teaching teaching

How three veteran New York City educators are trying to change the way math teachers are trained

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

For years, Peter Cipparone and Kim Van Duzer taught math next door to each other at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn. And while they each puzzled over how to convey the power of fractions to fourth graders, they almost never compared notes.

So, about two years ago, they did something obvious yet surprisingly uncommon: They observed each other’s classes and had conversations about what they saw.

“We learned a lot from watching each other teach,” Cipparone said. “That seems like a very simple practice, but it’s amazing how rare that is.”

The pair found their conversations so useful that they helped start NYC Math Lab, a program designed to give more teachers a chance to watch each other teach elementary math, and improve their instruction by discussing what they saw.

The idea behind the math lab is to break down some of the barriers that can get in the way of that kind of teacher training: Coordinating schedules, finding a group of students who are available to be observed over several days, and perhaps most importantly, overcoming the tradition of classrooms being closed to outsiders.

“At first we were really nervous – teaching is so private,” recalls Van Duzer of her first experiences teaching for an audience of peers.

Based on a successful first run last summer, the program is gearing up for its second year and is accepting applications for 25 teachers to participate this July. But its founders hope to expand the number of teachers who participate in the future – by moving to a larger space or running new labs – to encourage more teacher training that includes live observation and analysis.

“Sometimes I go to [professional development] sessions where there are no kids and I go back to my classroom and it doesn’t go so well,” Van Duzer said. At the math lab, she notes, “If it doesn’t work, we’re going to tinker with it.”

The lab isn’t just about helping teachers, though – its founders are trying to excite students who may have been told they’re not good at math. All of the students who participate in the math lab do so as part of an existing summer program offered by the Hudson Guild, a community based organization that serves low-income families.

“In society, there [have] been fairly clear messages about who can and can’t do math,” Cipparone said. “And this breaks down that stereotype effect.”

Cipparone, Van Duzer, and Kate Abell, a veteran New York City teacher who helps coordinate teacher training throughout the city, founded the program in part to promote a less traditional way of teaching math. Instead of thinking about math as a series of procedures that have to be memorized and applied, they construct lessons that require students to understand and debate fundamental concepts and speak up when they don’t get it.

Participating teachers shared their thoughts on last summer's math lab.
PHOTO: NYC Math Lab
Participating teachers shared their thoughts on last summer’s math lab.

In one typical lesson, for instance, students are given a series of differently sized wooden rods and asked to assemble them on a number line. Then, they’re tasked with having a conversation about which rods represent what fraction of the line and must defend their answers.

“Math teaching can be very oriented around, ‘Did you get it right? And if not, then you don’t get it,’” Van Duzer said. “We tell them, ‘In this community, it has to make sense to you.’”

The lab follows the same structure each day. Teachers spend the morning going over a lesson plan, working through the problems they’ll be asking students tackle. Next, the lab’s three founders rotate teaching that day’s two hour teaching block while the other 25 teachers sit around the perimeter and watch students work through the lesson.

The full group of teachers spend the afternoon reviewing each student’s work, analyzing the lesson, and making suggestions to improve the next day’s teaching. Finally, they talk about how students’ ideas about math develop in relation to Common Core standards.

Later in the week, the teacher observers can work one-on-one with students to focus on each student’s thinking, something that is often difficult in the context of a typical class period.

The idea of public teaching as a way of improving instruction was directly inspired by the Elementary Mathematics Lab at the University of Michigan, which helped pioneer the model over a decade ago (and where Cipparone is currently working on a doctorate).

[Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green has written extensively about the history of teacher training, including Michigan’s math lab. You can find a Q&A with her here.]

But according to Nicole Garcia, who directs the university’s math lab, the New York lab is the first known offshoot of their model.

“I think it’s amazing to see somebody take up this work and try to bring it to their own context,” Garcia said. “It is a little bit surprising that there aren’t more efforts to do this kind of work.”

Figuring out whether the New York math lab is actually having an effect on the way its participants teach is a challenging question, its founders note, and one they’re trying to address. For the first time this year, they received a $6,000 grant to track participating teachers before and after the lab to see how their instruction changes.

Still, they acknowledge that the math lab isn’t about disseminating one correct teaching method that everyone is supposed to adopt – it’s about having conversations that can make teachers more thoughtful educators.

“We are not saying this is model teaching,” Cipparone said. “We’re saying this is teaching for all of us to study.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”