What I learned From Starting A Failing School

Thinking about starting a school brought back a flood of memories of the school I helped start a decade ago this year.  There was a lot of stuff involved in this school.  Someone could easily write a book about all of it, but I don’t have time to do all of that, so this is just the broad strokes.  This ended up being a lot longer than I expected. If you read the whole thing, let me know what you think in the comments.

In 2004 I spent a weekend away from my teacher certification program and drove out to Doral Arrowood, a conference center in upstate New York, in order to attend a planning summit for a slate of new small schools starting next fall. I was excited just to have a job by march of the year before I graduated, and I was excited about moving to New York what and who wouldn’t want to plan a school? A month earlier a couple other friends from school and I had interviewed successfully so we already knew about the school-to-be.  We would have the 6th and 9th grade in the fall and expand each year until we became a 6-12 school.

The conference was held by Replications Inc, the organization who was helping usher us into creation. The organization was known for making new schools modeled after successful, the Kipp, the Noble Street Charter School, and Frederick Douglass were all approached as templates and people who were seeking to bring a new version of those middle and high schools could be seen walking around the conference center. Other people were there planing the second and third year of their school and often sported matching t-shirts, and rehearsed chants. They strolled through the decadent buffet of this conference center like the varsity kids strolling through a high school cafeteria. After driving from my student teaching in Boston, I very much felt like the out-of-place new kid hoping to survive in this new world.

Building A Foundation

The school that we were modeling ourselves afterwards was not going to be an iteration of a “No Excuses” school, but actually a school that started the larger small school movement. Central Park East Secondary School. This school had been very popular in the late 80s and even had a movie made about it. Fred Wiseman’s film in 1994 was a sequel of sorts to his original movie High School. Similarly, our school shared a mission of changing the high school process. Our graduation was supposed to be by portfolio, students in the lower grades would take combined math/science classes so as to form really strong relationships with their teachers. Our principal, who had more hair in the film, promised to bring the ethos of the school to the discipline and student relations. The emphasis on conversations, student-led restorative justice sessions, and multidisciplinary classes stood in stark contrast to some of the discipline-focused pedagogy that was being pushed by many of the other schools at the conference, and around the country.

I still have the binder given to me from that weekend, full of a lot of the thought process that we used to come up with our ideas for our school.  We settled on a focus including 8 different “Essential Features” that we wanted to include, with dozens more scribbled in my own notes, as if we would see if we could fit them in later. The nature of the conference was kind of stifling, we ended up setting the plan for the rest of the school at someone’s house later in the summer.

A Building In Search Of Itself

Also in the spring we planned a visit with our Principal, who could show a couple of us the floor where our rooms would be. We were on the top floor, there was a lot of light, and relative seclusion from the middle school that was being phased out. We walked past another new school in the building, also Replications and just finishing their first year. This school was modeled after a Boston Magnet School, and was run by an administrator who you could just tell worked tirelessly, along with all of her teachers, to create an entirely different environment on her floor than was in the rest of the school.  It was the only floor in the building in the school where kids would wear uniforms, and they traveled in and out of the building through a side staircase, and not the main entrance. As naive as it was, we sort of assumed that we would have the same success. Looking back on it, this was an eerie visit full of interesting signs that could have foretold future struggle.  Aside from the Principal, this visit was the first time any of us stepped foot in the neighborhood, or the Bronx at all.

The neighborhood where our school was located was the exact kind of place that had been weathered by various kinds of educational change.  The building itself was built in the 70’s alongside an expansion of public housing that expanded away from the school along it’s north west corner.  Orignally built as a Junior High School, it had been built with banks of rooms with movable walls which remained unused since the time when the Open Classroom model was envogue.  When we accessed the original school’s bookroom it seemed to document the various curricular changes of the past twenty years the rings of a tree, with most books barely being used before they were discarded.  I would occasionally go in there and sift through the unused student books from Math In Context, as the school had recently shifted to Impact Mathematics.  Before they finished phasing out they would have discarded impact for Connected Mathematics! This school had seemed to be looking for an identity, one separate and distinct from it’s nearby projects, and if the bookroom was evidence, it seemed like this search had been going on for a while. Hopefully we could put a stop to this and provide some consistency.

Losing And Finding Our Direction

We started like I any other school year starting, with teachers working really hard. We had very talented teachers, and we had gotten to know our kids ahead of time with the “Culture Camp” that we planned the summer before. In the year that followed, a number of things would test our effort and our ability and there was a lot of struggle. The number one thing that affected us was that our principal had sporadic health issues that caused him to be absent at unpredictable times.  By the spring we had gotten used to our Assistant Principal handling most duties, and he officially handing over the reigns of the school in the early months of next year. He managed to help us hire a fresh crop of talented teachers for the fall and ace our first school quality review, before handing over the role to our capable, but younger Assistant Principal.

At the meeting where our Assistant Principal took over, there was a silent tension like I’ve never felt.  Up until now we had always looked at the past, at this magical school that most had never seen, and at the leader whose stories and plans would deliver us there.  In a school whose design was based solely around one person’s ideas, what happens when that person leaves?  Our eyes fell on the AP, and on the other people in the room, as we sort of subconsciously deciding that we were needed to trust each other in order to get through this. We ended up having to decide for ourselves what we stood for and what was important. The next two years ended up being a very difficult period of time for the entire school community, but by the end, it felt like we had a clear direction.  

We never sat down and decided, but it felt like we had discarded all but 3 of the “Essential Features” that we submitted to Replications Inc in when we were planning the school. We could, however, detailed much more about those 3 things than many other schools in the city. Our school had been recognized for our portfolio assessments by New York State. Also our kids were becoming experts in our Perspective, Evidence, Relevance, Connections, and Supposition, our Habits Of Mind, as we infused it into all of our classes.  We also maintained our low class sizes and our Advisory relationships but we never really worried about other things.  Certainly other things happened at the school, but these things became the things that HAD to happen, and HAD to happen well.

Once we got started forging our own path it became clear what things were really important, and what things weren’t worth the fight. We also became much more connected to our community and had done some amazing things, I thought, in order to get our first class to graduate. I was really proud of my bozo the clown project where kids would throw a ball into a cup 10 feet away and had to find an equation to model the ideal arc of flight (without graphing calculators!). At the end of the year we had an emotional first ever graduation, celebrating our growth as a school and the growth of our students.

It’s Not Your School

The following year 3 things happened that sent home perhaps the biggest lesson, of starting your school, and that is that it’s not your school. Any school only exists in the context of the larger social, bureaucratic and government context first, and under your leadership second.  If those entities don’t get what they want, your plans will have to change.

First, our principal was given a dramatic promotion to a network, and she was replaced with another principal who was intimately familiar with our school from preparations for our various quality review observations and what not. This principal had great plans for the school, and went to work rearranging staff and other things in order to fit those plans. She was a successful turnaround principal would before there started being official “turnaround schools”.

Next, the city’s report card came out, which showed that we earned a “D” and based on that they said that the school needed to be shut down. In my heart of hearts, I really think we did enough work with our graduates to prove that we didn’t deserve this ranking, but there isn’t much we could do about it.  A week or so later after we are all gathered at a meeting, presumably to talk about this, when the Principal sort of walks out, and this woman we’ve never seen walks in and starts addressing us. She is in fact our superintendent, making the first visit that we know of, and she was there to tell us that we are being phased out.

Schools obviously are getting phased out over the city, that’s what allow new schools like ours to exist, but I didn’t think it would be us.  She gave us instructions on how long the process would take, what to tell parents, and how the school would proceed over the next few years. The students would be not allowed to transfer to other schools in the district, and teachers would slowly be sent to look for other jobs at the end of each year until our current freshman had finished their senior year.  As soon as the superintendent walked out, before we had a chance to catch our breath, our union rep, and district level union rep and some higher level union rep in a suit marched in and began addressing us.  They explained how these meetings were going on all over the city, and enough is enough! They explained that the decision had to be formalized after a series of hearings and we could testify at all of them.  Our Rep had promised that if our school wanted to fight, the union would bring enough other members to turn these hearings into a giant scene and use that to sway the opinion of the City’s Panel on Education Policy and ultimately force them to vote to save the school. They asked us at the end, “Are you ready to fight?”

“Yes.” We said we were ready to fight.  All of our school was involved, even our new Principal, who was expecting to have more time to show that she can lead the school than the month between her appointment and the Superintendent’s visit. It’s not like we are thinking our failure should be rewarded, but to be phased out of existence after one graduation class seemed like a waste in the effort the city put in having our school get developed. I was really invested in the process of getting us ready for this, and even pulled together a number of powerpoints about the school for the community hearing we held in our school. I prepped a bunch of kids and took them down to the actual PEP panel that happened in Brooklyn Tech, where few of our kids, and some teachers had ever been.  This hearing would see over seven hours lots of different schools like ours were being told that they were being closed down. Some were schools that had been in operation for much longer than ours, one had graduates that went on to have kids go to that high school.  Another school had brought about 40 kids to the hearing, with each reading letter after heart-wrenching letter about how much their school meant to them.  Another school had been constantly moved around, never operating out of the same space for two years straight.  One of our students said that they attended an elementary that had been closed, and a middle school that is now closed, so if the DOE is moving to close their high school, how can the DOE not say they have failed to give them an education? The audience was 90% of people who were against the closings and included dozens of local politicians and dignitaries. The kids’ metro cards were set to run out, I think it was around 11, and then at the end of the night the PEP moved to vote, and methodically went through each school and voted to close all of them, as if the last 5 hours, or 5 years for that matter, were meaningless.

Watching how few of these people on the panel felt any sense of responsibility to use their position to advocate for the 1000’s of people who care about their schools was the third thing that year that really drove the message home about how little power you have over a school. Getting over it is still taking a long time.

Moving On

The next year a new school started with a group of 6th graders on the first floor of our building. This school had a novel approach, as it had a medical theme, and a medical organization to sponsor it. It even had cute little 6th graders wearing cute little scrubs. I wasn’t around to see it as I decided to leave in part because of the disappointment with the vote but largely because my girlfriend had been working at the same school with me for 5 years, and we both thought it would be good to see if our relationship could exist without us both being at the same school.

This Week: Re-Resolving, and Explaining What I Do In The Classroom

This week I am going to get start posting about my New Years Resolutions.  Now you may be thinking:

Hold up Carl, weren’t you supposed to start on those on…umm, you know…NEW YEARS!!!

How about you hold off on the judgement there Mr. or Mrs. High-Horse.  I’ve been actually been doing my New Years resolutions since before the actual beginning of the year, but I wanted to wait until I followed through on them for a while before talking about them. Studies have shown that when you tell people about your goals you may lose motivation, so I figured I would take them on a test drive first.  This year I resolved to re-resolve about a month into the New Year with all the goals I wanted to reach.  One of my many resolutions is to use this blog more, so with this post I am going to start my first weekly post detailing what I plan to get done this week, as I have done in the past.

What I’m teaching this week

This week is the last week of the cycle, we have about 4 days of class left and all of them are going to be students writing papers, with some nice activities in between.  I am going to come up with a feedback survey, and perhaps some other end of class activity, but most of this week I will be grading students’ writing.

How closely should math teachers grade writing?  I struggle with finding the line between critiquing a student’s grammar and critiquing a student’s voice.  Also, does the kind of writing direction that I give on final written assignments contradict the instruction that the English teachers give?

What I’m blogging this week

Most of my students are finishing my “Road Trip Project”, which has been in my rotation for linear equations for a long time.  Over the past 4 years A number of teachers have sat on my presentations, or heard about the project and it is kind of popular aroudn the school. So it was no surprise that when one of the teachers had to go on leave for a few weeks that they suggested sub teach the students my “Road Trip Project.”  As flattered as I was, I panicked when realizing that I had to take the instruction component of this project, which currently lives only in my head, and detail it for a substitute teacher.  I actually couldn’t explain to a sub what all to do in order to maximize student learning through the project, and didn’t want to see the project trivialized into a bunch of “answer getting”, so I ended up teaching both his and my first period class as a combined group, and using my prep to teach his afternoon section.

That made me think that maybe it would be a good exercise to go through a project that I teach and really detail all the little things I do along the way in order to make the most of it.  I wanted to try and write up this project and detail all the different things that are involved in the teaching the project both to get feedback, but to also practice this idea of taking what I do in the classroom and explaining it. We’ll see if I have time for it, as it’s already a short week.

What I’m Thinking this week

It’s Martin Luther King day, and I think my thoughts for this week are better stated by him. I often think the message of MLK day seems to be stop at integration, and falls short of the goals for equality that MLK fought for.  This is from a post that I found through another post as Harry Belafonte remembers talking with MLK:

I remember the last time we were together, at my home, shortly before he was murdered. He seemed quite agitated and preoccupied, and I asked him what the problem was. “I’ve come upon something that disturbs me deeply,” he said. “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”

That statement took me aback. It was the last thing I would have expected to hear, considering the nature of our struggle, and I asked him what he meant. “I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,” he answered. “And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.”

Ten Good Things about my year so far.

The entirety of my 2014-2015 school year has felt like this treadmill of listing things that I should construct a post about, not posting it, and then scrapping it for because I don’t have time, I can’t figure out the best way to put it together, or the timelines of the content fades away. This is partly because the expansion of my role as “spreadsheet whisperer” has given math teaching, my actual job, serious competition for my mental bandwidth. I know this isn’t really an excuse, however, I am slacking in a huge way on my blog. Much of this feeling was echoed by my buddy Nate, I feel like I have left blogging, even thought I didn’t really know why I’d gone. One reason may be the lingering need to make a “home run” post, to really connect on one of those ideas that have been bouncing around on the idea treadmill, as opposed to just knocking a simple post about what I’m doing in my classroom into the outfield.

So just as I was thinking about all this I saw the following show up on my twitter:

It looked like a pretty cool format so I figured I wouldn’t over think it and put a post up. Here it goes.

10 good things about my teaching in 2014-2015

1. The first thing in my mind is that I won over a kid today. There was a girl who was difficult for other teachers, and who was not excited to have me as a sub. She got into my Road Trip project however, and by the end of class she said that she was going to sign up for my class next cycle…nd she doesn’t even need math credits!

2. My goal of incorporating new teaching materials has gone pretty well so far. Things that I have incorporated so far include: Visual Patterns, the Meatballs task on 101 Questions, a good 2 weeks of estimation 180, some diagnostics from the people at MARS, the Penny Circle on Desmos, and an assessment tasks from the A2I Algebra unit. …I guess that’s a lot when you type it all out.

3. I had the largest turnout to my advisory ever. I might have the largest advisory turnout of anyone in the school (which is completely a guess, but I’m going to go with it)!

4. The spreadsheet wrangling has been more or less successful. Despite a couple months of dark despair in front of a computer, I am now able to keep my little corner of the school’s data system running smoothly, with only 15-20 minutes per day of effort. I’m also gaining facility with Microsoft Access, which my brother swears will allow me to hand more responsibility to other people.

5. The math team has had some pretty impressive meetings and we have had some good conversations/clashes with older teachers. After one meeting a teacher who previously championed his workbook of test problem from the 80’s as “the real math” came away from one meeting saying that he had to question “everything he knew” about teaching math.

6. My student who had fallen off every cycle for 3 cycles straight is finally going to come through this cycle. Since the birth of his son he has been greeting me every day with a hand shake, any pertinent information about his home life that might influence his studies, and a pledge to get to work. It’s the classic case of the kid who figured ‘it’ out.

7. I started taking pictures of my board to see how it would look for students who tried to follow along visually. My handwriting was AWFUL, but it’s starting to get better.

8.  One of my teachers had a medical emergency and knew he was going to be out for a matter of time, and he requested that his students take on my project.  It was a nice voice of confidence, and I was honored to help out.

9.  So these two kids were fighting about someone’s rat in class (some kids in our school have rats they carry around as service animals to help treat their anxiety) and I shut the argument down before it affected the class at all just by ‘getting loud.’ That never works!!  I think the important part of that story is that I was able to not lose the trust of either student in the process.

10.  I am participating in this program with the State of New York to develop a senior-year class for the “Transition population,” who are essentially kids who wind up in remedial math at community colleges.  This may be a new post soon.


This Week: Tweetup Recap And The Race To Vacation

This week is important because it is essentially the end of the year.  As much as I’d like to say kids are going to show up to the two days next week, they might not.  Just in case, I need to give them all enough work this week to keep them busy over the whole break.  The kids who do show up on the last day get to work together on the task from the week, and perhaps get to hear me sing a spirited rendition of the Christmas song at our school’s “Milk, Cookies, and Karaoke” next Monday and Tuesday.

I’m able to roll into the week with a surprising burst of energy from the #nycmathtweetup last Friday.  It’s surprising because, despite being excited about the meetup until I was a block away from reaching the West Village building where it was held, I was somehow overcome with two weird feelings.  The first feeling was “I’m a fraud, this was a bad idea, and they’re all going to laugh at me!!”, followed by the second feeling, which was really just the urge to go home, curl into a ball on my couch, and feel safe.   This feeling didn’t go away as I entered the downstairs lobby of the building which felt as warm and inviting as the detention level of the Death Star. 

Then I ran into @kellyoshea and we shared an elevator up to the 6th floor and started into a little conversation.  I was naturally able to talk with all the other people we met once we got inside. Suddenly I felt like I was catching up with old friends, friends who I just met, but friends nonetheless.  I got to meet @nicoraplaca, @wkmukluk, @bkdidact, @mrburkemath, and many other people who up until know I had only known through their tweets.  We hung out until @DavidWees and the rest of the wonderful people at New Visions had to kick us out.  Afterwards a small group including @jacehan, @j_lanier, and @Mr-I-Don’t-Use-Twitter (Ben Blum-Smith) and a small group of people headed out to trendy NYC bars in the West Village.  It was quite nice that @absmarie was able to find one that was not excessively loud, nor excessively expensive. It was excessively crowded, enough that we were about to leave, but then a large group left seconds before we did, allowing us to sit down and hangout.  It all was really positive and really cool.  And just like hanging out with any group of old friends, it was really hard to say goodbye at the end of the night. I really look forward to seeing everyone again at the next one!

What I’m teaching this week

This week I am going to teach the elimination method of solving systems of equations, and I’m going to try to find some context to anchor this discussion in a way that isn’t contrived.  Wish me luck.

I’m also really excited about the economics lesson I’m teaching called “In The Chips.”  In searching for ideas I came across this lesson and realized it was my favorite lesson from when I was in high school.  If it goes well, it will lead towards using the Dunshire Project that I did last year.

What I’m blogging this week

Hopefully something.  I’ve been trying to get two blogs each week, so I’m going to hope I can get two posts, and we’ll see what I can do.

What I’m thinking this week

I just found out that I am going to be a father to a baby girl this summer! It’s hard to think about anything else but that, but it does make me wonder about how children develop quanitative literacy/numeracy at a young age.

My #MTBoS Booth Ideas For The Upcoming NCTM Conference In Boston

So a while ago Tina Cardone mentioned the idea of having an #MTBoS booth at the upcoming NCTM Annual Meeting in Boston.

Since then I’ve been thinking about how this whole thing could be good not just for the #MTBoS, but also for the NCTM as well, as it could proactively address 2 of the common criticisms when it comes to these events.  People often complain that the conferences have a lack of internet, that talks don’t contain the most up-to-date information, and these could be addressed pretty simply with a little bit of organization and coordination.

1.  Internet Access

From what I understand, internet access at a conference center like that is going to be mad expensive.  As long as there is a cellular connection, a Wi-Fi hotspot could provide internet access to a presenter and perhaps a few particpants with computers, which could really transform some of the possibilities for a presentation.  Three or four people with hotspots could possibly provide connections for everyone in the room with a device.  Suddenly, the conference is taking a couple of strong steps towards the 20th century and with just a small bit of coordination from the #MTBoS booth.

The booth could help provide a place where the organization for this internet access could happen.  Before the conference, presenters could go to some website and announce that they would welcome having people come with Wi-Fi hotpots. The participants with hotspots can go on the same website, and let the participants know that they will be coming.  When the conference starts, those people can stop by the booth where someone may be ready with extension cords, surge protectors, and cardstock table tents.  The participants can write the SSID and password information on the table tents, and the table tents can provide a little advertising to draw people back to the booth.  The participant can then leave from the booth and head up to the presentation room, introduce themselves to the presenter, set up their WiFi spot near an open outlet, and enjoy the talk that they were planning on going to anyways.

Having participants and presenters work directly to have internet at this conference will be a good way to showcase the importance of having internet access at NCTM conferences.  At the same time, NCTM would probably have to pay craploads of money for internet access because I’m assuming that is what conferences charge.  The NCTM is, at the end of the day, just a bunch of teachers getting together, so there probably are not funds available in the near future to bankroll internet access for their conferences.  A crowd-sourced solution like the one above may be the best way to provide access to conference-goers for the near future.

2.  “Un-Conference”/Open Spaces Meeting

If you look at the conference program, most of the talks will be done by 4:30.  They shut things down at this early afternoon time perhaps to give participants time to reflect on what they learned.  Perhaps the booth could, with just a touch of organization, allow people to come together and do that reflection alongside many other like-minded teachers.  The term “Un-Conference” may be a bit of overkill, but the concept seems to be what I’m describing.  For an hour or so, at the end of each day, people can come together and hang out around the booth, or other locations, to talk to, and learn from, each other.

Anyone conference participant can decide that day to bring up a topic for conversation. Perhaps someone wants to show off a new idea that they learned.  Maybe a number of people want to talk about current events that are on a lot of people’s minds.  Or maybe a presenter, who had a lot of discussion going in her talk, could offer her participants a chance to come back and finish the conversation.

At the end of the day, the people could come to the booth, see which of the things they want to talk about, and then join the rest of the interested people to talk in the food court, or an empty room, or perhaps at a nearby bar.  It would only require that the booth have a cork board and some post-it notes, but it could make for a valuable addition to the conference program.

So those are my ideas, what do you think?