Monthly Archives: March 2013

Common Core sets uncommon challenges for students and educators alike


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.


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

Comerica touts TutorMate

Screen Shot 2013-03-21 at 1.17.24 PM

Comerica Bank is so proud of its participation in Innovations for Learning’s  TutorMate program that it boasted about it in a special section it sponsored in the Michigan Chronicle, a newspaper for Detroit’s black community.

See the article here.

Thanks, Comerica!

Photo: Michigan Chronicle

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

Staff reflections: Sybil Anderson

In this series, “Staff Reflections,” we introduce the members of the Innovations for Learning team, who will tell us what brought them to our organization and why they’re excited to do this work.

Today: Sybil Anderson, Teacher Ambassador in the District of Columbia.

Sybil Anderson

I came to Innovations for Learning in October 2011, after retiring from a long career in my hometown District of Columbia public school system. I taught for 25 years and coached teachers for seven more years, including as a Reading First literacy coach.

What I’m doing now is much what I did as a literacy coach, with the addition of  TeacherMate technology.

Among other things, I support teachers with guided reading, create bag-of-books with “just right” reading levels and help with classroom management and room environment. I  also aid teachers in the use of iPods and MP3 players, as well as computers used for TutorMate, troubleshooting technical issues that may arise.

I’m there, too, to lend a listening ear and to model and share best practices to all teachers and support staff when needed.

What motivates me is my love for teaching and helping children by way of coaching and supporting teachers.

I really enjoy interacting with teachers in a supportive manner, sharing, networking and giving feedback because I know how overwhelming it can get as a classroom teacher. To a teacher, having support can make all the difference.

What also motivates me is seeing the excitement and enthusiasm of teachers and students from having the latest technology — technology that’s equipped with literacy support that’s kid-friendly, teacher-friendly and fun.

The teachers love it because it requires little planning and no paperwork, it’s highly motivating for students, the feedback is immediate, and they can access the data from home or anywhere to track students’ progress.

One of my goals is to help teachers feel successful in reaching and teaching their students through the use of technology in the classroom. When this happens, they will in turn help their students succeed and achieve the district’s goal of bridging the gap in literacy.

One example: Ms. Frizzell, first-grade teacher at Randle Highlands, is new to TeacherMate. She is a young, fresh teacher and very excited about the program — especially the technology. She beams and bubbles each time I walk in her room to give her support. She always has something positive to say.

She said her students were more excited about the MP3 players when they received them than the iPods. Now, they are equally excited about both. She welcomes new ideas, suggestions, any and all collaboration, teaming and especially the tutors in TutorMate.

Sybil Anderson

A high school that aims to take struggling students beyond the basics

Chelsea Katzenberg and her 9th grade Social Studies class

Chelsea Katzenberg and her 9th grade Social Studies class

It was a Monday morning in the Bronx, and 25 ninth graders, dressed in identical dark black pants and blue polo shirts, some in matching v-neck sweaters, were getting up and moving around their classroom — not because they were disruptive, but because their social studies teacher asked them to.

They were playing a game called “Agree, Disagree,” and they were supposed to make up their minds about statements that the teacher read aloud. Students who agreed with a statement were supposed to walk to one corner. Those who strongly agreed were to walk to a second corner. Those who disagreed or strongly disagreed walked to a third or fourth corner.

“I have one more for you,” said the teacher, Chelsea Katzenberg. “Here it is: ‘People who are born into poverty, and grow up in poverty, will always be poor.’”

Every one of the students walked over to the “disagree” side of the room. Two-thirds crowded the “strongly disagree” corner.

“Why do you disagree that poor people will always be poor?” Katzenberg asked, pushing the kids to back up an opinion, and teaching them how to express their reasoning.

"Agree, Disagree"

“Agree, Disagree”

“Because,” said a slight girl with long black hair, “I know I am going to escape.”

She will, if the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II has anything to say about it. The fourth and latest charter high school from the educational incubator New Visions for Public Schools, its quiet and well-managed hallways are offering a route to college to a cross section of Bronx kids who otherwise could be looking at very long odds indeed.

Their method is to employ techniques common to charter schools — long hours, school uniforms — but also to sharpen skills not often associated with education in America’s poorest places, where the usual goal is to reach a baseline of basic skills. At the New Vision Charter High Schools, the target is to teach higher-order reasoning and critical thinking.

Thus, Monday’s hour-long class also saw Katzenberg reviewing concepts of economics, then instructing the kids to quickly write a first draft of an essay on the question, “How does economic inequality affect the lives of people in the Bronx?”  In a recent exercise, her students wrote letters to President Obama, offering suggestions “that would help turn the U.S. into an ideal economy.”


9th Grade Language Arts class

That same Monday, Language Arts teacher Aliyah Hayes went over the steps for a multi-level assignment in which the kids were to interview somebody from their community and write a feature story about him or her. She described how a good interviewer seeks out personal details and strives for candor from the interview subject.

“Anyone know what ‘candor’ means?” she asked.

No one did. So she explained.

A little later, a student named Joseph Perez leaned toward me and asked how to pronounce a word that Hayes had written on the board: “Collage.” He nodded when I gave him the answer, taking it in.

The final paper was due in a month. Having an advance deadline — that was a new concept in itself.

“When you go to college,” said Hayes, “you will get a due date in the future like this, and we want to treat you like you are the college-bound students that we know you are.

“Now why,” she asked, “would it be a bad idea to wait until the last minute?”

A dozen hands shot up. All had a good argument against procrastination.

You would never guess that this is a school in which 30 percent of the students have Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) because of one learning disability or another, or that for 17 percent, English is their second language — a few students having started school in August with virtually no English, just arrived from another country.

Nor would you guess that most of these 9th graders started the year at a fifth-grade reading level or lower. Some were at third-grade level.

The 125 Bronx teenagers who became Hum II’s inaugural class were chosen by lottery from about 500 applicants. They did not constitute a student body of the gifted or the extraordinarily well-behaved. Far from it.

“The demographics of our student body match the demographics of this area of the Bronx,” said chief operating officer Pamela Fairclough — with the possible exception that these were all students whose parents thought strongly enough about the importance of education to fill out the application.

How do you make a school get extraordinary results from a student body that’s as ordinary as its general neighborhood?


Richard Gonzalez

“Good curriculum,” said principal Richard Gonzalez.

That means “making [school] accessible, making it understandable and based on the real world.”

“And we do a lot of culture-building,” continued Gonzalez, whose jaunty bow tie and cufflinks send a daily signal that becoming educated is worth dressing up for, and who refers to his students, when speaking to them, as “scholars.”

“On the very first day, I got up in front of them and said, ‘You are all graduating in four years. I’ll be standing up here, shaking your hands and handing out diplomas.’”

That would be quite an achievement, given the starting point. Last summer, planning for the school’s first year, Gonzalez and his teachers realized that the incoming students’ reading levels were generally so low that extra measures were called for: every student would be required to take remedial reading and math, in addition to the usual 9th-grade material.

In two of the students’ five daily classes, there is a second teacher whose job is largely to give added support to students most needing to catch up.

At the same time that the students are playing catchup on basic skills of math and reading, they’re leapfrogging forward on sophisticated concepts. Economics, for instance, isn’t usually taught until 10th or 11th grade in New York schools. But Katzenberg is teaching her 9th graders “how to think about economic problems.”

She is a first-year teacher, fresh from Vassar College and Columbia University’s Teachers College. “I knew it would be a lot of work, coming into a brand-new school,” she said. “But I really do love it.”

On the day I observed her, she seemed to pour boundless energy into her class, never lecturing but always leading another activity: the Four Corners game, or a reading passage followed by quick questions and oral answers, or a speed-writing assignment as a warmup to a more formal paper to come. Her students didn’t sit and listen; they did things.

“I never used to like Social Studies, but now I’m getting straight As” said Emily Cacho, 14. “I really work hard to get my grades up. My whole life has been based on working hard. Both my parents” — immigrants from Honduras — “have had to struggle, and they came to New York and they are my inspiration.”

Ms. Cacho wants to be a pediatrician, the first doctor from her family, and show people “they can do anything they want so long as they put their minds to it.”

Is it working? Gonzalez said the students seem to be on track to meet the Regents exam standards by the end of the year. But to really see where they’re at, and to make sure the school’s philosophy is working, he planned to test the students in math and reading at the end of the February — giving them the same test they took in the summer, to see if there’s any growth. No one mandated the test. It was Gonzalez’ idea. If the school isn’t producing the results that everybody wants, he said, he wants to know it.

He has made another daring decision. He plans to tell the kids what the tests show about their reading and math levels. He doesn’t want them to wind up like so many thousands of college students who arrive on campuses with exaggerated ideas of their abilities because they scored well in their high school, only to find that compared with the larger world, they’re way behind.

Ron Chaluisan

Ron Chaluisan

Gonzalez’s boss, Richard Chaluisan, said the principal is absolutely correct to level with the kids about their shortcomings, a frankness that might have been avoided in earlier decades for fear of damaging students’ self-esteem.

“He’s straight up with them,” said Chaluisan, New Vision’s vice president for charters. “He’s saying, ‘This is where you need to get to. We’re going to work with you. And you’re not leaving.’”

The school’s over-arching philosophy reflects Chaluisan’s belief in challenge based learning, an approach which presumes that, in this age of easy access to information, it’s far more important for students to learn, judge and assess different pieces of information, and to solve real-world problems, than to regurgitate facts.

“For me, the big question is, ‘How do you constantly get kids to be thinking?’,” Chaluisan said. “They should be tired because they’re thinking.”

Next year, Hum II, as the school is called, will add a new freshman class. The following year, another, and so on until it becomes a full four-year school.

The conventional wisdom holds that if a kid has a serious deficit in reading or math, you dumb down the coursework.

Put Gonzalez and his staff at Hum II in the “strongly disagree” corner.

“Just because you lack a basic skill doesn’t mean you can’t conceptualize,” the principal said.

“Your vocabulary may be low and your fluency may be low because you don’t read enough or you didn’t have reading material in your house — and you need to read a lot to have those skills — but that doesn’t affect your ability to come up with ideas or participate in a class discussion.”

Story and photos by Howard Goodman

It’s World Read Aloud Day!

litworldwrad13badgeToday is World Read Aloud Day, a celebration of oral storytelling that’s meant “to show the world that the right to read and write belongs to all people,” its sponsors say.

It’s the fourth year for the holiday, “in which children from Harlem to Haiti and Inwood to Iraq tell stories, share books, gather in ‘Lit Clubs’ — and revel in the beauty and poetry of hearing the written word spoken,” says the New York Daily News.

“The idea is to use literacy to change the world,” said [founder Pam] Allyn, who worked for the reading-and-writing program at Teachers College at Columbia University before founding LitWorld, an international literacy nonprofit, in 2007.

With the goal of teaching 1 million kids to read by 2014, LitWorld, based on W. 57th St., began organizing the Read Aloud event in 2010; in only four years, its reach has expanded to include all 50 states, 60 countries and hundreds of thousands of participants.

Publishers such as Pearson, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster and Scholastic donate books to kids, and to promote the March 6 event, best-selling authors Harlan Coben and James Patterson, along with media darling Arianna Huffington, will be tweeting throughout the day.

In New York, for instance, a double-decker sightseeing bus will take Clifford the Big Red Dog to schools around the city.

Founder Pam Allyn wrote this in today’s Huffington Post:

I am asked — often — if there is a magic bullet for cultivating a love of reading, for boosting literacy levels and improving test scores. Actually this question has been answered for years: Just read. And for children: read aloud to them every day. Give all children access to books in any form and a reader you will have.

This week the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research published results from a six-year longitudinal study of children’s reading skills showing that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead of children who do not receive daily read alouds. The truly astonishing finding from this study is that the positive and dramatic developmental outcomes of reading over even longer periods of time occured “regardless of parental income, education level or cultural background.”

In our tech forward culture we sometimes fixate on flashy and sleek solutions, we only want something if it looks like it came out of a Jetsons episode. Somewhere along the line we’ve linked innovation with technology and yet, here’s the amazing thing: literacy itself is humankind’s greatest and most lasting innovation.

Don’t misunderstand, I love technology because it is our power tool for the innovation of literacy. Literacy itself is already mobile, portable and democratic. Technology simply amplifies this power.

If you’re like us, you didn’t learn about this event until it was upon us and too late to take part. But there’s no reason to confine reading aloud activities to March 6. As Allyn says, the important thing is to read to children every day.

Some facts about world illiteracy, courtesy of LitWorld:

Global Literacy Statistics

  • According to the latest data (2009), 793 million adults – two thirds of them women – lack basic reading and writing skills. Included in this statistic are 127 million youth aged 15-24. (UNESCO)
  • Since 1985, the female adult literacy rate has risen 15%, which is about double the growth of the male literacy rate in the same time period. (UNESCO)
  • On tests involving 4,500 to 10,000 students in 43 countries, half of the girls said they read for at least thirty minutes a day, compared with less than one-third of the boys. (UNESCO)
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, girls have less than a 50% chance of  finishing primary school. In some Asian countries, girls also struggle: 41% of girls in Pakistan and 30% in India fail to finish primary school. (
  • Poorly-literate individuals are less likely to participate in democratic processes and have fewer chances to fully exercise their civil rights (UNESCO)
  • A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5 than a child born to an illiterate woman. (UNESCO)
  • A literate and educated girl is three times less likely to acquire AIDS, she will earn at least twenty-five percent more income, and she will produce a smaller, healthier family. (UNESCO)

Making students think about injustices, along with equations


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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