How I Teach

It’s not just about getting the right answer: How a fifth-grade teacher pushes her students in math class

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Nicole Lent is a math coach at P.S. 294, which has departmentalized the subject.

At P.S. 294 in the Bronx, math is often a matter of debate.

In Nicole Lent’s fifth-grade class, groups of students take turns explaining how they solved the math problem of the day, respectfully disagreeing or enthusiastically lending support to their classmates’ arguments.

Lent floats around the room, asking probing questions but stopping short of revealing the right answer — opting to let students figure it out together instead.

“I always thought you had to teach the easiest way to just get an answer, and that is not the case,” she said. “I wasn’t giving them the opportunity to think critically about the problem and explore it in different ways.”

Lent is one of a team of teachers at P.S. 294, The Walton Avenue School, who focus only on math instruction. The city Department of Education has encouraged elementary schools across the city to take the same approach, called “departmentalization,” as part of its Algebra for All initiative. By placing the most capable teachers in charge of math instruction in fifth grade, the city hopes all students will be able to pass algebra by their first year of high school.

P.S. 294 has embraced the shift, starting departmentalized math instruction even earlier — in third grade. That’s in addition to its discussion-based approach. Lent has had a role of ushering both changes into the classroom.

She began using math debates and discussions after visiting another school that used the same model, and feeling struck by what she saw.

“I just remember going to those classrooms and thinking it was the coolest thing to see kids having a discussion,” about math. “I was just like, ‘How do I get my kids to do that?’”

The answer came through professional training offered by the city, along with picking and choosing the teaching resources that worked best for her needs. Soon, Lent’s new method spread throughout the school.

Now, half her time is spent in the classroom, and the rest of her day is spent working with her fellow math teachers as an instructional coach. She visits classrooms and regularly welcomes teachers into her own, all in an effort to provide constructive feedback, troubleshoot lessons and perfect new teaching strategies.

“It’s a different type of rewarding experience than working with children, but you see the same kind of growth,” she said. “We’re always working together to drive our instruction.”

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I never saw myself at a desk job where every day was the same. The great thing about teaching is that every day is different and truly rewarding, as you get to see your students grow and show progress over an extended period of time.

What does your classroom look like?

The students are the focal point of the room. You won’t find a teacher’s desk in my room. Around the perimeter are bookshelves containing student supplies … and “anchor charts” for students to reference … One example of an anchor chart would be to have the steps to adding fractions with unlike denominators, with the example of each step written out.

Students are permitted to get up at any time to access the supplies they need without asking for permission. We have set the expectation that they are in charge of their own learning and can self-assess when they need a resource to help them persevere through math tasks.

You had to learn a whole new way to teach math. What was the hardest thing about making that shift?

The hardest thing for me when making the shift from a teacher-led classroom to an approach that’s based on student inquiry and discussion was a shift in teacher mindset so as not to associate student conversation with off-task behavior.

What advice would you give to school leaders or teachers who might be considering departmentalizing math instruction?

I would advise them to start small and pilot departmentalizing on one grade first to see if it’s something they want to invest in doing at additional grade levels. We did this at P.S. 294, when I taught fourth grade last year, and it was very successful. We were able to work out any challenges and adjust what was necessary because we started small. At P.S. 294, we are now departmentalized on grades 3-5 for both [English Language Arts] and math. Teachers now receive the support they need and are focused on the content area they teach and have become true experts in their practices.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my _____________.

I couldn’t teach without my computer because technology now plays a crucial role in education. Without my computer I wouldn’t be able to play instructional videos for my visual learners or have students come up to the Promethean board (an electronic whiteboard) and manipulate math content, which plays a pivotal role in assisting them in understanding math content.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach this year was on division of fractions. I always thought we had to teach it using the strategy I learned as a child known as “keep, change, flip.” That’s a strategy used to solve an expression such as 1/4 divided by 3. You would keep the fraction, change the sign from division to multiplication, and flip the whole number from 3 to a fraction of 1/3. The quotient is 1/12.

I didn’t know exactly why this strategy works, I just knew it did.

After attending one of the Algebra for All professional developments last summer, I learned from a colleague at another school how to use visual models: We draw three “wholes” and divide each whole into fourths. The quotient is one piece out of the twelve total pieces you have from all three models (wholes you drew). We ask the students to think about the question: “How many fourths fit in three?” When it came time for me to teach them to my students this year, I knew exactly how to show them to divide fractions by whole numbers and by fractions in a purposeful and meaningful way.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

After a quick check for understanding that takes place after my mini-lesson, students who don’t understand my lesson meet in a small group with me on the carpet, while the rest of the students engage in differentiated math tasks on their level independently at their seats. During this time, I reteach students using a different method than the first time. This includes the use of manipulatives, instructional videos, and whiteboard work. Once I re-teach the concept using a different strategy, I conduct another quick check to see if they mastered the concept, and if so, they then go off independently to try some math tasks on their own.

How do you see your role as an instructional coach? What do you think is the most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice?

My role as an instructional coach is to build capacity across the school in the area of math instruction. Ultimately this means pushing practices down: taking the rigor and instructional approaches used at the 3-5 level and adjusting them to be used at the K-2 level according to the students’ individual needs.

The most effective way to help other teachers improve their practice is to hold debrief sessions following classroom visits, co-teaching sessions, or modeling lessons in their classroom, and providing actionable feedback that they can implement immediately.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

Oftentimes, it takes some time to realize a student is lost and you don’t know exactly where they began to get lost. To avoid guessing and confusing them some more by repeating the last thing I said, I will restart and go step by step from the beginning while having that student assist me. Engaging the student along with the teacher has been the best strategy because you know they are listening and following along, because they are personally and directly involved with the teacher.

Your school has a common planning period. Has that helped change the way you teach?

Common planning periods bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects.

During a recent common planning session, we had a consultant from Silicon Valley come and teach us about the difference between re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons. Re-teaching lessons teach content again to a group of students who didn’t master it the first time. Re-engagement lessons allow students to work with a task to build mathematical ideas.

He showed us the data surrounding re-teaching vs. re-engagement lessons, which indicated that re-engagement lessons are what build students’ critical thinking skills. I realized that instead of having re-teach lessons built into my math block each day, that it would be much more beneficial to my students to participate in re-engagement tasks more often, as research had shown that that’s what truly pushes their levels.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

A few years back, one of my students who had always been a Level 4 student [top-scoring on state, city and school assessments] started to act out in negative ways, not complete her homework, and be disruptive during lessons. After several warnings, I decided to call home to speak to the parent to notify the parent as to what was going on. As it turned out, this student’s father had recently moved out of state as the parents were getting divorced. Her mother said she was not taking it well and was acting the same way at home.

I asked the student to stay with me during her recess and spoke to her about what was going on at home. After some time, she finally opened up to me and let me know about her parent’s divorce.

We shared our own personal stories, and I was able to connect with my student on a much deeper level, and let her know that I am here for her any times she needs an ear to listen. From that day on, the student confided in me as she needed to and improved her effort and behavior in the classroom.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

A colleague told me that, “As educators, we learn best from our students.” I thought that had been the silliest thing as I had considered myself the head of the classroom who was supposed to know everything. As I began to dive deeper into my career, I couldn’t agree with her more.

My students have taught me that teaching is not black and white. There is no perfect science to it. Everything we do as educators is based off of what our students know and do, resulting in continuous reflections on our own practices. What needs to be modified? What needs to be revisited the following day? What shouldn’t be done anymore? What can I do further to push or help my students? What worked and what didn’t work? [These] are things we reflect about regularly. My students are the reason my toolbox of promising practices is so strong.

To read more stories in the How I Teach series, click here. 

Gifted gap

To integrate specialized high schools, are gifted programs part of the problem or the solution?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, the first citywide gifted and talented program to join the city's diversity efforts, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

As debate has erupted in recent weeks over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to overhaul admissions to the city’s most prestigious specialized high schools, another set of New York City schools are coming under new scrutiny: those that offer gifted and talented programs.

Much like specialized high schools, most gifted and talented programs use only a single test to determine admissions, and black and Hispanic students are starkly underrepresented. The crucial difference is that New York City’s gifted programs begin sorting students when they are as young as 4 years old, paving a reliable path to the city’s most coveted middle and high schools.

Some opponents of the mayor’s plan to scrap the specialized high school admissions exam say the city’s effort to integrate should actually start with gifted and talented programs. But while these parents and alumni groups have lobbied fiercely to keep the specialized high school exam in place, they are calling for a new approach to determining who is “gifted.” 

“This is common sense: How can we compare children who have every advantage to those who are born into the world with severe disadvantages?” a group of black specialized high school alumni recently wrote in an open letter to the chancellor. “The goal should be to make sure that children in every city neighborhood have the same access to the type of education that will prepare them for admission to specialized high schools.”

Many integration advocates similarly take issue with how the city identifies children for gifted and talented programs — but their proposed solution is dramatically different. Rather than an expansion of programs or overhaul of admissions standards, some say gifted programs should be eliminated in favor of classrooms that mix students with varying academic abilities.

“We have to question: What are the educational benefits of these programs? I don’t think there is one, other than to maintain a stratified system,” said Matt Gonzales, an integration advocate who is part of a citywide coalition calling for an end to gifted programs.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who has stepped headfirst into the integration debate since arriving in New York in April, seems willing to consider changes to the gifted and talented program. In a recent report, he pinpointed gifted and talented programs as one of the challenges to “advancing equity and inclusion” in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated.

“We’re working to raise the bar for all kids,” Carranza said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We also have to think about access and barriers to entry, and that includes whether we’re creating unnecessary barriers by tracking students at the age of 4 or 5 years old based on a single test.”

Changing the program in any significant way is sure to create outrage mirroring the controversy that now surrounds specialized high schools. Gifted and talented offerings are often seen as a way to keep middle-class families in public schools, and past attempts to change tests or criteria have led to an outcry.

Any reforms to gifted and talented in the name of equity are also likely to stir complicated arguments around race and class, much like the specialized high school debate has. A disproportionate number of gifted and specialized high school students are Asian, many of whom come from low-income families. Citywide, 16 percent of students are Asian, but they comprise 40 percent of those in gifted programs.

“True inclusion, and true equality, means no one is denied,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, whose district includes heavily Asian neighborhoods in Queens such as Flushing. “I hope the mayor and the public don’t make the mistake of [confusing] the racially balancing of a few schools with racial equality.”

Getting into gifted

Gifted and talented programs in New York date back to the 1920s, and have long been controversial. Some states have laws requiring schools to provide accelerated classrooms for quick learners. New York does not, but gifted and talented programs proliferated under previous Mayor Michael Bloomberg, partly in an attempt to provide access to more students.

Until about 10 years ago, every school district within the city system ran its own gifted and talented programs, each with its own entry criteria. That changed under Bloomberg, who established a common admission standard based on an exam. Officials hoped — despite warnings from some quarters — that holding every student to the same bar would actually promote diversity.

Instead, gifted programs started to disappear in districts where not enough students qualified to fill a classroom.

Today, about 16,000 students citywide attend one of more than 100 gifted programs. While about 70 percent of New York City students are black and Hispanic, those students make up less than a third of enrollment in gifted programs. Specialized high schools are even less representative: only about 10 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

Typically, gifted offerings are housed in separate classrooms within a school, in some cases dividing an otherwise diverse student body along racial and economic lines. Other schools exclusively serve children who have been identified as gifted.

Most children enter gifted programs when they start kindergarten, and admission hinges on the results of a two-part standardized exam. That means many children take the test when they are about four years old. (There is one notable exception: A handful of programs in the city’s neediest districts don’t use the exam, and don’t admit students until third grade.)

As with the specialized high schools, an industry of tutors and test prep have evolved around this admissions process, as parents have learned how to angle for a limited number of spots for their children.

Bright Kids in Manhattan, for example, works with hundreds of families who hope to enroll their children in gifted and talented schools or tracks. Danielle Kelly, director of education for the center, said parents who come to them are often unhappy with their neighborhood school options.

At Bright Kids, practice for the gifted test usually starts the summer during which a child turns 3 years old. The center takes a play-based approach and eases into teaching very young children what to expect come test time: How to sit still, focus for a long period, and listen to directions given by a stranger.

“Kids will come in, they’ll be a little more unsure or hesitant going into our first session, but that does not mean they’re not capable,” Kelly said. “Just that little extra bit of exposure in this type of environment can make a huge difference for kids.”

The gifted and talented test consists of two parts and is meant to gauge verbal and nonverbal skills. To determine how well students follow directions, a child might be given a set of multiple cues, like “point to the square between the circle and the triangle,” Kelly said. There are “very early math skills” that are also evaluated, she added, such as understanding when a value is greater than, less than, or equal to another.

“It’s really not anything they may have seen in school before,” Kelly said, referring to pre-school.

Just as some say about  specialized high schools, many gifted critics say that segregation within these programs can be traced back to the single entrance exam. Rather than selecting for intelligence or ability, the test effectively screens for families who have the time, resources, and know-how to prepare their children and navigate the admissions system, said Allison Roda, a professor of education at Molloy College who has studied New York City’s gifted programs extensively. Only 34 percent of students in gifted programs come from low-income families, compared with 74 percent citywide.

“We’re not identifying gifted students,” Roda said. “We’re identifying advantaged students, based on their parents’ education levels, their income levels, their access to information and what they’ve been exposed to with preschools and test prep.”

In fact, some private schools have scrapped their entrance exams, saying that extensive prepping had made them meaningless. Roda’s research suggests that some parents of color are similarly skeptical about test prep. In conversations with 50 public school parents, Roda found that black and Hispanic families saw test prep as “gaming” the system. Having to prepare for the exam meant your child wasn’t really gifted, they explained.

On the other hand, white families saw such efforts as a mark of good parenting. For them, getting into gifted programs paved the way to an elite education.

“They saw it was putting their child on a path — the right path — for the better middle schools, and high schools, and colleges,” Roda said.

The gifted pipeline 

Specialized high school alumni recognize this pipeline of feeder schools and have latched onto it to fight against de Blasio’s plan. Advocates such as members of the Stuyvesant High School Black Alumni Diversity Initiative, a group of specialized high school graduates pushing for more student diversity, say that integration efforts should start as early as possible. That means taking a critical look at selective “screened” programs such as gifted and talented, they argue, which are in short supply in some of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

“We believe that academic talent exists in every community in the city, and we want to see the [Department of Education] take responsibility for identifying and nurturing it,” members wrote in a recent open letter to the new chancellor.

Gifted programs feed into specialized schools in a few ways. Technically the city doesn’t have gifted programs in middle schools. But some elementary schools that serve exclusively gifted children run through the eighth grade — or even high school. This creates a de facto gifted middle school, since once enrolled, families can then choose to remain (and many do). Other middle schools enjoy a reputation for being akin to gifted and talented offerings because they have strict entrance criteria, sometimes requiring a top score on their own tests.

These middle schools, in turn, feed an outsized share of their students into the specialized high schools.

At the Anderson School in Manhattan, all but one eighth-grade student took the specialized high school entrance exam this year, and 76 percent of these test-takers were offered admission. At the 30th Avenue School in northwest Queens, more than 63 percent of eighth-graders received an acceptance offer. Both schools have Gifted and Talented programs in the lower grades that are among the most selective. Students from across the city can apply, but since demand is so high, typically only those who score in the top 1 percent on the standard gifted exam are admitted.

Knowing this, alumni groups representing the specialized high schools and some elected officials say the best way to integrate the city’s selective high schools is to focus on enrolling more black and Hispanic students in gifted and talented programs at an earlier stage.

“That’s where we begin the segregation, because we’re not giving those academically talented kids the opportunity to grow,” said Samuel Adewumi, an alum of Brooklyn Technical, a specialized high school where he now teaches. He also runs a test prep company that helps students of color get into the city’s specialized high schools.  

Along with a dramatic expansion, Adewumi and other alumni say the city needs to overhaul admissions. They say the city should consider going back to an approach that resembles the old model, where bright kids in every community are offered an advanced course of study — without having to compete against a citywide norm.

“Kids who are in accelerated programs will ultimately do better than kids who are not in accelerated programs,” Adewumi said.

The city has taken some steps in that direction, opening new gifted programs in districts that had gone years without. Those programs start in third grade, and admission is based on a combination of teacher recommendations and report card grades. In those classes, 85 percent of next year’s students will be black or Hispanic, according to the education department.

Other efforts, however, have focused on expanding access to the gifted and talented test. In some of the city’s poorest districts, which also enroll the most black and Hispanic students, the number of children taking the exam is miniscule.

In District 32, for example, only 75 students took the gifted test this year, even though 700 kindergarteners were enrolled there last year. From this tiny subset of students, only seven scored high enough to earn a spot in a gifted and talented program. The district spans Bushwick and the tip of Bedford-Stuyvesant and is about 95 percent black and Hispanic.

Many elected officials, including the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, and borough presidents Eric Adams and Ruben Diaz, have called on the education department to administer the gifted test to all pre-K students. It’s an expensive tactic, but it has shown promise elsewhere: When schools in Broward County, Florida, offered universal testing, the share of black and Hispanic students identified as gifted tripled.

An alternative: scrapping gifted

Faced with such dismal numbers year after year, some integration advocates have called on the city to end gifted and talented programs entirely. They point to research that shows mixing students by academic ability generally benefits all involved (though some studies on that issue are mixed.)

What is more clear in the research: Racial and economic integration can boost critical thinking, help raise more tolerant students, and produce academic gains for students most likely to be harmed by segregation.

Armed with such findings, some integration advocates have called on the city to explicitly focus on mixing students with different academic abilities, and not just based on race or income status. That was the kind of thinking that contributed to a recent integration plan for middle schools in District 3, which spans the Upper West Side and part of Harlem. Starting next year, the district’s schools will seek to enroll a mix of students based, in part, on their report card grades and student test scores. And in District 15, which includes Park Slope and Sunset Park in Brooklyn, community members have recommended eliminating selective screening entirely from the middle school admissions process.

Some say it’s time to take a similar approach to gifted programs.

“It always goes back to: We’re separating kids,” Roda said. “Is that what we want to do, especially when our schools are segregated?”

Regents retreat

Regents use annual retreat to take stock of changes in testing, charter schools and more

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York State’s top education policymakers took a whirlwind tour Monday of their own accomplishments this year, kicking off a two-day retreat full of presentations and updates.

The briefings, conducted by top education department officials, served as a distillation of some top policy goals among the Board of Regents: rolling back graduation requirements, creating new graduation pathways, cutting back on state testing, and even rethinking how the board evaluates the charter schools it oversees.

Monday’s discussions largely tread on familiar territory, but here are three of the key issues they discussed.

Testing

New York State continues to be a hotbed of controversy surrounding testing, with roughly one in five students opting out of the 3-8 math and reading exams in recent years (the number is far smaller in New York City).

In response to concerns about the length of the exams, the Regents reduced the number of testing days for each exam from three to two — a change that went into effect this year. Education officials touted those changes Monday while stressing that they have gone out of their way to involve educators in the process of crafting exam questions.

“One of the things I believe is a major adjustment in New York is the extent to which teachers across New York are involved,” state education MaryEllen Elia told the board, noting that 75 percent of the test questions are released to the public. “We have to constantly be asking ourselves what can we do better.”

Still, some Regents continued to express concerns about the exams, including whether they are fair to English learners, and whether the tests themselves help perpetuate disparities.

“What research is used about what’s developmentally appropriate?” Regent Judith Johnson asked. “Is it possible to have a test question that is culturally neutral?”

Charter schools

The Regents are currently discussing changes to the way they evaluate the charter schools they oversee, including taking a deeper look at suspension rates compared to traditional district schools, and tracking why students leave.

“There are charter chains that might have 25 percent of the students when they first started and they’re claiming great growth,” Regent Kathleen Cashin said during Monday’s discussion, adding that questions about why students leave shouldn’t be “buried.”

The discussion highlights a tension in the board’s discussion of the publicly funded, privately managed schools. On the one hand, board members are often quite critical — worrying some within the charter sector. But on the other hand, they have still approved large batches of new charters, including at their most recent meeting.

And the debate will continue in the fall: The Regents are expected to consider a proposal for changing the way charter schools are evaluated at their September meeting.

Students with disabilities

The board also heard from state officials about efforts to improve access to programs for students with disabilities, including those in preschool.

As Chalkbeat has previously reported, there is a shortage of seats for preschool special education students — with students often languishing at home without education services, a problem that advocates say has only gotten worse. Part of the issue, officials say, is they don’t have a way of quickly tracking supply and demand for those programs, which are often provided by private organizations.

Instead, state officials rely on phone calls and informal surveys, which can make it difficult for officials to quickly respond to shortages. Now, state officials are in the process of implementing a new data system for tracking students and open seats.

“We need to move from our current reactive system,” Christopher Suriano, an assistant commissioner of special education told the board. “We have to start reacting proactively to make sure we have capacity.”

Grab bag

  • The Regents spent some time talking about how to measure “civic readiness” which will be a component of how schools are judged under the state’s ESSA plan.
  • New data released by state officials shows that at least 500 students with disabilities graduated this year as part of a new policy that lets superintendents review their performance in lieu of passing all of the Regents exams. Though officials cautioned that the data are preliminary, and the number is likely to increase, that’s up from 315 students during the previous year.