Community

New York

Exclusive excerpt: Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

This excerpt is drawn from Chapter Three of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” The chapter follows the chess team from I.S. 318, a public middle school in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as they compete in the National Junior High Championships in Columbus, Ohio, in April 2011. Much of the chapter’s focus is on the teaching techniques of Elizabeth Spiegel, the school’s chess teacher. This excerpt connects Spiegel’s teaching to the work of some other educators and scholars discussed in Tough’s book, including David Levin and Dominic Randolph, the leaders of KIPP New York and the Riverdale Country School, respectively, whose schools are working together to create a character report card. In her chess classes at IS 318, Elizabeth Spiegel often conveyed specific chess knowledge: how to spot the difference between the exchange Slav opening and the semi-Slav; how to weigh the comparative value of your light-square bishop and your dark-square bishop. But most of the time, it struck me whenever I watched her at work, what she was really doing was far simpler, and also far more complicated: she was teaching her students a new way to think. “Teaching chess is really about teaching the habits that go along with thinking,” Spiegel explained to me one morning when I visited her classroom. “Like how to understand your mistakes and how to be more aware of your thought processes.” Before she was a full-time chess teacher at IS 318, Spiegel taught an eighth-grade honors English class at the school, and as an English teacher she was, she says, a bit of a disaster. She taught composition the way she analyzed chess games: When students turned in writing assignments, she went through each assignment sentence by sentence with each student, asking, Well, are you sure that’s the best way to say what you want to say? “They looked at me like I was insane,” she told me. “I would write them these long letters about what they’d written. It would take me the whole evening to do six or seven of them.” Although Spiegel’s teaching style might not have been the right fit with an English class, her experience teaching English did help her understand better what she wanted to do in chess class. Rather than follow a set chess curriculum over the course of the year, she decided she would construct her academic calendar as she went, planning lessons based entirely on what her students knew and, more important, on what they didn’t know. For instance, she would take her students to a weekend tournament and notice that many of them were hanging pieces, meaning they were leaving pieces undefended, which made them easy targets. The following Monday, she would organize the whole class around how not to hang pieces, reconstructing the students’ flawed games on the green felt practice boards hung on hooks at the front of her classroom. Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error. Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at,” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun and often intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t actually translate into skill. If you really want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”
New York

Why I Left My School

New York

An Education Samurai Introduces Herself

Leaving the information technology industry when I was 23 was an easy decision as I had a profound need to do more with my life than make money. I quickly landed a job at Far Rockaway High School with no experience or understanding of where my path would take me except for the idealistic belief that I could help create change. I loved teaching at Far Rockaway for the three years I was there — well, maybe not at first. For the first month of my teaching career, I cried every day, wondering if I made the right choice. The inner-city students I taught tried my patience and heart, testing my commitment, until one day it all changed. Because I was truly concerned for my students, I think my dedication was evident, and after I didn’t run screaming from the building after the first month, the students became protective. And because I had little experience in the classroom, I took advice and help wherever I could get it, letting my natural ability to connect with people and my passion for teaching English come through. With the help of the UFT Teacher Center at my school and several inspirational colleagues, I got involved and learned quickly on the job. Now, 11 years later, I can’t imagine being anything but an educator. It is as much a part of my identity as my role as mother.  In the last decade, I have seen three different schools, six principals, thousands of students and serious change, both positive and disconcerting. My commitment to the education of students hasn’t changed and neither has my willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure my students “get it." Having lived through a number of initiatives the city has imposed (not all bad), I have managed to take what I feel works and leave the rest because I know that “aha” moment is always just a breath away. My humility and curiosity don’t allow me to call myself a master teacher, but it is my goal: to be one of those people whom kids remember for helping them find their voices.
New York

Why Teachers Quit, And Why We Can’t Fire Our Way To Excellence

In the past few weeks, two major reports on teacher turnover and retention have been released. One was rolled out with extensive media coverage, and has been the subject of much discussion among policymakers and education commentators. The other was written by me, along with Teachers College doctoral student Clare Buckley. The first report, “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools,” was prepared by TNTP, an organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project that prepares and provides support for teachers in urban districts, and that advocates for changes in teacher policy. The second, “Thoughts of Leaving: An Exploration of Why New York City Middle School Teachers Consider Leaving Their Classrooms,” was released by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, a nonprofit research group based at New York University. (The research alliance published a report by Will Marinell in February 2011 that examined detailed patterns of teacher turnover in New York City middle schools apparent through the district’s human-resources office.) There are some important similarities between the two new reports. Both surveyed teachers in large urban districts about their plans to stay in their current schools or to depart either for other schools, other districts or other careers. Both also sought to understand the features of teachers’ work on the job that were influential in their plans to stay or leave. The study of New York City relied on a large, anonymous sample of middle-school teachers: roughly 80 percent of the full-time teachers in 125 middle schools across the city. In contrast, the TNTP study surveyed smaller numbers of teachers in four urban districts (one of which appears to be New York City), and the surveys were not anonymous, because TNTP wanted to link teachers’ survey responses to what the authors viewed as measures of teachers’ performance, such as value-added scores or summary teacher evaluations. The headlines from the two studies aren’t that different: In any given school, many teachers think about leaving, and it’s not easy to predict why some teachers are more poised to move than others.
New York

The Emotional Fallout Of Turnaround

Approximately three weeks ago teachers at Flushing High School began interviewing for their current positions at the turnaround school that will replace ours on July 1: Rupert B. Thomas Academy at Flushing Campus. In addition to preparing students for Regents exams and calculating final grades, my colleagues were working nonstop to gather portfolio materials and letters of recommendations for the reapplication process. Some had interviews during their lunch or prep periods while others still have yet to interview. Conversations around this time of the year generally include happy sentiments about completing another year, but this time it was, “Did you go yet? What did they ask? How did you do?” Colleagues who have successfully held their positions for anywhere from five to 30 years were dressed in their best business attire, pacing nervously in front of the conference room where the interviews were taking place. The interview committee has consisted of the new principal for the new school, two representatives for the UFT, two representatives of the city Department of Education, one parent, and a current assistant principal. The steps leading up to our current situation thus far have left the entire staff (and student body) extremely jaded. We all believe that there is no logic to the entire process and that the DOE had already predetermined who they will be hiring back, and most of us believed that salary would be a big factor. (For each teacher, the city charges schools the average salary of all of the school's teachers, so principals have a financial incentive to hire less experienced teachers when possible.)
New York

Reflecting On A Year Of Blended Learning

Some of the city's "turnaround" schools, including the one where I work, are listing knowledge or willingness to learn about using a blended learning instructional models as a criterion for hiring teachers. That's because we are participating in the iLearn NYC program, a Department of Education initiative to support blended learning throughout the city. The initiative gives schools access to online content from various providers at a reduced cost; a learning management system to host online courses; and professional development, technical support, and training. The term “blended learning” caused a great deal of head-scratching among some staff members in my school as I'm sure it did in other turnaround schools. As the iLearn coordinator for my school, I offered answers to any questions teachers might have and there were many. Some people dismissed blending learning, regarding it as having little educational value, while others expressed fear that the model threatens the teaching profession. Many other teachers were interested to know more. I thought it worthwhile to share my experience and perspective on blended learning for others who might have similar concerns and questions. Blended learning, simply defined as a combination of face to face and online instruction, is a pedagogical model that is often and easily misunderstood. It can mean many different things to different educators and usually it means nothing at all to most.  Though it is a term creeping into the ever-expanding teacher lexicon, it remains meaningless to many because it is a pedagogical strategy that is not yet widely in use. When teachers do know what blending learning is, they can easily misunderstand it because it can take many different forms and have many different uses. When I have answered my colleagues' questions, I have told them exactly what I know: that blended learning that is not managed ethically can be damaging, but that strong teachers can use blended learning to help all students in new ways.
New York

Going The Extra Mile

A few weeks ago, a parent sent a note to my principal. In part it said, “Ms. Whitehouse is an asset to your school. I only wish there were more teachers like her who would go the extra mile for the kids.” I was touched by this mother’s kind words and the thoughtfulness displayed in taking the time to compose and send the note, particularly in the current teacher-bashing atmosphere. The note worked also made me think about that “extra mile” — who runs it and how far it actually is. Every morning several teachers arrive at school by 7 a.m. (We’d arrive earlier but we are not allowed inside the building until then.) We prepare for our day by organizing lesson resources. We make copies (when the copy machine is working) and put notes on the board. We grade homework and analyze data. We fill out paperwork, plan trips and clean desks with anti-bacterial wipes. Some of us water plants, read professional materials, or prepare our bulletin boards. (That feels like a mile.) A little before 8 a.m., the “show” begins and until 3 p.m. it is a whirlwind of lessons and assessments, student conferences, planning, and duty in the yard, bathroom and cafeteria. Many of us skip “duty-free” lunch to run detention, tutor students or attend meetings. (That’s at least two miles, isn’t it? Cause I’m winded.) When the students leave, our day is not done. Teacher “milers” stay behind to straighten up, review supply needs, gather original materials that need to be copied, and reflect on the day’s lessons or a student’s errant behavior. We look over students’ work and think how best to address their deficits and highlight their strengths. We assess ourselves and redesign our lessons. We make phone calls to parents. Sometimes we speak with colleagues about upcoming tests, lessons, trips, or activities. Often we seek advice from a more seasoned teacher. Some of us attend professional development or college after school. For instance, several evenings a week, Ms. Lichtman takes classes which keep her away from home until 9:30 p.m. (That’s definitely got to be a couple of miles.)
New York

Are We Failing Gym Or Is Gym Failing Us?

New York

Four Years To Reverse A Bad Decision?

New York

Researcher: Gentrification can turn into school integration

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the second installment, Jennifer Stillman presents her research into racially diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Stillman, a research analyst for the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, earned a doctorate in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She lives in Harlem. Leave questions for Stillman about her research in the comments section.  What questions guided your research?  I researched the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods because I think school integration remains an important societal goal, despite the dismantling of racial integration programs across the nation. Gentrifying neighborhoods seem full of potential. I wanted to figure out how a school without any white, middle-class families goes through the process of integration. What does it take to attract the first white families to a school in a gentrifying neighborhood? And the next wave? And the next? Why do these families stay or go? Is there a point at which we can say the school has successfully integrated? My research question was one of process, not outcomes, relying on existing literature that links integration with positive effects. I am a “gentry parent” myself (which I define as white, middle and upper-middle class, highly educated parents who are gentrifying a neighborhood with their presence and wealth), and I understand why neighborhood gentrification is controversial.