Jonas Shantz’s 12th-grade math students recently examined teen smoking behavior in different regions of the country, crunching survey data and writing conclusions. After school, gathered around poster boards of the students’ work, eight math teachers at the 6th–12th-grade Lyons Community School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, discussed Shantz’s lesson and what it told them about their students’ strengths and weaknesses.They discussed ways to move students from overgeneralized conclusions. One clear takeaway was the importance of building writing skills in 6th to 8th grade so that by high school the students would be comfortable writing about math. Shantz drew the group’s attention to teaching students to incorporate specific data evidence into their sentences.
Then all eight teachers zeroed in on the “hard part,” in Shantz’s words: not just reporting teen smoking rates, but drawing out the implications. Instead of a sentence saying they studied teen smoking, Shantz suggested, “How about, ‘If you went to the South, you would be more likely to see teens smoking’?”
Using the latitude afforded by the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools of Excellence (PROSE), the joint UFT-Department of Education program that gives schools broad opportunities to experiment, the middle and high school teachers at Lyons have found ways to make the most of the school’s grade configuration.
For example, said Dan Morgenroth, the school’s chapter leader and one of the math teachers, the staff used PROSE to find time for lesson studies like this one in order to apply a long-term lens to their effort to build math writing skills across the grades. They have also used PROSE to add flexibility to the schedule and revise assessments.
“The introduction of PROSE altered the frame of possibilities,” Morgenroth said. “It has empowered the staff to have ownership over the school together with the principal.”
The benefits to students of the flexible schedule become clear as the year takes shape: middle school teachers sit in on high school curriculum development; students present culminating projects — a signature Lyons teaching tool — to joint panels of high and middle school teachers; and evaluations look at developmental thinking skills.
Lyons is a member of a consortium of schools that have waivers from most Regents exams and assign grades based on student presentations. In the middle school years, they use “roundtables” where four students present a project to one teacher. In high school, individual juniors and seniors present semester-long, performance-based assessment tasks in front of several teachers.
“It’s a big project that requires coordination,” said Dana Wise, a 7th-grade ELA teacher. “We need the adult power to be able to go in and facilitate them.”
Using PROSE, the school rescheduled January Regents week for all the grades to accommodate the roundtables and the performance-based assessment tasks.
Chelsea Green, the high school art teacher, said the quality of the curriculum has improved as a result of the increased interaction among teachers of different grade levels. “We go to each other’s roundtables,” she said. “It allows us to get a really good sense of how our curriculum spirals and is built from 6th grade to 9th grade.”
Another ambitious undertaking at Lyons is option PROSE, an approved variation of the teacher evaluation system available to PROSE schools in which teachers help create their own teaching evaluations.
Upper-grades ESL teacher Tom Snell was among the 11 staffers who opted for it last year and one of 22 who will do it this year.
Snell introduced the concept of “metacognition” — thinking about thinking — to his students as they were reading “Animal Farm” and then looked at whether students had become more aware of their own thinking in their final presentations. He then presented his experiences in detail to other Lyons teachers. “I trust Tom Snell that he is developing a real pedagogy that will help students,” observed ELA teacher Wise. “He is also not working in a vacuum.”
Morgenroth underscores the power of such evaluations. “The cookie-cutter way is the principal comes in four times a year and writes it up,” he said. “It doesn’t really ask anything of the teacher. Option PROSE goes above and beyond.”
Morgenroth said his school’s participation in PROSE has been a liberating experience.
In the past, he said, “the main role of our chapter has been to debate and approve the SBO every year. That put a glass ceiling on what conversations we were having.”
With PROSE, he said, “Our horizon opened up for so many options.”