A First-Year Reflection: Learning and Growing at Achievement First
Traci Landy is a history teacher at AF Heights Middle.
Before I came to AF Crown Heights Middle, I spent two years teaching sixth-grade history as a Teach For America corps member in Memphis, Tenn. I considered myself a successful teacher. For two consecutive years, 100 percent of my students achieved proficiency or mastery on the state exam. We always had fun in class, with tons of activities and engaging opportunities for practice. I left Memphis feeling that I had left a tremendous mark, and that I had given my students the high-quality education they deserved. I was excited to begin teaching at Achievement First—I was impressed with the professional development, “Team & Family” atmosphere and high expectations for all students—and I knew I’d be taking with me the amazing experiences I gained in Memphis.
After a few weeks at AF Crown Heights Middle, it was clear that Achievement First would teach me more than I ever thought I would learn. I learned that overreliance on activity-based learning is not helping my students get to and through college. I learned that spending days and weeks working on multiple-choice test preparation, or failing to maintain the expectation that students will write in complete sentences and learn the mechanics of writing a paragraph, is not helping my students get to and through college. This learning has changed my teaching immensely.
Now, if you walk into my classroom, you will see students working on reading and digesting information rather than focusing on memorization. You will see students analyzing extremely challenging primary sources instead of copying notes from a PowerPoint presentation. Today, I know my students are on the road to college graduation. They are learning the skills, habits and traits they need for success in a competitive environment. I have learned that even when you think your teaching is rigorous, your instruction can always be more challenging. In order to truly give students the high-quality education they deserve, teachers need to push students to achieve at the highest levels. Each day, when I leave AF Crown Heights Middle, I know I am becoming the teacher my students need and deserve. Achievement First is helping all of us—teachers and students—achieve beyond what we thought possible.
Tales from the Classroom: The Power of Rowing Together
Kate Stasik is a teacher at AF Amistad High.
A few weeks ago, my coach suggested I try a “hands-down discussion” to review multiple-choice questions and encourage students to voice their thinking aloud. He had seen it done extremely well in a site visit to another public charter school, and he thought it would be a good practice to introduce in our literature classes. In this type of discussion, the teacher essentially becomes a silent observer as the students come to a consensus on answers as a class.
I agreed, and I planned to teach the procedure and model what an exemplary discussion looks like before using it as a test review. However, difficult winter weather had other plans, and I was first able to introduce the idea of “hands-down discussion” alongside my plan to cover a pretty rigorous reading test with challenging multiple-choice questions. I worried about the outcome.
As I introduced the procedure and the expectations for this new type of discussion, students started breaking out into smiles and nods, sitting up a little straighter and generally putting on their game faces. A few quick checks for understanding later and I discovered that not only were they familiar with this style of discussion, but they were also excited to begin debating.
Just like that, my potentially unsuccessful review day turned into one of the least stressful and most successful review days I’ve ever planned. Students who barely ever volunteered to speak were leading the discussion and asking for the input of their classmates. Students who tend to “hog the ball” when it comes to voice time in class were surveying their classmates for class-wide agreement on final answer choices. They were effortlessly transitioning from one question to another and carefully monitoring their 20-minute time limit to ensure that they’d cover all of the questions. It was a thing of beauty.
I was impressed, and I knew there had to be something else at work here besides a great discussion model and my instruction. After class I discovered that my colleague, who teaches 10th grade composition, taught our classes this procedure the previous week, and they had practiced under his guidance.
At Achievement First, we talk a lot about “rowing together” in our work to close the achievement gap. In this moment, I was able to truly reap the benefits of that concept. It was a great example of how teaching is very much a team sport.
Between the Frames: Character on Display During Middle School Bowling Trip
Dennis Wilson is a teacher at Elm City College Prep Middle.
At Elm City College Prep Middle, students who showed REACH values earned a trip to the local bowling alley to hone their skills and enjoy each other’s company. I was most impressed by the acts of kindness I saw between frames.
Our students shared laughter, high-fives, stories, and snacks from the concession stand. One student, who had forgotten his spending money at school, was barraged by unsolicited offers of French fries. Other students helped struggling teammates by offering tips on how to best hold a bowling ball. Every time a strike or a spare was recorded on the overhead monitor, our students cheered for each other. I was struck by the realization that, throughout the entire trip, not a single student felt left out or was unsmiling. Everyone felt included and happy to be a part of the Team & Family. It was truly a demonstration of the character, kindness and positivity we promote at Elm City College Prep Middle. It is amazing to see our students embody these traits as they both learn and play.
That afternoon, bowling with our students taught me something important. In watching them, I learned to better appreciate that crucial moment—the moment that seems to hang there, suspended for an impossibly long time—the moment that comes when you let go, step back and wait to see what your steadiest aim can deliver.
Achievement First is a Team & Family, Even During February Break
Kate Stasik is a teacher at AF Amistad High.
Given a week off from work, the last thing most sane people would do is make plans that involve spending time with five co-workers, 24 hours a day, for seven days.
But that’s exactly how I chose to spend my February break.
AF Amistad High gives teachers and students a week-long respite in mid-February every year. This year, it followed a week of snow days as New Haven tried to dig out of a historic Nor’easter. While many of my co-workers were still donning snow boots and gloves, I began to pack a bag with bathing suits, flip flops and shorts. As one of my fellow vacationers said, picking out swimsuits with 34 inches of snow on the ground was a heck of an example of cognitive dissonance.
Given a week to spend in a tropical locale, most sane people wouldn’t choose five other “Type-A” co-workers to spend it with. That, however, was precisely the choice I made.
Achievement First has a core value called Team & Family; that is, we are a team beyond the bounds of our school buildings and treat each other like family both inside and outside of school. Thus, to the uninitiated, our plans may have seemed like a strange choice, but to the six of us, it just sounded like a great vacation.
If ever a situation called for Team & Family, it is a two-car caravan on an island where no one’s phone really works and only one of six passengers speaks the language with any fluency. Add in distinctly different driving personalities, and you have recipe for disaster. It took us a few days to figure out who the best navigators were and who should lead the caravan, but we always arrived at our destination with both rental cars and friendships intact.
Spending a week of vacation with co-workers could have easily made returning to work on Monday daunting at any other job, but we all returned energized and ready to tackle whatever the week held. For me, knowing that we can navigate a week’s vacation together and still look forward to seeing everyone on Monday means that we can tackle anything we encounter for the rest of the school year.
A Day in the Life: Charlie Bucket, Sojourner Truth, and Introducing Equivalent Fractions
Katie Maro is a third-grade teacher at AF Crown Heights Elementary. No two days are ever the same—this is something I love about my job. We are in the middle of a fantasy unit in literature class, and students are reading “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I’ve love hearing them giggle and gasp in shock at what they are reading, and it is great to listen to them discuss and describe characters and their problems—it makes me hopeful they will be lifelong lovers of reading.
I had a great time with my students during snack break, and some of the students were surprised when I chimed in as they discussed the video game “Mario Kart.” While I may have played the original version and not “Mario Kart 7,” the gist is the same.
In math, we worked with manipulatives in our first lesson about equivalent fractions. Although one student asked, “How is this even possible?!,” I know, by the end of the series of lessons, the students will be able to quickly solve these problems.
During my prep period, I had my weekly coaching meeting, where we debriefed my coach’s observation of my third-grade math block. I love these sessions because I appreciate that my development is so multi-faceted, and that time for this is built into my schedule.
In the afternoon, we had a writing block during which students drafted questions for interviews they will conduct as part of our biography unit. The students will write biographies about teachers in the school, focusing on their lives before, during and after college. I encouraged students to ask questions about teachers’ favorite classes, challenges and career selection. When I checked students’ work, I found they had written a number of questions inquiring about boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands and wives. We talked about the focus of the biographies and I think we’re now on the right track!
This afternoon was special because we held our Black History Bowl—using information students learned during their non-fiction unit about slavery. Students read biographies about Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman in literature class, learned about African-American inventors during science class, and studied the civil rights movement in social studies class. Students with the highest scores in class-wide competitions participated in the final bowl on stage before classmates, parents and families. It warmed my heart to see how supportive the students were of one another; the applause was just as loud when a student answered incorrectly as it was when he or she answered correctly.
I finished the day off with a meeting with our dean of school culture in which we discussed Funtastic Friday plans, and then I worked on individualized education programs and graded exit tickets. Now I’m powering off the computer and heading home to eat dinner and watch some comedy!