Friday, July 16, 2010

Zenterview: SPED Teach For America Experience in Bronx, New York

The following blog post--be warned, it's over 4,000 words!--is the more statistical analysis of my Teach For America experience from 2008-2010 in the Bronx. I'm not ready yet to write my personal reflection, as I'm still processing the fact that I won't be teaching next year and that my students will be moving on to high school.

One of the benefits of teaching 8th graders is that if you do your job as a corps member, you aren't leaving them behind because they've taken the next step in their lives, too. I never lied to my students, administrators, or colleagues about the fact that I would stay for only two years--in fact, I told my principal during my interview that I saw my two years as the equivalent of the Peace Corps or National Guard and would not be staying beyond it.

I hope you'll see why I'm still comfortable with that stance after reading my responses below, but suffice it to say that I told Teach For America to put me where they needed me the most; my special education students did not have a math teacher stay longer than 4 months before I was there for two years.  That didn't change one of them from calling me a "sellout" when he found out I was going to Harvard Law School in the fall.  I hope I someday have a chance to prove him otherwise.
Where were your students academically at the beginning of the year last year? How do you know?
Last year my three 8th grade self-contained math classes were all uniformly below grade level. Not a single student had scored above a mid-2 on the 7th grade NYS math test—3 is on grade level—and their baseline data was not much better. According to the diagnostics provided by Teach For America, my students averaged a 46.7% readiness for 8th grade standards overall. However, for the most tested standards in algebra and geometry, my students were well below 40% in readiness.

As any math teacher knows, students’ reading skills play a large part in their ability to solve more complicated problems. As measured by the ELA state test, I only had two students who could read on grade level, with the other students averaging a 3rd grade reading level.

In addition to this hard data, I had numerous encounters with administrators and colleagues who described my students’ situation as “not having had a math teacher the past two years.” For their entire middle school academic career, two of my three classes had not received instruction from a full-time teacher; rather, they had a string of substitutes and coverage teachers. As such, my students were initially convinced that I would leave them after a few months, at most. Once December came around, many of them started saying that math was their favorite subject, and would frequently experience breakthroughs on concepts in which they had only limited exposure prior to my class. These students clearly needed a consistent presence who could lay the foundations for 8th grade math concepts.
What was your big goal for your students last year? How did you go about determining that goal?
My students’ big goal was to average 80% of their tiered 8th grade math standards, the most common metric cited by Teach For America as significant growth. As it was my first year and I was entering a completely novel situation, I deferred to the metrics set forth by the New York region. When I later learned that my math coach would be “happy” with only 50-60% mastery, I knew that I had taken on a sufficiently ambitious goal. Taking into account how far below grade level most of my students were, I utilized the tiered standard goals set out by the New York region. While this level of differentiation might have been unneeded in a general education setting, my students were so far below grade level that it would have been unrealistic to commit to the full scope of 8th grade math. In order to successfully master the most important standards, I also had to spend several lessons in each unit filling in the gaps from previous years’ standards. Oftentimes this meant backtracking two or three years’ worth of vertically aligned standards: for example, most of my students could not even plot coordinate pairs—NYS standard 6.G.10—let alone manipulate them with transformations for 8th grade geometry standards. These tiers within the 8th grade curriculum helped prioritize the standards most important to 9th grade math. All of my students would be responsible for the first tier of standards, and I rewrote their IEPs to reflect this goal. A second tier of standards included those which were highly tested on the 8th grade NYS math exam, but would not be immediately applicable in 9th grade. The final, third tier of standards was the remainder of the 8th grade standards which were unlikely to be tested, the “nice to haves.”

Overall, I had about one third of my students in each tier based on their diagnostics, but they were interspersed throughout each of my classes.
What measurement system (i.e., assessment) did you use to assess student achievement and why? Why are you confident in the assessments’ rigor?
I utilized several different overlapping assessments throughout the school year; each was derived from or directly copied from state-provided examples. This meant that my students’ ultimate mastery was always checked against the state-published material for each standard.

The first and most important data point on student mastery was taken the day after each new lesson. This “mastery check” served as a delayed exit slip; not only did it provide information about the students’ understanding, it also measured their retention. Each mastery check was a state test question which had the numbers changed or an extended response component added if it was originally a multiple choice question. Since each class only had 10 students, I could easily administer and quickly scan the accuracy of the mastery checks for the previous day’s objective within the first 10 minutes of each class. Based on that data, I knew if the students were ready to move on to the next topic. While this was a fluid decision for many lessons—especially depending on how much the current lesson built upon the previous one—I was able to address any misunderstandings through a variety of methods:

1. students could re-watch the lesson online and independently, then try to correct their work and explain their mistake;
2. I could pull a group for guided math on the relevant topics after the introduction of new material for the current lesson;
3. I could adjust the new mini-lesson to address the misunderstandings in the previous lesson;
4. students could correct their work from their portfolio at a later date with a new mastery check.

This approach meant that I had to plan at least two lessons for each class: one to move on and one to re-teach, depending on how the mastery checks turned out.

Beyond this immediate usefulness, there are several other reasons why I employed this model of assessment. The mastery check data determined groups—based on common misunderstandings that needed to be addressed in-person rather than in reviewing the material online—for guided math after the mini-lesson, responses served as writing pieces for the students’ portfolios, and each included spiraled material on the back page for the students who finished quickly. The mastery checks were graded on the three-point rubric utilized on the state exam, so my students became intimately aware of how they would be measured on the day of the test, and saw that, yes, you write in math class, too! Constructing these mastery checks from the unit and state exams helped guide the backwards planning of my lessons; I cannot imagine teaching without the information provided from them.

In addition to the mastery checks, my students took more traditional quizzes and unit tests which were amalgamations of state questions for each standard covered in that unit. Their grades were broken down by each standard, which not only helped the students see what they needed to re-master, but also provided the percentage mastery that I entered into their public and individual portfolio trackers. Between the mastery checks, occasional quizzes, and unit tests, my students were constantly being assessed, oftentimes without even realizing it.
In terms of their academic progress, where were your students at the end of the year last year?
My students showed considerable growth last year. According to the New York state exam, they grew the most of any 8th grade cohort at my school, grew double their peer-group average throughout the city, and their 6 months with me accounted for 80% of their growth throughout all three years of middle school.

On an absolute level, 0% of my students started out on grade level, but 20% of my students overall and 44% of my homeroom ended up on grade level. This distinction was key for several of my students, as it opened the door to an inclusion class in high school; I still talk with some students who were able to exit self-contained settings and are thrilled with their new, traditional settings. Additionally, many of the students who didn’t perform as well on the state exam but nonetheless had excellent portfolios were transferred out of the lowest level special education class upon entering high school.

In terms of their portfolio and unit test mastery, my students averaged 79.5% mastery of their tiered standards. While we didn’t hit our goal, as my students were now able to inform me, that’s within a rounding error. I am most proud of my students’ portfolios, as several students have been able to use them to demonstrate their readiness for “higher performing” high school math classes. Such concrete improvements in my students’ future chances of academic success have been the most rewarding aspect of my time as a teacher.

While I had three students jump from level 1—far below grade level—to level 3—on grade level—one student in particular experienced amazing growth both academically and behaviorally. In the previous year, this student had been suspended multiple times and had given up on his dream of going to a particular high school because they didn’t offer self-contained special education classes. Throughout his 8th grade year, this student was suspended only once—in-house—received an award at graduation recognizing his tremendous growth both inside and outside the classroom, and was accepted to one of his top-choice high schools because I and the rest of his teachers were able to recommend him for an integrated collaborative teaching setting.
What about this year—where were your students at the beginning of this year? How do you know?
Although I am still teaching the exact same program as last year, I now have a very different set of students. I inherited one class of students who exclusively had Teach For America teachers for the core subjects, and another two classes that at least had their teacher stay with them throughout their entire 7th grade year. Consequently, one third of my students scored on grade level on the 7th grade New York state math exam, with another third each in levels 1 and 2. Unlike my level 1 students from last year, these are students who either froze on the state exam or refused to take it, an observation I gleaned from their diagnostic data.

This year, I redesigned the Teach For America 8th grade diagnostic measurements available online for the New York region so that they were more grader-friendly and focused on measuring readiness rather than the 8th grade standards themselves. Working with a second-year corps member, I pulled questions from previous grades’ standards and then vertically aligned them with the 8th grade standards. Thus, teachers could not only see exactly which 8th grade standards would require more time to teach, but could easily identify the exact remedial standards to incorporate into their long-term plans. Using these diagnostics, I determined that my students’ average readiness was above 60%. These students were far better prepared for 8th grade than my previous students, and even more so than the 60% would suggest: these students only had gaps in their skill sets, rather than generally low scores. Thus, starting out this year I knew the specifics of my students’ strengths and had already identified the necessary remedial skills.
What is your big goal for your students this year? How did you go about determining that goal?
This year, I worked with my students more to co-develop our goals. The first week of school, I presented all the graphical data from my students’ growth in the previous year. In addition to this data, we had conversations about what my students wanted to accomplish in life; most of them listed graduating from high school. We then analyzed graphs of their probability of graduating with a Regents diploma from a New York City public high school as measured by their 8th grade New York state exams. Most of them were surprised to learn that even if they averaged a 3.0—the bare minimum for “on grade level”—they only had a 50% chance of graduating. My students found that statistic unacceptable, and decided they would collectively average a level 3.5 on the state exam, which would increase their chance of graduating to 75%.

This goal will require my students to average +0.9 growth in scaled scores on the New York state exam, roughly the equivalent of 1.9 years of learning in nine months. Because of this incredibly ambitious goal, I informed my students that they would have to average at least 85% mastery of all of the state standards, not just those for their tier. They decided to accept that challenge, and we haven’t looked back since. Through the first five units, my classes have averaged 85.4% mastery of the standards taught. On an absolute level, this high percentage of mastery means that my students can outperform even the Regents classes at my school on some metrics: on a recent New York state instructionally targeted assessment, one of my classes either had the highest or tied for the highest mastery on 14 out of 35 standards.
What measurement system (i.e., assessment) did you use to assess student achievement and why? Why are you confident in the assessments’ rigor?
This year, I am still incorporating mastery checks, quizzes, and unit exams. The benefits are still the same as last year, although I am much more skilled at both predicting and analyzing gaps in a student’s understanding. This translates into fewer misunderstandings during my mini-lessons and a greater opportunity for students to practice their skills rather than experience frustration.

Because I graded the state exams last year and, as our school’s data specialist, have access to school-wide data reports from ARIS, I was able to cross-reference the teacher-gathered data with their students’ performance on the state exam. As data specialist, I am expected to chair the Inquiry Team—a school-based group of teachers, parents, and administrators who examine and reform school policy—assist teachers with collecting and utilizing data, and ensure the accuracy of several databases. This position allows me to adopt the best material from teachers whose students perform above the school average on certain standards, and reform the curriculum when we perform poorly as a school. For instance, the Pythagorean Theorem standards were uniformly lower than expected from our classroom mastery data; because of the specificity of the assessments, we were able to update our curriculum with more complicated diagrams to reflect the level of rigor required by the state.

My role as data specialist also positioned me to reform our periodic assessment schedule and format to better fit our needs. Specifically, we switched from paper-based Acuity tests to predictive assessments, which are online and adaptive. This change allowed our significant population of students who were below grade level to have a less frustrating experience with their baseline and end-line exams. Consequently, the data we gathered was much more useful and accurate. Rather than being forced to estimate a student’s grade level from informal observations, special education teachers are now able to write IEPs with confidence that their assessments are valid and defensible.

I have made few significant changes to classroom assessments. This year, I have been charged with the creation of the entire 8th grade testing material for my school and have updated the questions to reflect the most difficult and recent examples from the state exam. Now that my students are no longer utilizing the tiered standards model, they are constantly being assessed exactly at the level required by the state for all standards.
How do you invest your students and their influencers in working hard towards your goal?
In addition to the initial conversation I had with my students while setting goals, I also publically track their standard mastery and class overall mastery and have students write extra-credit reflections on their progress towards the big goal after every other unit test. My classes compete with each other to be the top data point on the unit growth line graph, submit the best example to be displayed as a larger-than-life sized poster around the room, and collect the largest green spaces on their mastery check tracker.

Accountability is tantamount in my classroom. My students know that every lesson I teach will ultimately be graded, analyzed, filed in their portfolio, and followed-up on, if necessary. In order to reasonably expect such accountability, I have had to accommodate my students in various situations. By publishing my lectures online, students can make up missing work independently at home or in the classroom, library, or computer lab. The class-work is completely scaffolded and differentiated so that every level of student has an appropriate level of practice. Also, I ensure that my methods of teaching incorporate multiple modes of learning. I try to sell the idea to my students that if they give me their time and effort, they will learn and experience success. My delivering and celebrating that message is the most important form of investment my students have.

My students also need positive reinforcement. They can earn snacks, math and/or spatial game time during the end of class, Wii time during lunch or after school, and take-out food orders through a point system that monitors the five rules we co-developed: be prepared, SLANT, work in the class, be respectful, and practice safety. Thus, each period my homeroom students can earn up to 5 points. At the end of each day, their score as an individual and as a class is averaged; these points are then saved or spent on the rewards mentioned above, although I try to be flexible and accommodate new rewards.

In order to reframe my students’ poor experiences with standardized tests, I have turned tests into mini-parties; as students finish questions they can eat doughnut holes, drink juice, and when they’re finished, play games. Each of these options is only available on test days, and consequently students love test day now.
How would you describe your teaching strategies?
My school’s math coach has described my teaching style as “unapologetically academic.” I treat my student’s academic achievement and the subject of math very seriously, and in general, my students respond in kind. One of my students quipped, “We could average 99% and Mr. Bennett would say, ‘Good job, guys, let’s do better next time.’” My students know that I will not only notice that 1% discrepancy, but that I’ll try and make sure we address it.

My teaching strategies are based on strict routines. From the moment my students enter the door, they know they are to pick up the mastery check by the door, start and finish it quietly, work on the spiraling material if there is time, and then start their guided notes with me. For every lesson, I either project a pre-recorded mini-lesson or a live lecture using photo-editing software. Each lecture incorporates priming of previous knowledge, visual examples, close-notes for a strict sequential process, extensive use of vocabulary, and writing to explain understanding. Throughout, I throw questions to the students, and they are expected to be active participants in providing the steps for subsequent examples.

For each lesson, I create a differentiated handout that has at least four different sections: I DO (mini-lesson), We DO (guided practice), Must DO (independent practice), Should DO (extension activity). Each student is expected to work for the entire period through as much of the material as possible. Because the entire packet has been scaffolded through each section, students practice the appropriate level of rigor at the end of each of the first three sections. Thus, a student who only works through the We DO has at least covered the entire topic for that day, albeit it with the support of a group or paraprofessional. Meanwhile, the next student may complete the entire Should DO activity independently.

Acknowledging that my students have completely different needs, frustration levels, and strengths, I try to address as many different modes of learning as possible in each lesson. I constantly incorporate manipulatives, always demonstrate visually while I verbally explain, and require my students to utilize the many visual cues and organizers I develop for the standards.

My teaching strengths are not in creatively presenting the same old material in a new, gripping way. Rather, I feel I am strongest at taking even the most difficult of topics and breaking it down into manageable steps. I then explain the why and how of each step and accompany it with a visual and kinesthetic element so that as many students as possible can relate to the process. By culminating most mini-lessons with a modeled extended response question, I get to review vocabulary, solidify understanding, and provide an exemplar for the students’ independent practice.
Do you feel you’ve had to reach beyond the resources or constraints (time or otherwise) of your school in order to achieve your results? If so, how?
I definitely feel that I have incorporated resources beyond those provided by my school. While the math department at my school is by far the best organized, physical and personnel resources are still stretched extremely thin.

Every two weeks I spend a Saturday creating handouts for the next two weeks’ lessons because my school does not have a curriculum appropriate for my students’ needs. I then make 35 copies of those handouts at the Teach For America – New York region office since our copiers at school aren’t always available.

I developed a close relationship with the school librarian while writing grants for the school, and after learning about my penchant for technology, she provided me with the only functional LCD projector in the building. I bought my own Livescribe Pulse Smart Pen to record my flash-based lectures, and a Wacom tablet to teach from media-editing software on my personal laptop which I use for my classroom. Since I believe strongly in the use of technology in the classroom, it was paramount that my students could review my online lectures using Adobe Flash. Unfortunately, my school did not have a technology support staff, so I needed to contact several different New York City Department of Education technology experts who eventually guided me through the necessary administrative privileges to install Adobe Flash on the school’s desktops.

Building upon these professional relationships, I co-wrote a learning technology grant with the librarian in order to obtain the technology necessary for maximizing my teaching methods with the smartpen and online interactive lectures. Over the summer between my first and second years, we spent 30+ hours drafting a three-year, $150,000 grant to purchase laptops, Smartboards, Livescribe Pulse smartpens, and professional development for the special education math and science teachers at MS80 and a private school partner, St. Brendan. Although the grant was to begin in October 2009, we were recently awarded the grant and will be fulfilling the first year of the grant’s specifications by June 2010.

I have also taught several after-school classes for honors level students. One of the classes—test prep for the New York Specialized High School Admissions Test—was a combined initiative with GEAR UP, a government initiative that is currently working with my school’s 8th graders as part of a longitudinal study. Without this partnership, there would not have been funding for the test prep materials. I have continued this partnership with another after-school program to prepare the honors 8th grade students for the Regents’ exam on Integrated Algebra.

I am currently serving as the school’s data specialist, which is a “.5 position” that requires approximately 8 hours a week of my time during preps or after school. Ideally, this position would mean that I only teach two classes. However, due to budgetary constraints and the importance of reforming the school’s data collection and utilization—especially within the literacy department—I am trying to fulfill the duties of both teaching full-time and running the school’s Inquiry Team.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your work toward producing academic gains with your students? How have you approached that challenge?
I feel that the biggest struggle I face in making academic gains with my students is the budgetary constraints faced by my school. Because of fiscal concerns, my school had to eliminate an assistant principal position, which means that most of the time there is only a single dean on my floor with 12 different classes. Compounding this problem is that several other positions, similar to my own as the data specialist, have been split among teachers who would normally have more time to devote to the administrative tasks. For example, last year I worked with a full-time district representative while writing IEPs; this year, our school’s district representative teaches two classes in addition to her administrative duties. The time constraints placed on these teachers/administrators makes many vital tasks difficult to complete on time and in an accountable manner.

This problem of fewer and more-stretched personnel extends to behavior management. These factors have created a culture where my students doubt the veracity of any punishment and flout almost all punitive measures.

I have addressed this culture with a counter-approach; rather than try to punish poor behavior, I try to make note of and support any and all positive behavior. I dutifully report cutting and other behavioral problems, but I never claim that any consequence will come of it; I have tried to completely establish my own credibility as an enforcer rather than rely on a chain of referral. The point system I described above is the most obvious element of my philosophy, as it provides a framework to guide student behavior and rewards them for positive behavior rather than punishing them for negative behavior. Sticking to my high expectations for my students, staying in contact with their families through both positive and negative notes and phone calls, and celebrating any academic achievement or growth have proven to be effective in managing most behavior and investing students in their academic achievement.

My students know that I hold them in high regard and that I take notice of and approve of their work. I approached this year’s behavioral management system with the express purpose of creating and fostering that culture. While there are inevitable moments where this positive-only approach has failed to incentivize my students, I feel that it is an area of modest improvement in my teaching methods from last year.
In what areas has your teaching improved most dramatically and to what do you attribute that improvement? 
I feel that my growth as a teacher has mainly been in the same areas as my initial strengths. My analytical nature and deep content knowledge allowed me to approach the New York state math standards with a critical eye to their components; this dovetailed nicely with my affinity for data analysis. I love pinpointing the gaps in my students’ understanding through their mastery checks and classwork. Not only does it guide my next steps for those students, it also informed how I edited the curriculum for this year. I have tried to foster this ability in some of my students who are able to assist their classmates because of their social and math skills; it is exceedingly rewarding to hear one student helping another using accountable talk and the processes that I outlined in a mini-lesson. Not content with merely repeating last year’s success, I took it as a challenge to exceed the growth my students had made, even though this year’s students started off with higher mastery.

Teaching in the exact same program has allowed me to go over every piece of material I produced last year with a greater understanding of what did and didn’t work. Armed with the information provided by student mastery and a deeper understanding of the standards gained by grading the state exams, I have been able to redesign the overall curriculum for my school so that the diagnostic data is more relevant, the standards are better scaffolded, and my individual lessons are better suited for my students’ needs. Editing is a much easier and less time-consuming process than creation. Fortunately, because my teaching methods create modular lessons with recorded lessons available online, I will be able to provide my school with a complete record of my curriculum. Just as I built my lessons from those of my Teach For America mentors and colleagues, I hope that future corps members who teach at my school will be able to utilize my lessons as starting points for their own.