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Staff reflections: Cary Zakon

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Cary and daughter Mira, now 14 months old

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: Cary Zakon, Director of TutorMate Operations.

As I enter into my second decade with Innovations for Learning, I am as excited and motivated as ever to serve our mission.

I came to the organization after a few years as a budget analyst and a few more as a network administrator. Something felt out of balance at those jobs, so I tried my hand at working with high school students through a non-profit that taught young people how to refurbish computers. I enjoyed the experience, but it was not the right organization for me.

Then I had the fortune of being introduced to Seth [Weinberger, IFL’s founder], who offered a new challenge — to battle illiteracy by assisting inner-city schools in the task of teaching beginning reading. His proposal and approach made sense to me. At Innovations, we use technology to engage and impact a young student’s path early on. Seth had a vision and I found a happy home.

Seth hired me in February 2002 to help grow his program, and we did. As we grew, so did my role — from acquiring, refurbishing and maintaining equipment to training staff and students, benchmark-testing our students, and conducting program development sessions.  I have memories (and actual pictures) of my home filled with computer equipment. Seth hadn’t mentioned warehousing in the job description.

Along with two other coworkers, we began in Chicago neighborhood schools.  At times, it was a difficult to witness the impact of poverty on young students and to observe negative school cultures. But I also got to work with some extraordinary teachers and staff.

I was touched in a way that I have not been able to shake since.

I wanted to help. I wanted to offer something that could engage students and make the classroom experience easier. I loved seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces as they used our materials. I appreciated how our program helped some teachers gain better control of their rooms and gave more students their focused  attention.

We started to see successes, and students were clearly engaged with our software. The downside, however, was using refurbished computers—we were in a difficult cycle of receiving donations, refurbishing, repairing, and repairing, and repairing some more. The hardware portion of our program was not sustainable and had to change if we were to survive.

Seth had a courageous vision for our next phase. In 2008,  we began to manufacture our own handheld device. The goal was to create a device that was easy for a student to use, anywhere in the classroom, and easy for teachers to store,  charge,  distribute, and to adjust for differentiated instruction.

Getting into the manufacturing business and migrating our software to a new platform was an ambitious undertaking. Maybe too ambitious: Over the the next few years, we learned we were innovators but not necessarily manufacturers. When the TeacherMate hardware worked, it was fabulous. The glow of students reading stories, recording and hearing themselves for the first time, being thrilled at completing one of our word challenges — it was intoxicating. (Although, to be completely honest, it could have been the knowledge that so many kids were listening to my voice reading the instructions, comprehension questions, and second grade stories that was so intoxicating!)

But the reliability of the TeacherMate hardware in the classroom setting proved tougher than we’d hoped. Our answer came when prices fell for handheld devices made by other manufacturers. Today, our cloud-based management system works fabulously using devices like the iPod and iPad.

We have come a long way.

Though my voice remains prominent in students’ ears, my role is shifting. I now manage our corporate partners and support their volunteer efforts in our TutorMate program. Tutors play a very special role in giving students one-on-one attention and reinforcing the kids’ classroom work.

Imagine being a fly on the wall as a ring is heard inside a classroom.

A 7-year-old (our student greeter) pauses whatever they are doing to answer a call on the tutoring laptop. With a few clicks, they help a classmate connect with their tutor. The student starts a 30-minute reading session with a caring adult. The computer screen flashes the pages of a story that the tutor controls — the same stories that the student is reading in class on his or her handheld device. Students practice words, acquire fluency, gain confidence, and learn to read

Watching this happen in real time is precious. Knowing that the world is filled with caring volunteers, and that corporations are willing to donate employee time to reach out and make a difference gives me great hope. I am thrilled to help our TutorMate program flourish.

I appreciate doing work that is meaningful to me in an open, thoughtful environment. IFL has fostered this approach from Day One.  Seth proved to be a mentor, leading with vision, tenacity, and plenty of patience. It’s been exciting to have new coworkers come aboard who share a similar sensibility and drive. We now truly have a community, people I want to talk to, people I want to assist, and people who want to assist me (which is especially helpful as I navigate work being a new dad)

My patient life has mirrored IFL’s patient approach. We are not in a rush, but we will both get there.

— Cary Zakon

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Staff reflections: Seth Weinberger

DSC_0032 - Version 2In 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: Seth Weinberger, founder and CEO. A good account of Seth’s background and history with IFL can be found here. 

He wrote the following a few days ago, as an email to the rest of the staff. It stands so well as a statement of IFL’s potential and purpose, we wanted to share it with everyone:

 

Today I observed a Chicago south side first grade classroom in a school that is 97% African American, 75%+ low income, and on academic probation.  The teacher is a first year novice.  Two-thirds of the students entered her classroom below grade level literacy.

Against these enormous odds, here is what this teacher achieved:  the LOWEST group is near Level I (grade level).  The middle group is reading second and third grade chapter books, and the highest group is independently reading Charlotte’s Web, a classic TEACHER read-aloud book.

This teacher has enthusiastically embraced the TeacherMate System from the start of the school year, and credits it for much of her success.  She is also a natural teacher, and will be a star if she stays in the profession.

Not every teacher is a natural, and not everyone will embrace our system, but this teacher has demonstrated what is possible.  And what is possible ought to be what our goal is.

Every student reading, most students flying.

— Seth Weinberger

Florida Virtual School funding threatened while online enrollments on rise

040913-met-flvs-03Florida Virtual School is one of the oldest and largest online ventures for K-12 education, serving more than 150,000 students last year in full-time and part-time courses.

But a bill passed by the state legislature now threatens the program’s revenue stream, the Palm Beach Post reports:

Proponents say the bill, which is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, is meant to level the playing field because the virtual school has an advantage over traditional school districts with the current funding formula.

But Florida Virtual, or FLVS, says the changes will hurt its bottom line, and is forcing it to look at increasing its virtual class sizes, cutting back on its offerings or laying off some instructional staff.

“This is a time when there’s (an additional) billion dollars going into education,” said Julie Young, chief executive officer of FLVS. She estimates that FLVS will lose $36 million next school year with the funding formula change — although it is still expected to get more money next year than this year.

The formula changes would also affect school districts, which have come to rely on online course providers to help manage class size restrictions, tight school budgets and other requirements affecting the classroom, as well as provide students more course offerings. Under the new funding formula, districts would take in less money for each student who is enrolled in one or more online classes.

Florida has passed a law requiring every public school student take at least one online class in order to graduate. And the state has also authorized the creation of virtual charter schools.

“We’re looking at a shifting time in education,” said Debra Johnson, principal of Palm Beach Virtual School, told the Post. Her school has 230 full-time students and thousands of others taking some online classes part-time. “There’s a move to give students a variety of options to serve their needs.”

Take a look here at the Post story, which provides a good picture of how Florida Virtual School operates.

Florida Virtual, which began in 1997 with a staff of seven, has grown to employ 1,155 full-time teachers and almost 500 adjuncts. All instructors are certified by the state, which recognizes Florida Virtual as an official school district — just like any other, except that it has no geographic boundaries. Most students take its courses to supplement their regular school work.

Here’s more from the Florida Virtual School site.

 — photo by Palm Beach Post. View of Kim Bouchillon, a Florida Virtual School teacher (seen in lower right hand of computer screen), during a recent morning session. 

Education innovation goes Prime Time

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Education takes the TV spotlight tomorrow night (Tuesday, May 7) when PBS broadcasts TED Talks Education, an hour-long special featuring an array of speakers who will hold forth on teaching and learning.

Hosted by singer John Legend, who has a foundation dedicated to alleviating poverty by focusing on education, the program is a collaboration between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and TED, the nonprofit group behind TED Talks, an Internet phenomenon that puts thinkers in front of audiences to promote “ideas worth spreading.”

The lineup of eight speakers includes Bill Gates, whose philanthropy is sponsoring many education projects; Geoffrey Canada, longtime head of the Harlem Children’s Zone; Sir Ken Robinson, who calls for greater creativity in school have made him the most-watched speaker on TED, and Malcolm London, a young poet and activist dubbed the Gil Scott-Heron of his generation.

Check local listings for the time of broadcast.

For more on the program, here’s TED’s promotional material.

IFL takes big step into Broward County, Fla., classrooms

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In one of its biggest expansions yet, Innovations for Learning’s programs are headed this fall to 120 classrooms in Broward County, Fla, — an aggressive effort to teach some 2,160 young students to read.

The Broward County Public Schools, based in Fort Lauderdale, announced the partnership with IFL today. The initiative is to begin in August, when the fall semester begins.

Plans call for scores of digital devices — laptops, iPads and iPod Touches — to be provided to kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. The non-profit IFL will share in the costs for the equipment, as well as support staff needed to make the program run smoothly.

Robert W. Runcie, Broward’s superintendent, is an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, which relies on 21st century tools and old-fashioned one-on-one attention from caring adults to bring reading skills to children who would otherwise lack the readiness to succeed in school.

“This initiative is critical because students who do not master the art of reading by the end of first grade are severely impacted, across all content areas, throughout their academic career,” Runcie said in a statement. “Early intervention, that is personalized to each student’s needs, is critical in improving the rates of students who enter our second grade classrooms as proficient readers on or above grade level.”

United Way of Broward will help in the effort to recruit volunteers from the business world to tutor the children, giving one-half hour a week to help them with their lessons remotely, using the Internet and telephones to communicate from their work places to the kids’ classrooms.

“This is a one of a kind program in our district that leverages technology to maximize personalized literacy instruction and provides a unique opportunity for community leaders to tutor students in a manner, which minimally impacts their schedule, “ said Dr. Marie Wright. the district’s executive director, for instruction and interventions.

Innovations for Learning is equally excited.

“Broward is the rare example of a large urban school district that was able to see an innovative idea and move it through their process with enthusiasm and move it through quickly,” said Barbara Gilbert, IFL’s national education director. “Normally, it gets very complicated and take a long time or you have departmental issues. Broward had none of that. It was very collaborative.”

— Photo (left to right):  Seth Weinberger, IFL Founder and CEO, Dr. Marie Wright, Executive Director, Instruction & Interventions, Broward County Public Schools, Superintendent Robert W. Runcie, Broward County Public Schools, and Barbara Gilbert, IFL National Education Director.
Photo and story by Howard Goodman.

Staff reflections: Caryn Weiner

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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: Caryn Weiner, Co-editor, Publications.

I have known Seth Weinberger, Barb Goodman and their family for many years and had the pleasure of watching Seth’s wheels turning as he conceived and incubated what is now, 20 years later, Innovations for Learning. 

Our children were young, and Seth, Barb, and I helped to found a nonprofit preschool in Evanston, Ill., that focused on inclusion. For years after that, Barb and I worked as partners in a volunteer capacity to raise funds and awareness for our venture, all while raising our families.

I didn’t know 30 years ago how my work and personal life would intersect and come full circle.

My first job after completing my masters degree in social work was with a YWCA program in the Uptown neighborhood in the Chicago which housed an early childhood Title XX daycare program and an after-school program for school-age kids.

My next job was as a therapist with adolescents and families at Response Center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. I also worked closely with the schools in the area presenting programs and workshops for students and parents, as well as school staff.

I also had a stint for many years as a Roving Reader, a program founded by the Foster Reading Center in Evanston to promote literacy and now part of Child Care Center of Evanston. It was originally designed for school-age children, but by the time I joined, the program focused on early literacy skills — the building blocks for future success in school.

I visited a number of daycare homes twice each week. My job was to expose the kids and their daycare providers to quality literature and to offer stimulating and enriching experiences related to literacy.  

Over the years, I formed lovely relationships with the providers and watched as their charges grew up and moved on to kindergarten. My hope was always that I had left them with a love of books and reading.

Then, four years ago, I had the good fortune to join Seth and the amazing IFL staff, part time, as Barb’s work partner. Our mission then was to grow the online tutoring program, which today is known as TutorMate. That program grew, and as new full-time staff came onboard, Barb and I stepped back. 

To watch TutorMate develop into the program it is today has been amazing.

Back in the day, Barb and I did trainings in person with a slide show. The program itself was much less interactive and dynamic. There was no help desk, no online sign-up nor phone conference training, and there were way more bugs!

Still, each time we went out to talk with or train volunteers at their workplaces, it was quite clear that something wonderful was going on.

Tutors loved being part of their students’ lives each week, and their coworkers were hearing about it and wanted to participate, too. Heartwarming stories about tutoring and its rewards were being shared. And when Barb and I went out to visit classrooms and had the privilege of meeting the students and teachers, that was just further confirmation.

We spent lots of time online and on the phone with tutors and teachers: training, helping with scheduling, troubleshooting technical issues, and getting to know them personally. Many are still with the program. Compared with the scope and quality of today’s TutorMate, they were pioneers!

Today, my role is a bit in flux as Seth’s wheels continue to turn and new projects and ideas form. Barb and I are now working on communication projects and the annual report. I look forward to whatever my new role with IFL will be – and to watching the organization grow.

Staff reflections: Frank Spranze

DSC_0025 - Version 2In 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: Frank Spranze, Help Desk Manager.

I’m known at Innovations for Learning as a tech guy, but I’ve done a little of everything over the years — from restaurant ownership to law enforcement to mortgage brokering, as well as computer repair and maintenance.

I came to IFL in the summer of 2009 to fill a temporary position doing TeacherMate field installations in Chicago Public School classrooms.

My position has morphed. Now it’s mainly online tech support for our TutorMate program. My main task is to provide real-time support for our volunteer tutors and students coast to coast. I work from a bank of computer screens in suburban Chicago, communicating to dozens of classrooms every school day.

Frank's command post

Frank’s command post

Keeping that all going has its challenges.  When you combine kids and personal computers, you’re going to have lots of little things go wrong: adjusting the volume, resizing windows, closing programs that students open by accident.  Children often change settings on the PCs in the classroom, sometimes disrupting tutoring sessions in mid-session, or prevent them from starting.

I have created my own systems to keep us afloat. My mornings are filled with preparation, preparation, and more preparation — making sure I am properly connected remotely to all the classrooms, for starters.

As you might imagine, new technology is not always 100 percent, so we are almost always finding ourselves thinking outside the box when trying out solutions. And I’m always communicating with teachers to correct problems or fix the settings themselves.

Although I provide support to so many, I myself receive support from many team members. This goes a long way to getting to our collective goals.

My perfect scenario is seeing all the processes of tutoring flow together to create that great tutoring experience.

Every year there are certain classrooms, teachers and tutors who just get it. They come together time after time to get their sessions up and running, like a mini orchestra. From these observations, I can always predict which classrooms are excelling, it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold. That makes my day.

My goal is to see more of those classroom-tutor-teacher combos excel as they get it.

Frank Spranze
frank@innovationsforlearning.org

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

Staff reflections: Jessica Nasset

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: Jessica L. Nasset, Teacher Ambassador in Seattle

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My dream was always of being a teacher. I can remember back in fifth grade asking my teachers if I could clean the chalkboards or help grade papers or to change out bulletin boards. I wanted to stay in at recess to talk with my teacher or go help out in another classroom.

I thought teaching would be the best job … and I was right.

To begin my quest to be a teacher, I attended Central Washington University where I received my Bachelors of Education degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood Education. While teaching near Seattle, I attended Seattle Pacific University where I received my Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction.

From there I moved to Las Vegas, Nev., for a new adventure in teaching. After a few years, I knew that I wanted to continue learning how to be the best teacher I could be. With this in mind, I chose to complete the rigorous National Teaching Certification program from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

After a year of hard work, I was very pleased to become National Board Certified Teacher.

I have been working in education now for 10 years. My teaching history includes working as a K-8 substitute, and teaching kindergarten and/or first grade in Title I at-risk schools. I have also worked with a private school to create and establish a new kindergarten program.

During all of this, I always made an effort to volunteer, plan and oversee school fundraisers, plan and implement school professional developments, participate in family academic nights and offer my help to other teachers who were striving to become National Board Certified Teachers.

With my educational experiences in and out of the classroom, I found a real interest in teaching other teachers about education. After checking in with many of my educational contacts, I came across a non-profit educational company that was looking for a Teacher Ambassador to work with the Seattle School District.

Let me just say that finding Innovations for Learning was another dream come true! I have been able to indulge in my interest of helping other teachers, yet still work with young learners as well.

Having just come out of the classroom and being new to the “coaching” aspect, I am finding that the variety of schools, teachers, students, and classrooms to be of great interest. I am lucky to be able to visit multiple classrooms a day and see the variety of teaching and learning that is going on. There are so many different personalities, that it is fun to get to know each and every teacher and to see their relationships with their students.

Telling stories of my past teaching experiences and listening to current stories about teaching and learning, from teachers and students alike, easily creates my own relationships with everyone and helps to include me in the classroom dynamic. Sharing stories, whether it is with teachers or students, is what grows relationships and connects everyone together into one big classroom community and I enjoy being a part of that.

As a Teacher Ambassador I have had the privilege of coaching other teachers in their quest to enhance their reading instruction and to help them engage their students by adding educational technology into the classroom.

I have found that being a Teacher Ambassador is very eclectic in its job description. I am a teacher, a co- worker, a resource guide, a cheerleader, a technology guru, a reading coach, a “problem fixer,” a counselor, and a friend. I am the person who will praise your successes, help with your struggles, and lend an ear or a shoulder when you are just too overwhelmed to do one more task.

If I can do these things, and do them well, my teachers and their students will be successful. If they are successful, it will bring about a new path for technology and coaching in education, and that will in return have a big impact on the future.

A lot of teachers have asked me “why do love your job so much?” Well … here is my answer: I love education! I love to learn (about anything – random facts are my favorite, though), I love to teach (by inspiring others to love learning), I love to talk about education/teaching, and most importantly, to help other educators create a successful classroom.

I get to indulge myself in all of those aspects within my job. Nothing is better than being able to support a teacher by boosting their confidence with praise or showing them a new teaching technique and seeing a new spark of passion for their teaching! When a teacher is passionate about their teaching, the students will be passionate about their learning.

Engaging students in their learning is a key factor for academic success. When I walk into a room at the beginning of the year and am introduced as the “iPod lady,” I can already see the interest in learning rise. Students are very interested in and knowledgeable about technology. To be able to give them a fun, interesting and engaging way to learn and practice reading is very rewarding.

It is this interest in learning for both teachers and students that motivates me to do my very best as a Teacher Ambassador.

Jessica Nasset

Tutors, kids benefit in Detroit

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The Detroit News tells how a tutor, working at her desk at General Motors, is helping a second-grader learn to read.

The two are 20 miles apart, but connected by headphones and laptop computers.  Software from Innovations for Learning’s TutorMate program is making the session possible.

Seven-year-old Daniel Estrella-Rodriguez “meets” twice a week with Tracie Zettler, of GM. She’s one of 120 volunteers working with IFL in the Detroit

Former Detroit News logo

Former Detroit News logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

area.

The twice-weekly tutoring has improved the 7-year-old’s ability to read — from 14 to 35 words a minute. It also has benefited Zettler, who has donated her time to other causes such as Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics.

“I love to help people and I love to volunteer,” said Zettler, a logistics planner at GM. “I have butterflies when we talk. I feel like I want to hug him. And he tries so hard.”

Daniel, a quiet boy with brown hair and an easy smile, said, “Miss Tracie helps me sound out a word if I don’t know it” and she “tells me that I’m good and that I’m paying attention.”

At GM, the program is so popular there’s a waiting list for would-be tutors.

The second-grader’s teacher tells the News’ Jennifer Chambers that the 30-minute tutoring sessions, which began in October, have helped him beyond improving his ability to read.

“I’ve seen an increase in his self-esteem,” said teacher Cecelia Ly. “They get special time with someone who cares about them. It makes them feel special.”

Read the whole story here.

photo: The Detroit News  

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