Sunday, February 26, 2012

New York City: The Ultimate PD

The following is part of a series I'm working on about my time teaching in New York City and has been cross-posted at GothamSchools. You can follow the series by clicking on the label "Teaching in New York" at the bottom of this post. 

Nobody would accuse Scott of being an ineffective teacher. He has a clean-shaven head and well-pressed dress shirt and tie. His calm demeanor and busy students make it seem like he effortlessly expands minds on a daily basis. It was my great pleasure to meet this particular teacher and his particularly high-functioning classroom on a visit to Brooklyn International High School in October of 2010.

Teaching in a school devoted to serving the needs of English language learners from across the world, Scott taught in a way that might have seemed unconventional. Learners accustomed to understanding teachers as providers of knowledge might have been caused discomfort at first.

On the day I walked into Scott's classroom, every one of his social studies students was engaged - challenge enough in an environment where students' needs are so diverse. What I was most impressed by, though, was that no more than three students were working on the same task.

As I made my way through the room looking at students' work and asking questions, I was amazed to see students creating posters, writing essays, having academic conversations, or tutoring others; all as a means of demonstrating learning of the same material. In the middle of the room Scott stood taking notes as one student after another stepped up to defend the learning he or she had accomplished in the unit the class was concluding.

To the layman, it may have appeared as if Scott had merely been blessed with a batch of phenomenal students. To the aspiring expert teacher, the distinguished skill and dedication necessary to create this kind of classroom learning space, done during, but more often outside of class time (e.g. curriculum planning, parent conferences, diagnostic assessments, relationship building, classroom culture and routines development, professional development around effective strategies for English language learners in the social studies content area), was inspiring.

I left Brooklyn International so excited that the next day I spent nearly fifteen minutes relating my observations with colleagues at my school in the Bronx. We decided that on the teacher effectiveness rubric being used to assess us, a rating entitled "Scott" should be available beyond "distinguished."

I tell this story because it so nicely encapsulates one of the things about working in New York that so vividly stands out in my memory: the opportunity to improve with the best.

I offer my assistant principal as another example.

The first time I met Liz, she grilled me not on how many years I'd been teaching or the kind of personality I had in the classroom or my favorite instructional strategies, but the last book I read. We had a lengthy conversation about the purpose of social studies education and how that purpose varied depending on the school environment and students.

Liz and our principal set aside money for professional development and time for teacher collaboration in a way I'd never seen in any other school I'd worked in. She stepped in my class at least a few times a month, not to evaluate or suggest changes in my style, but to listen to the students learn and co-teach from time to time. During this time, she taught me to teach students who'd only been speaking English for a few years how to make meaning out of parts of a complex text like Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith - a feat I'd found challenging with native English speakers.

A few other things I learned from Liz? Great writing is about great thinking. School is an apprenticeship in learning; students should be learning primarily how to learn. Teach content just slightly above the class's most advanced learner, create structures for the learning to trickle down, and you will have an effective means of differentiation.

I taught for four years before moving to New York, often feeling like I was coming up short finding useful ways of improving my practice. My experiences in New York advanced my teaching quickly, and I found myself on a whole new level, exploring new pedagogical subtleties I hadn't previously been aware of.

While everyone in the City may not be lucky enough to have such a competent administrator or visit the classroom of a truly master teacher, New York, as it does with many professions, offers teachers the opportunity to work with many on the field's forefront. Take the time to work with these professionals, and New York City is the ultimate professional development experience.


  1. I aspire to be at Scott's level as well. How do we get there?

    For example, I'm most curious about "creat[ing] structures for the learning to trickle down." Could you explain that some more? What are those structures or what resources can I start with to start experimenting with those structures?


  2. Sciencevrsucks: Good question.

    For me, those structures are primarily about building a classroom culture in which students feel comfortable learning from each other AND project-based learning. If the content and skills taught in mini-lessons are challenging for everyone, then as higher students begin to make meaning of them, they can pass that meaning on in more accessible ways to struggling students as they work together to complete some sort of performance-based assessment. I think it means providing the necessary amount of modeling and direct instruction and no more. Get out of the way so students and learn and do good work with the teacher walking around supporting as necessary.


  3. This is my second year teaching and the first time I used PBL. While there were some successes, there was also some failures.

    These failures are:
    - Taking too long on units at the beginning of the year so that now, I'm rushing to "cover" the curriculum.
    - Not pre-assessing and formatively assessing well enough to recognize when my students were missing background knowledge and skills, and when I could move faster, when I could move slower
    - Not thinking through EXACTLY what skills needed to be learned for my students to be successful learning and synthesizing the content for themselves (how to research, how to read graphs, how to predict from graphs, how to memorize vocabulary words) and then giving feedback on these skills
    - Not making it clear what the essential learning standards were at the beginning so that students who were lost could keep track of what knowledge they needed to work on gaining.

    I think when I teach a third year, these are definitely structures I'll implement from the very beginning. What do you think? Any other structures to make sure every student gets the essential knowledge and skills?