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Exploring ways to write about classroom instruction

I wrote a story on small changes to New York State’s mathematics teaching and learning standards, and it quickly became one of our most viewed stories ever.

This was a big surprise. The story is not especially sexy or political, but it is one of just a few journalistic looks at a national education policy that impacts teachers in almost every state: the adoption of the Common Core Standards. The lede and nut graphs are below:

This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.

Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state’s learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.

"A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade," Xuereb said. "I feel that I’m going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps."

New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them.

Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core’s long-overdue rigor. But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially.

(Read the rest here)

Since becoming an education reporters, I’ve found one of the toughest parts of the job is writing about classroom instruction. I’m not trained to observe teachers or judge their methods and I’ve never taught, so I’m trying to find creative ways to tell readers, many of whom are teachers, what others are doing in the classroom.

Here’s another recent attempt—a “live-blog” of an eighth grade math class, with corresponding commentary from the teacher, who recapped the lesson with me after class.

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Life in two cities

The writer Thomas Beller knows how I feel. He splits his time between New York City, the place he calls home, and New Orleans, the place where he has a house.

I split my time between Chicago—my first love, the place of dozens of friendships, loves, memories, streets and storefronts that would embrace me if they could—and New York City, ostensibly my home because it’s where I have an apartment, a job, a hopeful future.

When I am here, I am straining to meet professional expectations and embody the lifestyle traits of other college-educated 20-something women. It’s the fabled Big City life you can see mocked and aggrandized everywhere on TV right now.

When I am there, everyone wants to know how long I’ve been there, when I’m leaving, whether I have time for coffee or lunch or something else. I never have enough time but there’s always another visit lurking two to eight weeks around the corner. One friend says he sees me more now that I’ve moved out. (Maybe that’s just because I really like his company).

Beller gets it (From the NYTimes magazine):

The question, “Are you still here?” made me feel like I was being rushed at a nice restaurant. If you divide your time between two distant points on a map, “here” is a loaded word. …

The first notable, strange thing about living in two places is that whenever you are “here,” you carry within you a “there.”…

The new Yorkers miss us at first when we leave, and greet us warmly when we return. In between, they have lives of which we are not part. Did they think of us any less than they would have if we were 20 blocks away? Maybe not, because we are still in touch by phone and email, and actually seeing someone is a rare occurrence. But maybe yes. Without really noticing the change, my wife and I had come to look at our New York friendships as hothouse flowers, lovely indulgences in need of sun and water.

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Story: Facing outcry from educators, Kenneth Cole to remove billboard

I’m happy if the stories I write help readers think differently or more deeply about a subject—whether it’s a school, a neighborhood or a policy issue. But usually the impact is invisible.

Less so with the piece I wrote last week about a clothing billboard ad near Harlem. The response to the billboard, and my story, from hundreds of educators, union leaders and advocates prompted the clothing company to remove the ad

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View from the 15th floor of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL. Taken last week on my lovely trip home to Chicago.

View from the 15th floor of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, IL. Taken last week on my lovely trip home to Chicago.

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Story: In pursuit of college readiness, a course about “Assimilation”

Mitch Kurz is a math teacher and a college counselor, but the lessons he teaches don’t fall neatly into either subject area.

He and I spoke recently for a story I wrote for GothamSchools about the college readiness class he teaches at a small, South Bronx public school:

"On a recent winter morning, Kurz asked students in his college readiness class to describe their dreams. On the board, he wrote, “What do your dreams mean?” followed by “Sigmund Freud” and a list of vocabulary words more typical of a Psychology 101 class: id, ego, superego.

Most of Kurz’s two dozen South Bronx juniors and seniors had not heard of these concepts before. But after a semester learning a hodgepodge of lessons from Kurz meant to ease the transition to college — covering everything from the dreidel game, to basic French, to the elevator pitch — students say they come into class expecting the unfamiliar.

The class, which Kurz calls “Assimilation,” is meant to ease the transition to college for students at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a small school with many poor students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The school emphatically urges all graduates to enroll in college, and the vast majority do — but they suffer the same academic and financial challenges that low-income, first-generation students often face. Nationally, 89 percent of those students who enter college leave without a degree within six years.”

Increasing students’ likelihood of graduating from college has emerged as a major frontier in education policy. The city’s approach is to toughen high school preparation so students have a better shot of handling the rigor of college-level work. Others, such as the KIPP network of charter schools, believe the problem lies more in students’ capacity to handle challenges and have developed programs to bolster traits such as resilience and “grit” that seem correlated with college success.

At Kurz’s school, academic standards are important, and so is character. But Kurz adds an additional approach.

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Story: Software-themed school aims to replicate Stuy curriculum for all

Computers are cool now, right? This is what the venture capitalist Fred Wilson asked me this last week, when I interviewed him about his ambitious plans to recreate the rigorous Stuyvesant High School computer science curriculum in a new, software engineering-themed public school opening this fall. Unlike Stuy, which is a hyper competitive specialized school, the Academy for Software Engineering will be “limited unscreened” which is basically education jargon for “open to any student, regardless of their academic performance.”

In Room 307 of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, 23 students spent a recent afternoon copying tables and number trees representing a mathematical problem-solving technique used in graphic design computer software.

The students, who all won admission to Stuyvesant by posting top scores on an entrance exam, listened raptly as their teacher, Mike Zamansky, walked them through the complex algorithm behind “seam-carving,” a process used in resizing images. Then Zamansky checked to make sure they understood.

“No problem? Seems reasonable? or ‘Huh’?” he asked, offering students the chance to signal by a show of thumbs whether they understood or needed more help. No one pointed a thumb down.

Zamansky has been teaching computer science since 1995, through a program he designed for students to follow from sophomore to senior year. Stuyvesant’s program is the only rigorous computer science sequence in the city’s public schools and one of the few in the country.

Now it is the inspiration behind a new city high school that aims to change that.

Founded by an influential venture capitalist with deep ties to the technology industry and a young principal fresh from the city’s training program, the Academy for Software Engineering will be the city’s first school to focus on software engineering. The goal is to extend the approach of Zamansky’s classes — which teach problem-solving, network communications, and programming language literacy — to any student in the city, even if they can’t make the cut for Stuyvesant or don’t even have a computer at home.

Read the rest here.

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Experimenting with Storify as archive for live-tweets

This afternoon I created a Storify account for GothamSchools to archive my live-tweets from the March 1 Panel for Educational Policy meeting. I embedded it on the GS website, and here after the jump.

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Last week I went to a literary celebration hosted by the Rumpus and Housing Works Books. I act very awkward around great authors, but I was still able to get a few books signed. You Must Go and Win was the first book I bought and read in New York City this summer, and its story of Alina Simone’s move to the city to pursue an indie music career oddly comforted me at the time.

Last week I went to a literary celebration hosted by the Rumpus and Housing Works Books. I act very awkward around great authors, but I was still able to get a few books signed. You Must Go and Win was the first book I bought and read in New York City this summer, and its story of Alina Simone’s move to the city to pursue an indie music career oddly comforted me at the time.

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Two pretty things

1.) I was inspired to make my first purchase on Etsy after I saw a photo on Facebook of this screenprint hanging in an acquaintance’s home:

It reads “Attention Customers, An Inbound Train Toward the Loop Will Be Arriving Shortly,” over a Chicago Transit Authority El train. It’s hanging in my living room now.

2.) A friend—or rather, the loved one of a loved one—handmade this leather bracelet and matching key chain for me to mail to another loved one. It’s a Happy Valentine’s Day—Happy Birthday—Get Well Soon, Dear—present compressed into one. They were so beautiful I had to take a grainy picture in the post office before packing them away:

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"Later in the day, my stomach [is] talking to me, and the teacher is talking to me at the same time. I don’t know who to listen to."

— A senior at Paul Robeson High School in East New York, where I reported that students are served lunch after 2 p.m.

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Ben visited this weekend. I convinced him to take a (4 mile!) run with me through Central Park yesterday afternoon. It’s the farthest he’s ever run, and he reminded me of this every half mile or so.
When we finished, we walked to the farmers market at 79th and Columbus and had brunch at Josie’s, all the while shivering in our jogging shorts. I think this is the start of a beautiful Sunday hobby.

Ben visited this weekend. I convinced him to take a (4 mile!) run with me through Central Park yesterday afternoon. It’s the farthest he’s ever run, and he reminded me of this every half mile or so.

When we finished, we walked to the farmers market at 79th and Columbus and had brunch at Josie’s, all the while shivering in our jogging shorts. I think this is the start of a beautiful Sunday hobby.

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Student activists protesting in Union Square this week unfurled a banner listing the names of about 40 schools the city plans to close.

Student activists protesting in Union Square this week unfurled a banner listing the names of about 40 schools the city plans to close.

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"Our U.S. History textbooks stop at the Cold War. The [annual New York State] Regents exam had questions about 9/11, and I only passed it because I experienced it."

— Top student at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School in the South Bronx, speaking at a hearing about city plans to close the school.

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School news has sent me running around Central and South Brooklyn as of late. Here’s Coney Island, through the Q-train window. It was pretty.

School news has sent me running around Central and South Brooklyn as of late. Here’s Coney Island, through the Q-train window. It was pretty.

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"We’ve always been a family, we’ve always gotten through … Regardless of what we’re called—transformation, restart, turnaround—we are continuing every day to make progress. That will continue until I’m dragged out of here."

— Principal Steven Demarco of Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in New York City, speaking on city plans to close and re-open the school through the federal “turnaround” reform model.