First Person

Boulder Valley teachers "come home" with students via iPod

Sixty kindergarteners in Boulder Valley schools are not only getting a dose of literacy at school – but at home, too, thanks to an innovative program that uses iPods to record individualized lessons.

Take Your Teacher HomeTeachers record specialized lessons for each participating student as part of “Take My Teacher Home” now offered at eight Boulder Valley elementary schools. So far, the program is showing promise in helping struggling readers get up to grade level.

“We like to liken it to a lunch box,” said Jennifer Korb, Boulder Valley’s instructional technology specialist. “As parents and teachers, we would never want to send our kids off with a lunch box full of junky food. So the teachers spend a lot of time ensuring they are creating the highest quality lessons that we can so that when the teachers send home the iPod Shuffle it has the very best instruction on it that we can give them.”

iPods become learning tools

Under the grant funded program, students take home iPods or iPod Shuffles to listen to the lessons in the comfort of their own homes. The recordings contain learning modules that are each just 3 minutes long. They include what Korb calls the five components of great literacy: vocabulary, letter names and sounds, letter formation, music and rhyming, phoneme segmentation, and families. The teacher also sends home packets that reflect classroom instruction for the children to work on.

“Essentially, the program is to extend the learning day for struggling readers,” Korb said. “It could be any reader in the class. Some of the kids are English as Second Language students. Some just come to kindergarten with a variety of little literacy pieces missing.”

2011 program stats

  • 64 participants
  • 32 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch
  • 20 students have been identified as ESL
  • 6 students are bilingual
  • 16 students are at grade level and have graduated from the program

The Take My Teacher Home program is tailored to kindergarteners. However, because the program has been so successful, BVSD has created several spin-off projects, including the Secondary Science Podcasting Program and two pilot first grade reading programs. The district has also collaborated with several other school districts  interested in bringing a similar program to their districts, including Aurora, Cherry Creek, Mesa County, Weld County, and a few private schools.

The program in Boulder started four years ago based on a similar initiative in Eugene, Ore. Impact on Education, a nonprofit organization that supports Boulder Valley schools, is the major funder of the project. There is about a $5,000 cost for each classroom.

Eligibility requirements

Boulder Valley teachers do reading level tests before the children start kindergarten to determine which students are eligible for the program. Teachers then select six students who are below grade level in reading. Teachers only have enough material to put six students through the project at a time. Those participants take the project materials home Monday through Thursday. The children return with the materials on Fridays and the teacher reloads it with new lesson plans for the next week.

“Depending on how fast a student starts to make gains you might take a student off the project when they are meeting grade level standards for literacy,” said Sanchez Elementary teacher Rebecca Yang, who is also a Take Your Teacher Home teacher.

The project runs 26 weeks and each week focuses on a new letter of the alphabet. Yang said a typical lesson includes listening to a book, vocabulary lessons, letter identification, sight word work, letter formation, a song and a poem.

“The repetition helps the student retain the weekly lessons,” Yang said. “For every section of the lesson, I record instructions and follow-along activities for the student to complete. Each part of the lesson has support material that the student will use to complete the activities.”

The project has been embraced by teachers throughout the district as they have seen the results firsthand, Korb said.

“All of the students that I put on the project at the start of the year were below grade level expectations and standards,” Yang said.  “Now, all but one of the students is scoring on grade level in literacy.”

Role of parents key

While any parent can volunteer to help with the project by helping to reload packets, copy and laminate materials, code and set up bags and iPods, or obtain copyright permissions, the program depends upon the parents of participating students to really succeed.

“We’re trying to build that home-school responsibility piece so the parents know that they have a really big responsibility in helping their kids be successful at school,” Korb said.

When a child is selected to participate in the program, the teacher holds a conference with the parent to explain the program commitments of participation, Yang said. For instance, the parents have to make sure the bag comes back each day, as well as sign off that the extra work has been completed.

One unexpected benefit is that the learning modules are not only beneficial for the children, but also for family members and parents who may be struggling to learn English themselves.

“The families are also very involved in the program and I have two parents that are learning to speak English that listen to the activities each week after their children do,” Yang said.

Parents interested in learning more about the program or watching a video about it, should click on the website.

EdNews Parent intern Alex McNa contributed to this report.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.