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Teaching efforts to be put to the test

Teaching efforts to be put to the test

This week is the moment of truth. Some city schools have dramatically changed their curriculum — and
Teaching efforts to be put to the test
Kindergarden students in Melody York&rsquo;s art class at Hamilton Elementary take a few moments from art instruction to read a Dr. Seuss classic Tuesday morning.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

This week is the moment of truth.

Some city schools have dramatically changed their curriculum — and in one case, even successfully negotiated schedule changes with the teachers union — in an effort to improve their scores on standardized English tests.

Every year, the test results are broken down by concept so that teachers can see precisely which topics were a mystery to their students. The goal is to encourage teachers to adjust their instruction to better cover those areas.

The detailed results have inspired some city schools to make wide-ranging changes. At others, teachers decided to offer intensive cram sessions just before the exam.

Their success — or lack of it — will be documented in the English language arts test that students are taking this week.

Principal Robert Flanders is hoping the test will serve as confirmation of the changes he has brought to Hamilton Elementary School in the past four years.

Hamilton experimented with the literacy program that has now been adopted by the entire district. Years ago, teachers at Hamilton found that the district’s reading program only taught students to memorize sight words. They could sound out whole paragraphs in rapid succession, but when they got to the end, they had no idea what they had just read.

Hamilton added a program in which students read books at their reading level. As they worked on challenging sight words and spelling, they also began to read what they had already mastered — and comprehension skyrocketed.

When those students were tested in third grade, only 42 percent were reading and comprehending at grade level. When the same students took the sixth grade ELA test last year, 76 percent of them scored at grade level.

As the program grew, Flanders began to see big gains. Two years ago, only 36 percent of his fourth-graders scored at grade level. But after one year in the new program, 80 percent of them scored at grade level in fifth grade. Those students are taking the sixth grade ELA test this week — and Flanders is hoping to see the success continue.

The results of last year’s test were made public just more than a week ago. But teachers had the results several months ago, giving them time to tweak their instruction.

At FDR Elementary School, teachers met to go over the results and decided to create a week-long program just before the ELA exams to teach the items that were most often missed on the last test.

Last week, they announced a different literacy skill every day over the intercom, defined it, gave an example and then emphasized that topic in every class.

Monday was Main Idea Day, so teachers asked students to define the concept and find it in everything they read.

Principal Connie DuVerney said the announcements were designed to apply to every child.

“It’s a skill every grade level needs to know, and it just spirals in difficulty,” she said.

Beyond the review session, only some teachers chose to make significant changes in response to the test results.

One fourth-grade teacher hung a poster on the wall with prompts to teach critical thinking. After students read a magazine story about endangered elephants, she asked them questions that they could not answer simply by re-reading the text: Why did countries ban the sale of ivory? Why is it important to stop killing elephants? What will happen to the elephants now?

Last year, those students’ test scores showed that they had great difficulty drawing conclusions and inferring character motivation. Now they eagerly raise their hands, confident that they can explain what they read.

“She really, really stretches their mind,” DuVerney said.

At Lincoln Elementary School, literacy is now being woven into activities that traditionally had little academic value.

At this year’s Grandparents Day, when grandparents are invited to breakfast at the school, students read essays they wrote about their grandparents.

“They actually worked at this over their spring break,” Principal Pedro Roman said.

Teachers there have also embraced mini-tests, which they use to check their students’ progress so they can tweak their instruction in response, Roman said.

But Hamilton teachers may have made the most comprehensive changes of all.

Teachers there agreed to give up their lunch period in exchange for longer blocks of instructional time. Flanders successfully negotiated the change with the union.

They can now schedule lunch and recess whenever they want — at a moment’s notice. If students are restless in the morning, they can take them outside for an early recess. If they stay focused, they can end the day on the playground. Lunch can be held at any time.

The change allows teachers to spend 120 minutes on literacy every morning. It also gives them the flexibility they needed to integrate critical thinking — which often requires lengthy discussions — into every subject.

“It’s great,” said fifth-grade teacher Erin Brennan. “If we’re in the middle of a discussion or a great lesson, I don’t have to stop and say, ‘OK, it’s time to go to lunch.’ ”

That extra time is critical, Flanders said, because Hamilton students score poorly on critical thinking skills — inferring, drawing conclusions and making predictions.

Now, they practice those skills everywhere — even in art class.

A recent kindergarten art class featured the Dr. Seuss book “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket!” As the art teacher read the book, she pointed to the pictures of the “wockets” — imaginary monsters — and asked, “Is this one friendly? Why not?”

Some students voted for friendliness based on the picture alone. But the teacher reminded them of the descriptions in the text — which imply which monsters are worst — and soon they were able to predict which monsters were nice.

When one wocket was not pictured in his illustration, she asked, “Why can’t we see him?”

It took the students a moment to consider the words describing that monster. Then they realized he must be hiding under the rug.

As for the art portion of the class, they happily drew their own wockets. They had no idea that in two years, the skills they practiced between giggles and shouts in art class will be seriously tested in a three-day ELA exam.

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