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

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.