getting to the core

Newly hatched Common Core curriculums get city endorsement

For the first time since 2003, the Department of Education has revised its curriculum recommendations for schools.

The new recommendations are meant to guide schools through the myriad curriculum options on the market to those that best reflect new learning standards known as the Common Core. Students across the state are set to take math and reading tests aligned to the tougher new standards in April.

After scrutinizing 40 programs produced by 19 companies that met the city’s basic standards, teachers and Department of Education officials endorsed elementary and middle school reading and math programs from three of the largest publishing companies, including Pearson, which is also producing the state tests. The city is also encouraging schools to consider adopting literacy curriculums that the state hired two nonprofit organizations, Core Knowledge and Expeditionary Learning, to produce.

Schools don’t have to take the department’s advice. They can use other curriculum programs, including the ones that they have already been using, or create their own materials. Currently, about 70 percent of schools opt to use the city’s recommended curriculums, which for most schools were originally required a decade ago in one of former chancellor Joel Klein’s earliest initiatives.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew, who has criticized the city and state for holding teachers accountable for adapting to the Common Core without giving them a curriculum based on the standards, said today’s announcement represented a major step forward.

“While it comes too late to help the kids for this year’s tests, the DOE’s announcement is a welcome acknowledgment that teachers need curriculum that will help their students meet the demands of tests based on the new Common Core standards,” Mulgrew said. But he said the union worried about the materials’ costs, quality, and availability in time for the new school year.

Department officials said they had considered those issues and addressed them. The programs that the city is endorsing were screened precisely for their quality and availability, they said, and purchasing them likely won’t cost schools more than they would spend on curriculum materials anyway.

The estimated $56 million price tag, which would be covered by a mixture of state textbook funding and city funds, is about the same that schools typically spend on similar curriculum materials, according to Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer. The money would go to Pearson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Scholastic, the three corporations that produced the recommended curriculums.

In contrast, the state is using federal Race to the Top funds to produce its materials in-house. “The city is going to be purchasing content curriculum from vendors, and while I applaud them, I want everyone to know who’s listening here or across New York State, that if you simply cannot afford to buy curriculum from Pearson, there is content and curriculum available free to every person in this state,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said today at a forum about the Common Core.

But the state is providing only some of the materials schools would need to adopt its recommended curriculum options. The state has published the reading list for the Core Knowledge elementary school literacy program, for example, but schools would still have to buy the books and print the worksheets. “You can imagine the challenges just in the photocopying,” said Josh Thomases, the department’s deputy academic officer.

Principals have already gotten warnings that they should plan to devote their state textbook funds next year — about $60 per student — to Common Core-aligned materials. This week’s department newsletter told them to pour their remaining funds for this year into materials for other subjects.

Among the biggest advantages of the city’s recommended programs is that they will be ready in time for teachers to familiarize themselves with the materials before school resumes in September. The state’s curriculum materials won’t be complete until at least the end of the year.

“We think the sample units we’ve seen are really strong,” Polakow-Suransky said about the state’s materials. But he said, “In terms of schools making decisions and planning and preparing for next school year, it’s tricky to go with that timeline.”

Starting next week, the department will introduce principals to the new options. Later in March, the department will share its analysis of where curriculums that schools are already using match the standards, and where they fall short. Then, in April, schools will send teams to a citywide fair where curriculum providers hawk their products. By the end of May, schools will have made their purchasing decisions for next year, and in June, some of the materials are set to start arriving. Training will start over the summer and last into the school year.

Those materials were heavily influenced by the city’s own standards and by a 30-district pact not to buy curriculum materials unless they are truly aligned to the Common Core, Thomases said. In math, he said, the department was looking for fewer topics and an especially strong foundation in fractions. In reading, it wanted materials that included both fiction and non-fiction and required students to read texts multiple times, he said. In both subjects, the department was especially eager to identify curriculums that are versatile enough for New York City’s diverse student population.

Scholastic’s Codex program, which the department is recommending for middle school English classes, does a particularly good job of introducing vocabulary in a way that would be useful for English language learners, according to Nancy Gannon, executive director of the department’s Office of Academic Quality.

The department did not recommend any curriculum materials for high schools because a search did not turn up anything up to par, Polakow-Suransky said. But he said there was less urgency to roll out new materials in high schools because their exams are not yet being introduced. The first high school test to be tied to the Common Core will be ninth-grade algebra, next year.

At M.S. 244 in the Bronx, lead math teacher Scott Gallagher said he used an older version of the city’s new middle school math recommendations 10 years ago. “I can see why they’re recommending it for the Common Core,” Gallagher said today. “It emphasizes problem-solving as opposed to practicing math skills.”

“I definitely would be interested in revisiting,” Gallagher said. He said his teachers have found it challenging to cobble together Common Core-aligned material for every subject from different sources. It has been easy to find material on some topics — such as ratios and proportions — but harder for others, he said.

“If they have something that’s comprehensive and coherent under one program, that would make it more coherent for teachers and students,” he said about what the department is recommending.

But Polakow-Suransky said trading up to a curriculum that’s more closely aligned to the Common Core would not propel a struggling school to success by itself.

“Curriculum is not a magic bullet,” he said. “You can find plenty of schools across the country and plenty of districts across the country that have great curriculum, and kids don’t do well.”

He added, “It’s an important resource but let’s not overstate it either. It’s one of the pieces of the puzzle that’s going to be helpful as we make this transition.”


How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”

behind the music

‘We just wanted to help the movement’: Meet the NYC teacher whose students wrote a #NeverAgain anthem

PHOTO: Kyle Fackrell

Among the many creative displays of protest that stood out during Wednesday’s national student protest against gun violence was an original song by Staten Island students: “The truth: We need change.”

The song, uploaded to YouTube Wednesday morning, features John W. Lavelle Preparatory Charter School students in a soaring anti-gun counterpoint, led by seniors Jerramiah Jean-Baptiste and Aeva Soler.

“Don’t run away from the truth,” Soler sings during one exchange. “If we don’t act now, what should we do?”

Jean-Baptiste picks up where she leaves off: “We need change in this time of doom. It shouldn’t be the case that we’re losing lives too soon. I shouldn’t feel afraid inside my school. We need change.”

We checked in with Kyle Fackrell, Lavelle Prep’s longtime music teacher, who has worked with Jean-Baptiste, Soler, and their classmates for nearly five years, since their introductory eighth-grade music class. Here’s what he told us about the song, his students, and their ambitions.

How the song came to be: “I knew that my students were very passionate about this subject. When I learned about the walkout coming up and that it would be coming up soon, I was aware of these students and their songwriting abilities, and I suggested the idea of writing a song. They really just ran with it.”

What the process was like: “We’ve worked together a lot and have made a lot of music together. When I proposed this idea it was like clockwork. It was really exciting to see how fast Jerramiah could come up with the ideas.”

On the students’ goals: “We just wanted to help the movement. I was having that conversation with my students today, should the song get the success we hope it gets, that would be great, but really want we to maintain our genuine interest in making a difference with the song. I’m just supporting them.”

What the reaction has been: “It’s been very positive. … Everyone who hears the song is blown away. It really is thanks to the talent of the young students that I’m blessed to be helping them develop.”

On what motivates his students: “None of them were coming at it from knowing people who were in a shooting. They’re just very aware and intelligent students. I think the point that the students in Florida are making is that a lot of people underestimate kids and youth, and I think these students are also underestimated — about how much they are aware of what’s going on in the world, and that they should have a say.”