sides of the argument; that it should make clear the writer’s own stance on the subject; and the statement should read fluently.

In grading the kids’ answers, teachers would be looking for other specifics: What did the task within the assignment require students to do? What did the kid’s paper show about what he understood — and did not understand — about the key concepts? What specific instruction should the teacher design for the student next?

Writing a coherent essay can be done. Teaching the writing of a coherent essay can be done, too. But it looks a lot harder.

Tamara Jochinke and O'Neil Spencer

Tamara Jochinke and O’Neil Spencer

At the Bronx School for Law and Finance, part of the old JFK High School, some 20 science teachers are gathered to discuss how they’re going to boost reading and critical thinking skills in their science classes.

Along with the principal and with two New Visions staffers, they are trying to come up with lessons they can structure as tasks for the students. As the students work step by step to solve the task, they’ll have to learn scientific facts and then apply them to answer some overall question.

“Since we’re teaching critical thinking, we’re going to have think like a student — how to think a problem through,” one teacher tells the others. “So you work backwards from the task to figure out what the students need to know to get there.”

So that’s what they do, working up a hypothetical lesson, before the discussion descends into a jumble of neo-educational jargon, all “modules,” “rubrics,” “skills clusters,” and “instructional ladders.”

Later, Tamara Jochinke, a former Earth Sciences teacher turned New Visions instructional specialist, meets with teacher O’Neil Spencer in his empty science classroom.

They talk over his idea for lesson plan idea: can can the students deduce about evolution from the Grand Canyon? The kids better have evidence.

The two of them are finding that it’s a lot easier to come up with a lesson idea than to create a working lesson. Spencer tells Jochinke he has looked for articles about evolution or about the Grand Canyon that contain arguments that the students can grapple with, but most he’s found at the 9th and 10th-grade level are defenses of creationism.

Making notes on her iPad, she gives him some suggestions on other places to look.

“OK, this is a great idea,” she says of his evolution concept. “But what, exactly, are you going to do on Day 1?”

Spencer nods. “My idea is to have them write, ‘What do you know about evolution?’ And then have them write, ‘If you wanted to prove, using evidence from the Grand Canyon, that evolution took place, what would you do’?”

They talk back and forth. To address the question, the kids will have to know something about geological eras. They’ll have to know about fossils.

“Say, you know, every article they read doesn’t have to be about the Grand Canyon,” she says. “They can read about fossil dating, for instance.”

Piece by piece, the two break down the task into bits, into activities.

She meets with him every Wednesday to address his work as a teacher at this minute level.

I ask Spencer whether this enormous shift, and all the added effort it entails, is a change for the better — or is it just the latest educational flavor-of-the-week, the latest heavy set of demands from on already burdened teachers?

Spencer rejects the cynical view. He’s on board with the new standards.

Because his class in Earth Science isn’t just about rocks.

“It’s teaching them how to think,” Spencer said, “how to find information to support a thought process. It’s making sense of your environment. I think it’s essential.

“I think it should have been the focus before.”

9th Grade Math, Christopher Columbus H.S., the Bronx

9th Grade Math, Christopher Columbus H.S., the Bronx

At the Collegiate Institute for Math and Science, part of the old Christopher Columbus High School, in the Bronx, I watch two 9th-grade classes tackle the same lesson on quadratic functions — the graphing of parabolas. (Remembering precious little of my own high school math, I’m stumped at the very first question: “Without using a graphing calculator, identify the roots of the function y= -(x-4). Is the graph opening upward or downward? How do you know?”)

One session is for regular students. The other is for “special learners,” and the only way I can tell is that it had so few students — nine — and an extra teacher on hand, for a total of three, to walk around and look over kids’ work and help them when they were stumped. The class material in both classes is just the same.

None of kids had ever encountered math material as challenging as this year’s Algebra I.

The teachers ask the kids questions. They answer by holding up colored cards: green if they have the answer, red if they don’t, yellow if they aren’t sure. It’s OK, in other words, to be unsure or to offer a wrong answer. Either way, the teachers ask the kids to get up and explain their thinking to the others. Some of the thinking is right and some is wrong. All the kids tru — even if haltingly. The teachers mediate the discussion and gauge how well the lesson is sinking in. Wrong answers are part of the learning process.

Xiomara Gonzalez (arm raised) and math teachers huddle

Xiomara Gonzalez (arm raised) and math teachers huddle

Afterwards, all the 9th-grade math teachers gt together over snacks of crackers, tortilla chips and grapes and talk over what they’re doing and grade papers together. They try to teach the same thing at the same time so they can swap notes on what students are understanding and what they aren’t.

“I get jealous that I’m not now a teacher and getting this kind of support,” says Xiomara Gonzalez, of the Bronx and Brandeis University, who taught for seven years before becoming an instructional specialist. Why do teachers listen to her as a coach?

“Because I’m a supporter and a co-teacher, and they know that any conversations we have are extremely confidential” — important if you’re worried that your shortcomings will be used by your supervisor against you. And because she travels to different school buildings and New Visions’ own West Village headquarters, “they know I have access to resources and can connect people.”

At one meeting of math teachers, Russell West Jr. says an ongoing mystery is for teachers to “assess what’s in a learner’s brain to find out what’s going on.”

“There should be only two reasons for asking students a question,” says West, who projects a bubbling idealism about teaching. “One, to make them think. Two, to find out what’s going on in their heads.” But, he says, 70 percent of questions are for something else: “to ask something we already know,” or “to control behavior.”

Later, I sit in on a meeting of teachers from 14 Bronx schools, who puzzle over a problem that might or not make it into the curriculum. It concerned the arc of a bus making a turn and crossing into a bike lane.

cutting cornersStudents were supposed to realize that the problem could be solved with the Pythagorian theorem and an equation like r²=(r-x)² + w². But field tests of the problem, created by educators at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Nottingham, showed that many students misunderstood what the question was seeking, or couldn’t set up a sensible equation, or flubbed the computations.

As the teachers bend over their worksheets, puzzling out the problem for themselves, West cautions them to “keep kids focused on why you’d want to solve the problem in the real world — because the bus shouldn’t be in the bike lane, or else some kid is going to get hit. Otherwise, kids will get lost in the weeds of the math and tune out on the problem.”

Well-meant words, but soon teachers’ heads as shaking. This problem is just too hard for 9th grade math.

The Common Core standards are forcing teachers to stretch their students further. But this is one length it’s unlikely we’ll see them go.

Story and photos by Howard Goodman
Top photo: 7th Grade Language Arts class, The Young Women’s Leadership School, East Harlem

School leader’s challenge: To ‘constantly get kids to be thinking’

Ron Chaluisan

As the head of four charter schools in New York City, Ron Chaluisan is aiming high. And he wants his students to do that, too.

“For me, the big question is: how do you constantly get kids to be thinking?,” Caluisan says. “They’re asking questions. There’s an internal dialog going on. They should be tired because they’re thinking.”

His students are poor kids, minority kids, immigrant kids. He wants them to acquire far more than basic skills in reading, writing and math — even though these are skills that many of them lack, despite advancing year by year through the school system.

He wants his students to be critical thinkers and to gain the habits of mind and industry that people need to succeed in a fast-changing world. He wants them ready for the 21st century.

We recently profiled one of the schools that’s putting Chaluisan’s ideas into practice, the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II, or Hum II, in the Bronx (story here).

When we spoke with Caluisan last month, he told us much more about his ideas for education than we were able to run in that earlier story. Here is more of our interview with him.

Born and raised in the Bronx, and a graduate of Harvard, Chaluisan heads the charter schools run by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that’s helping scores of New York City public schools raise their game, mainly by giving close instructional support to teachers and principals in almost 80 New York schools. In addition to that work, New Visions runs four charter high schools and plans to open two more next fall. They’re all part of the public school system.

Chaluisan was a teacher from 1983 to 1997, always in New York schools except for a three-year stint in California, and a principal for three years. He joined New Visions in 2002.

We spoke with Chaluisan on February 15 in his office in the West Village.

IFL: You’ve got ambitious aims for students. But many of the kids who enter your high schools are lagging years behind in reading and math. How do you reconcile the ambitions with the reality? What exactly do you do to “constantly get kids to be thinking”?  

RC: The question becomes: how do you do it with a group of kids who, for 13 years, mostly have been told that they’re not successful in one way or another?

In a weird way, you have to first get them to a place where you get them first to be students: what does it mean to be a student? And then, how do you create a whole bunch of small opportunities for kids to experience success?

Because if they don’t know what they’re working for, they’re less likely to work.

You can never tell a 14-year-old kid, the kids that we work with, a kid coming in with a 4th grade reading level or a 3rd grade reading level, and say, “Do this because it’s important, because it’s school.”  That’s not where the kids are today.

How do you get to the kids’ understanding that success can build on success, can build on success — and it’s something they can use now?  That it’s not something that’s useful four or five or 10 years from now, or that it’s for a good job? For right this second, how can I get you to do something so that, if you do well, you can see the advantage of it today?

And that’s a very different mentality for teachers.

You hear teachers say to students all the time: “You need to do well for the exam in June, you need to do well in order to get into college, you need to do well in order to get a job.” But, do they need to do well in order to do something tomorrow? So we’ve been working really really hard on this.

Kids need to experience success. They need to get success, to understand what it means. Not just to feel good. (Although, yes, there’s a piece of that.)

Let me share a story, it was a real intense learning experience for me.

I danced as a kid. But then I became a principal and I was 33 years old, and I had stopped dancing at 25 or 26. But there was a production I wanted to be in, and I passed the audition — and I hadn’t danced for eight years. At the first rehearsal, I was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I went up to the director and I said, “You’re probably wondering why in the world you picked me for this. And I want to assure you that when we need to be ready, I’ll be ready.”

I saw what I had to do. I had the tape. I knew what I had to rehearse and work on — and I was fine.

And I went back to school, and I said, “I was so clear. I knew what I needed to do in order to accomplish this. It was absolutely clear in my head. Do our kids know that — do our kids know what they have to do to succeed?”

I said, “We don’t do that kind of work with our kids. We don’t make explicit to them and show them, and have them experience, that if you do this and this and this, you can do that.”

And it’s such a basic thing that we take for granted. For our kids, it’s daunting to them. they don’t connect those pieces.

If I sit down and I try to write something, and I just put everything down, and then I rearrange the stuff and read it out loud and hear what it’s saying, and I ask someone, what is it saying — if I do those things, I’ve going to have a well-written piece.

It’s not like that for them. For them, it’s like, if I’m going to be a good writer, I’m going to sit and I’ll write. Because that’s what they think writers do: it’s amazing the moment it goes on the page. They don’t think about rewriting, reading it out loud, sharing it — none of that. They’ve never made that connection.

They absolutely believe and I’ve seen this, I’ve talked to so many hundreds of kids over my 30 years, they will tell you I’m not a good writer, because when I sit down and write, it’s horrible. Like, there’s no process to it.

And it’s the same thing for test-taking and reading and presentation. They think, ‘The people who are successful just do it. And I can’t do it, so I’m not successful. And you’re going to ask me to take this test, and I’ve never been successful on tests and I’m not a great test-taker and I’m never going to be a great test taker.’

IFL: Can you give us an example of how you’ve built up someone’s feeling that they can succeed?

RC: Sure, but we’re at the beginning stages of it.

A teacher will say, ‘OK I want you to create a commercial that shows blah blah blah.’ Now, creating a commercial isn’t something that most people do. So, first of all, you say, ‘You have 30 seconds. And now, sometimes you have a direct narrative, or a visual with voice0over. And how many scenes…?”  So you break it down. And then you help kids do those pieces so they have the greatest chance of being successful.

You’re working through it with them. And you’re helping them do it. And when they’ve actually produced it, they can say, “I did this.” That’s a really important piece.

Are we 100 percent successful? No.

IFL: The point isn’t to create commercial writers, obviously. But it is to do what? 

RC: It is for the student to create a strategy, follow a strategy and complete a project.

The language that we use is: a kid needs to know stuff well enough so they can ask a question. They need to be able to find information so they can answer that question. Then they need to put something together — they need to show their knowledge — and then they have to be able to defend their choices.

It’s not even, necessarily, what’s the right answer? It’s what the best answer you have now, given the information you have.

It’s a real shift. It’s not, “Get these eight questions right on the test.” It’s, “Here’s a question. Here’s some information. What’s the best answer you can put together, given the information that you have?” And then, “How are you going to put it together, and how are you going go show us that you actually have applied it to something else?”

In a classroom, the people who should be working the hardest are the kids. They should be making and doing stuff. They should be arguing. It’s not the teacher. the teacher’s work should be in the planning, 80 percent of it.

If I’m evaluating a teacher, my goal in evaluating the teacher’s work is to look at the planning. When I go into a classroom, I don’t want to see the teacher doing something. I’m looking to see what the kids are doing.

If the kids are sitting there quietly and the teachers are acting, it’s not a good class. It’s not the class I would want my kid in. I want my kid to be arguing and presenting and writing, you know, because at the end of the day, when I think about what I do on a day to day basis, and what i see successful people do … and it doesn’t matter the job you’re doing — I look at the TSA [Transportion Security Administration], it drives me insane every time I go into an airport, because my brain is going, “How could this be more efficient?” and it seems like no one’s asking that question, and it’s a big mess everywhere, except for a few examples where someone smart seems to have figured it out.

And so there’s room for efficiency and effectiveness in every single job. And whatever kids choose to do, I want them to enter life that way. To think: How can I contribute to making whatever I’m doing better?

If we can accomplish that, it’s an amazing thing. And that’s where you get joy: “Wow, I thought of that, I made this better.”

Story and photo by Howard Goodman

Making students think about injustices, along with equations

DSC_0051

Kendra Din darkened the room, flicked on the projector and gave the 30 girls in her 9th-grade algebra class a surprise immersion in a world far grittier than anything they’ve known in their own East Harlem.

    • A 15-year-old girl worked in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka this week for 40 cents an hour. A 16-year-old boy performed sexual favors for male tourists in Thailand this week for 50 cents an hour. Together, they earned $47 for the entire week. How many hours did each teenager work for this small amount of money?
    • A six-year-old girl’s family in India couldn’t afford for her to attend school, so she was forced to beg for money in the streets every day for a full year. A 17-year-old mother of a newborn also begged for a year with a baby in her arms at the Mexican-American border in Mexicali, Baja California. The two girls’ daily earnings totaled an average of $7.97 per day. The young mother averaged $2.33 more per day than the six-year-old, because she begged from wealthy Americans. How much did they each make per day, on average?

The problems were to be solved with equations (x=number of hours girl worked; y=number of hours boy worked).

But getting the right answer wasn’t entirely the point.

Din wanted her students to see — forcefully, even hyperbolically — that mathematics is tied to the real world.

And she wanted them to learn something about themselves: compared with millions of other young people around the globe, they had many more opportunities before them — and they shouldn’t blow them.

“Stop thinking about unimportant stuff, and pay more attention to your teachers,” she told them as the class ended for the day, one girl loudly complaining about discovering a hole in her sweater. “We all have Masters degrees, and we care about you, and we want to keep you going to school because we want you to have better lives.”

Did they listen? Possibly. As one of the students later answered a homework assignment: “It broke my heart how both the boy and girl had to work in their terrible jobs for a week just to earn a meager amount of money that I would easily blow on pointless objects like another pair of sneakers that I really didn’t need. It made me realize how hard I need to work in high school, so I can go to college and get a good job.” DSC_0031

The scene was the Young Women’s Leadership School, a well-regarded public high school of 440 students,  meeting in a converted office building on East 106th Street. The student body is more than half Hispanic, one-third black, and all girl. Most would be the first from their families to attend college — and the school boasts excellent college-acceptance rates (100 percent in 2010).

Din, 37, had created the word problems from scenes she had experienced in her own travels around the world and from growing up in Southern California near the Mexican border. She’d devised them during precious off-hours, so pressed for time that she realized only later that the first problem wasn’t solvable; she hadn’t provided enough information for students to come up with an answer.

She had been inspired by an article in Rethinking Schools magazine. The authors, Eric (Rico) Gutstein and Bob Peterson, teachers in Chicago and Milwaukee, proposed “to teach math in a way that helps students more clearly understand their lives in relation to their surroundings, and to see math as a tool to help make the world more equal and just” — a hot potato of an argument that has some critics seeing math class turning alarmingly into a forum for left-wing propaganda.

Kendra Din

Kendra Din

But Din wasn’t trying to start a political argument. She just wanted her students to be less bored than they are by the usual word problem.

“‘Sandy bought a chocolate bar for 43 cents, and Carlos bought one for 50 cents. But if Sandy bought 10 more than Carlos’ — who cares about candy bars?” Din said in an interview. “It’s so unimportant in the real world. Why not put some actual economic issues in the problems so that students can learn something about the real world while they’re learning the math?”

Highlighting the point, Din had prefaced the lesson earlier that day by asking her class: “How many of you think that math has nothing do with real life?” Almost every hand went up.

Din wants to dispel the notion that math is useless. That goal’s in line with the new Common Core Standards, the ambitious curriculum changes that are coming soon to more than 45 states.

“The high school standards call on students to practice applying mathematical ways of thinking to real world issues and challenges,” says the Common Core website.

Earlier this year, wanting “to show that statistics is important, especially in light of Nate Silver predicting the outcome of elections very well,” Din organized her higher-level students in a fantasy baseball league.

The girls resisted at first “because there was a lot of math involved” and because few were keen on baseball. But the girls warmed to the project, stretching it to two months, as it turned into a game and their statistical analyses made increasing sense to them. A screening of the movie “Moneyball” opened eyes.

“You could see it was changing the way they thought,” Din said with a grin. “One girl said she might become a statistician.”

Din’s experiment with real-life word problems was a work in progress. Kristina Kasper, a teacher coach who was sitting in, said that while the goals were commendable, the teaching method fell short. “There was too much talking from the teacher and not enough doing from the students,” said Kasper, an instructional specialist with New Visions for Public Schools. “I was surprised to see the kids being so passive.”

Din gave her students two additional word problems that day. One involved a pair of children who worked for  hours, selling postcards to tourists in Istanbul (“If they worked a total of 23.5 hours in an entire day and sold 686 postcards total, how many hours did they each work?”).

The last problem concerned two graduates of the girls’ own Young Women’s Leadership School. Both got into the same Upstate New York college where tuition was $53,000 per year. Girl 1 studied six times as hard as Girl 2, and her tuition was $53,000 less. “How much is Girl 1’s tuition? How much is Girl 2’s tuition? Which one got the scholarship, and why do you think she got it?”

This wasn’t really a math problem. The answer was given away. But it was a true story, and Din emphasized the point by showing a video. Here on screen was the real-life Girl 1, opening her college acceptance letter and erupting in joy.

Din’s students watched raptly, some dabbing their eyes.

The girls’ homework was to write answers about the lesson’s meanings. Why had they been presented with questions like these? Which problem had affected them most?

2013-02-26 17.51.22Not one student objected to the content as being too raw or too salacious.

“Ms. Din was trying to say that our lives aren’t as bad as we portray them to be,” one girl wrote. “We complain about the smallest things, such as the homework or the temperature of the room. It’s better to get a lot of homework than to skip school to beg for money…

“This lesson had a profound effect on me. I feel privileged that I can go to a small school with great teachers and great education.”

Another girl wrote about the scholarship winner: “It was such a touching story that made me wanna cry [sic]. This will definitely affect my choices in high school. This will happen because the look on her face made me want to feel that happiness.”

All in all, Din considered the lesson a success. A few girls who’d dragged their feet on homework began to show some enthusiasm for the class, she said in an email. Others were “still as silly as they used to be with their childish complaints, but now I can remind them that their lives could be a lot worse, and they know exactly what I’m referring to.”

“I think I need to come up with other interesting plans of that sort to keep their attention,” she added.

“It’s a lot of work.”

Story and photos by Howard Goodman.  Image of student work courtesy of Kendra Din.

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