Self Aware/World Aware

Welcome back to school!

The middle school team, with the support of our amazing middle school assistant principal, Nico Victorino, has launched the school year in a very thoughtful way.  Rather than diving right into formal academics and homework, middle schoolers spent the first two days of school building community and awareness.

Students spent significant time in their advisories. Typically, each advisory is made of small groups of grade specific students.  This allows advisors to focus the advisory curriculum on age specific needs — from building independence in 6th grade to planning for high school in 8th grade. This year, in addition to those aspects of our advisory program, groups have cross grade partnerships.  These partnerships will meet on occasion to engage in community building activities.

This past week, advisory partnerships met together to discuss important topics in the news under the theme of self awareness and global awareness.   Students were given options for news items to learn about and discuss.  Choices included removal of confederate statues, the events in Charlottesville in mid-August, DACA repeal, and the impact of extreme weather events such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Teachers helped students understand relevant vocabulary and concepts as well as necessary scientific and historical background information.  Students then engaged in discussions with each other about the pros and cons of diverse perspectives. As usual, I was impressed with the students’ thoughtfulness, questions, and ability to have complicated and respectful conversations. The work this past week is setting the stage for the complex thinking we expect of our students during the school year. Additionally, it is building understanding of the role of government and the habits of mind and knowledge needed for civic engagement.

Of course, teachers also shared behavioral expectations and reviewed school policies with the students. (Our new student handbook is coming home. Please review it with your child). And teachers and students took time to celebrate community through assemblies.

Students also met new staff members and learned of new roles for some of our prior staff.

Dawn Schafer will be leading the middle school math department again this year.  Dawn will be joined by Yoobin Noh (6th grade), Peggy Chen (7th grade), and Saeed Golpoor (Algebra 1).  Erika Richardson and Jessica Kuhl will be teaching 6-8th grade science. Jamie Christian will continue to support 6th grade in math and science.  Audra Benjamin is returning to our school from a several year stay in Colorado. She will be supporting 7th grade in math and science.  Lisa Bartuccelli is joining our staff from a high school in the Bronx. She brings many years of experience supporting students in Algebra 1 and science.

We will continue to have our fabulous social studies team of Natalie (Delmonte) Skeels, Carmen Robles and Mary Valentine.

Katie McGinn is supporting middle school students in literacy.  She will be working with small groups of students in grades 6-8.  Tamar Goelman continues to teach 8th grade ELA and Maren Aydogan is teaching 7th grade ELA.  Jessica Beck is joining our staff as the 6th grade ELA teacher. Catherine Cohl will be the learning specialist in ELA in grades 6 and 8 and Morgan Fusetti is returning as the learning specialist for ELA in grades 6 and 7.

And we are grateful to be able to learn band and chorus with Stephanie Mazarakis and Krista Bruschini, art with Amanda Capalbo, PE with Jon Carey, health with Melissa Kefales, tech with Rachel Lewis, and Spanish with Pooja Shekar.

On September 19 from 6 to 7:30 you will have the opportunity to hear from your children’s teachers at Back to School Night.  We look forward to seeing you there.

 

State Test Scores 2016-2017

As many of you know, NYS test scores have been released.  We are in the process of looking at the data for our school. I will be sharing results with the school community in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, parents of students who took the tests can access their children’s scores through their NYC Schools Account. This is an informational account for parents that has information on attendance and test scores and is the account that will be used for this information for your children as long as they are in New York City public schools.

Some parents have set up these accounts already. (Letters have gone home several times with the instructions.) Click here for information on NYC Schools Account registration.

If you have not yet set up an account, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.  Unfortunately, it is a bit complicated. In order to set up an account, you need two pieces of information.

  1. Your child’s OSIS number. This is the 9-digit identification number assigned to your child in the DOE computer system.  It is on your child’s report card. You should keep this number stored somewhere as you may need it whenever navigating DOE systems.
  2. A secure code for your child. The only way we currently have of getting this number to you is through a hard copy letter. Susan will generate a new set of these letters early next week. These letters are only available in pdf as a group file.  We cannot email individual letters to you. You can come in to pick up your letter next week.

I wish that this process were more user friendly. Right now, this is the only method we have.

Nurse Elissa

I want to give a shout out to Elissa, school nurse extraordinaire. This spring, I nominated Elissa for a School Nurse recognition award. She has been  selected to be honored by the Office of School Health for her contributions to our school community.  Elissa and I will be going to the awards ceremony on Thursday afternoon.

In nominating Elissa for a recognition award, I highlighted her attention to individual students and her ability to advocate for them in thoughtful and personalized ways. Whether she is setting up families with medical specialists to support children, finding role models for students in need,  listening to them as they navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood, or just creating a safe space for children, Elissa is a role model for me in how she cares for others.

Elissa recognizes that an important part of wellness for young people includes mental health. Elissa recently completed a Thrive training on assisting young people in mental health crisis. As a nurse in a middle school, she develops strong, trusting relationships with our students. Students then feel comfortable coming to her for a talk or support when they are stressed.  Add to this intense work, Elissa also provides band-aids, ice packs and asthma pumps. She checks for fevers with the “mom thermometer” of a wrist to the forehead and with the Star Trek version where she uses a high tech tool to measure temperature with no skin contact. She is on top of all children with allergies, trains all teachers to use epipens, and monitors the health of children with chronic illness from diabetes to lupus. She is able to help children with lagging communication and sensory processing challenges successfully navigate regular visits to the nurse’s office. She knows most of the over 900 children in the school by name.  I didn’t include in my recommendation for this award that Elissa has a ready ear for parents who are struggling and that she coaches our staff on our own healthcare because I was worried that it would get her “in trouble” for going above and beyond. Her office remains a respite for graduates who return to check in with her and for teachers and Manhattan Youth staff who need a little TLC.

One of our younger students had surgery on his Achilles tendons this winter. When his surgeon spoke to him about the next steps in his recovery, he confidently told the doctor that he would check with Elissa for her opinion. The doctor, confused, asked the mom who this “Elissa” is. The mom told him that she is our amazing school nurse.

So, hats off to Elissa for being an outstanding medical professional and human being. Largely remaining in her windowless office with her very cool thermometer, she is the Dr. Bones to my Captain Kirk.

elissa

STEM at 276

It was Earth Day on Saturday. A bit of history.  Earth Day was “officially” started in 1970 as a way of bringing in disparate environmental groups that were active at the time.  The idea was to use this day (the same day as Arbor Day — a day dedicated to planting trees) for teach-ins and social action to defend the environment.  It seems appropriate, then, that the March for Science was scheduled for Earth Day this year.  Once again, we need teach-ins and organization for social action for science and the environment.  I marched (briefly) with the march that started at 72nd and CPW on Saturday.  Reading the different signs, looking around me at Central Park and the real estate of the NYC skyline, and thinking about a book I recently read about Henrietta Lacks (the HBO movie aired this weekend) and how her cancer cells have led to cures for cancer and other diseases, focused my thoughts on the importance of science in our daily lives. (I also realized I had not used the science behind weather forecasting and my iPhone to tell me to bring an umbrella.)  From medical cures to horticulture to skyscrapers and weather forecasting, science and technology are deeply integrated into our daily lives.

Last Friday morning, Rachel Lewis and I shared our school’s vision for STEM. (Here is the link to our slide show:  STEM at PS-IS 276 .) At 276 we want to make sure that our children are using technology to learn, think and act in informed and critical ways.  It is not enough that we teach the students to code because the code language we teach this year may be out-dated by next fall.  Instead, we need to use a variety of tools to help children learn to analyze, to break information and tasks down to their component parts, and then to design new solutions drawing upon multiple skills.  We want our students to be flexible, responsive thinkers and creators. The ISTE (International Society for Technology Education) standards refer to these outcomes as computational thinking, innovative designers, creative communicators and knowledge constructors.  These are the higher order skills we want to help our students develop.

But, these skills don’t all have to happen at a keyboard.  When our first graders build boats and birdhouses with Construction Kids and our third graders build windmills with milk cartons and styrofoam balls, they are analyzing component parts and designing innovative solutions.  The habits of mind these experiences nurture prepare our students for more complex (and hopefully more digital) creative endeavors down the road.  Best of all, these hands-on, minds-on higher order tasks are amazing entry points for universal access to our curriculum.

As we continue to refine our curriculum, our goal is to include more opportunities for students to build these types of skills. We will be integrating more technology use into our middle school math program next year.  Rachel Lewis, as the technology teacher, will be teaching our students more technology skills.  Classroom and specialist teachers who are continually building their own proficiencies in using coding and using various apps for creative tasks will join Rachel in building the creative skills we want all our students to have.

 

 

Algebra for All

Mathematics is one subject area that is considered a high priority by many in our school community, in New York City, and in educational conversations around the country.  Math instruction today is very different from what most of us adults experienced as students. There is a greater emphasis on mathematical reasoning and conceptual understanding. This means that even our youngest students are learning to manipulate numbers in what may be considered “non traditional” ways.  The habits of mind about mathematics and the numeracy skills being developed in our early grades are laying the foundation for more advance math in upper grades.

Dawn Schafer, our math coach, our math teachers, members of the School Leadership Team, and I have been working to refine our mathematics program in the upper grades to help our students have a richer, more challenging mathematics experience at 276. As a result of this study we have determined that all of our 8th graders will be taking Algebra 1 as a Regents class in 8th grade starting in the 2017-2018 school year.

Offering Algebra 1 to all of our 8th graders will provide our students with an appropriately challenging mathematics curriculum that allows our graduates to earn high school credit in middle school and is aligned with the Department of Education’s Algebra for All initiative.   This will enable our students to take more advanced math courses in high school and better prepare them for college and careers.  

In grades K-4, our classroom teachers are providing students a balance of context based problems, math games that reinforce skills and numeracy, and instruction that emphasizes reasoning and communicating. In recording their mathematical thinking,as early as second grade students begin to learn to write the answer as a letter that precedes the equation and to use parentheses to indicate which parts of an equation are solved first.  For example, in solving 24 + 16, students might decompose the numbers to be n = (20 + 4) + (10 + 6).  They learn  the distributive property and so might rewrite the problem to be n = 20 + 10 + (6+4).  These foundational skills and habits of algebraic reasoning are woven into the curriculum from very early grades. 

Starting in fifth grade, our math program is departmentalized. Students go to math class and are taught math by math specialists.  The curriculum continues to provide students with a balance of context based problems and instruction that emphasizes reasoning and communicating.  Again, algebraic reasoning is addressed throughout the curriculum. 

In all our grades, mathematics instruction is differentiated. In lower grades, teachers partner students deliberately and provide pairs with math games that reinforce the skills that students need. In upper grades, differentiation is accomplished through tiered problems.  This means that problems presented to the class have varied levels of sophistication.  Students start at appropriate levels for their learning and receive support through small group instruction, scaffolds and extensions.

All of this work is supported by Dawn and Ariel and through on site and off site professional learning workshops that are led by internationally recognized mathematics educators with Math in the City (CUNY), Metamorphosis, and Generation Ready.  Recently, we had a visitor from Generation Ready who analyzed our math instruction K-8.  He noted strengths of our program include: 

  • Teachers collect a variety of forms of data and use it to inform planning and instruction
  • Willingness of teachers to embrace math and improving their practice
  • Willingness of teachers to embrace that they are math learners alongside their students
  • Use of mathematical practices (CCLS)
    • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
    • Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
    • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
    • Model with mathematics
    • Use appropriate tools strategically.
    • Attend to precision.
    • Look for and make use of structure.
    • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

All of this means that our students and teachers are in a good place to transition to Algebra 1 for all students in grade 8.  Currently, our Middle School math curriculum provides students with rich tasks which allow for discussion and reasoning and we are introducing some algebra concepts one year early. For example, Grade 6 is learning about unit rate and how it relates to graphs and equations.  Grade 7 is learning about how linear and proportional relationships are similar and different, and how the slope intercept form relates to tables and graphs.

Starting next year, we will be compacting 7th and 8th grade math and Algebra 1 into 2 years. Math in these grades will be taught through two different courses:  

  1. Math Exploration
  2. 7th and 8th grade math

Our math team is in the process of rewriting the units of study that make up middle school math for next year.  Additionally, Rachel Lewis is preparing  a technology class that uses coding to support Algebra 1 for students in 8th grade.

While I am confident that we have  a strong plan in place, we also want to assure that our students are ready for this shift.  Therefore, 7th grade units at the end of the year will include tasks and skills related to concepts needed for Algebra 1. 

 

 

 

 

 

Kindness and Justice

We have a tradition in February to have a focus on kindness and justice. This is linked to a NYC Department of Education initiative called Respect for All Week that takes place this year from the week of February 13.  We are entering February this year with a sense of urgency around this focus on kindness and justice.  Nationwide, there appears to be an increase in hate speech and hate crimes in schools and in neighborhoods.  Helping children to understand the impact of their words is complex.  In addition to children mimicking what they hear or see in the media, they often lack social and/or historical understanding of why certain phrases are offensive.  As a school, we are committed to helping children understand how language and images can be hurtful, to teaching them to be critical consumers of media, and to build their social and historical knowledge.  All of this is part of teaching empathy, a character trait that seems to be on the decline in America.
As most community members know by now, on Monday afternoon, we were alerted that there was graffiti in the 8th floor boys’ bathroom.  A swastika had been drawn in pencil along with the phrase “sig heil trump”  [sic].  We immediately erased the swastika and writing and then I met with Nico, Mary, Alexis, and Mara to plan our response. We knew it needed to be carefully designed to clearly communicate that this is not acceptable along with an explanation of why. We also wanted to provide the students with a positive message of how we expect our community to work to create a safer world for all.  We do not know how many students saw the graffiti.  We are aware that many students were unaware that it had happened.  However, as a school we do not tolerate acts such as this. We continue to work hard to insure that all students know that they are welcome and safe in our school.
As part of our response, middle school teachers organized a special assembly.  All middle school teachers participated as we wanted to make sure that students understood that we speak with a united voice on this matter.  We began with a bit of historical background on the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and the meaning of the swastika symbol.  We then shared with students the words of Martin Neimoller, a Protestant pastor in Germany who became a vocal critic of the Nazi party.  We shared his “First they came…” poem with the students. Different teachers read each stanza.  Students then were asked to turn and talk about how this poem has meaning for us today.
After talking about Neimoller’s role as an upstander, several 8th graders volunteered to share their thoughts. They had been given the stem “As a __(fill in part of their identity)_____ , I felt __(fill in emotion about the incident).”  Some examples of how they represented themselves are
As an American,
As a Muslim girl
As a Jewish girl
As a Republican
As a Jewish person
As a friend
As a student
As a community member
As a New Yorker
As a person of German heritage
Some examples of how they felt include:
Empathy
Offended that our leader (no matter what political party) was compared to Hitler
Mortified
Offended
Upset
Disappointed
Concerned
The need to do something
This is not a joke
Middle school students then broke into smaller group discussions with teachers.  We will be following up this initial conversation in upcoming advisories and continue to build more opportunities to talk about racism and offensive behaviors in all our classrooms in developmentally appropriate ways.  Some things that have been happening recently in classrooms around educating for empathy include:
  • This past week, we were fortunate to have the NYC Kids Project perform for our kindergarten and third grade classes on empathy.   In addition, eighth graders in the community service elective will be working with the NYC Kids Project to develop “empathy projects” with which they will teach their younger buddies how to be more empathic.
  • In first grade, students have been learning about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King.  They are learning from these American heroes how to stand up for what is right.
  • Our middle school students all visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage in December. There they heard from two holocaust survivors — one who had survived concentration camps during World War II and the other who had survived the Rwandan Genocide.
  • Our fifth graders read novels and memoirs about the struggle to fit in due to different aspects of their beings.  Discussions focus on character actions — those who are upstanders and bystanders — with consideration of how our own actions impact the lives of others.

I feel fortunate that I work in a school in which teachers and families are committed to raising children who are concerned about justice.  There are no standardized tests that measure our children’s empathy, but we know it is critical to teach this quality anyway.  Here’s to a more kind and just world.  Together, we can work to achieve this goal.

Parent Book Club: Raising Human Beings

There is no doubt in my mind that being a parent is the hardest job on the planet.  As parents, we worry constantly about our children’s health and safety.  Add to that, our concern that they grow up to be the best selves they can be: Adults who are confident, interested in the world, able to fend for themselves socially and economically, loved by others and loving in return. Every decision we make as parents is made with an eye to this end result.  And we want our kids to continue to talk with us (parents of middle schoolers are aware of a silent phase) and to seek our advice and companionship.

It is indeed a daunting task and one that I am honored to participate in alongside of you.

Teachers and administrators at 276 work to implement an approach to helping children called Collaborative & Proactive Solutions drawing on the work of Dr. Ross Greene, a child psychologist who was on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School for more than twenty years.  He left that position to create a nonprofit organization called Lives in the Balance. He has found through his experience that working with children on solving problems has more durable results than other approaches.  His most recent book Raising Human Beings is about how parents can create a collaborative partnership with their children.

I am thrilled that Dr. Greene has agreed to speak to our community on the evening of January 19 at 6:30.  After presenting about his work and the ideas in Raising Human Beings, he will be on hand to sign books. You can register for the event.

In preparation for Dr. Greene’s talk, we will have a parent book club at school on Raising Human Beings on Tuesday, January 10 at 8 am in the library.

Raising Human Beings is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Raising Human Beings at Amazon.  If you purchase this book through our school webpage, we receive a donation to our PTA.

Raising Human Beings at Barnes and Noble.

 

Responding to the Election

This past year and half of electioneering have exposed an unflattering picture of political discourse in our country.  Yesterday morning, the children came in to school concerned struggling to understand the results of the election, wondering about what would happen and what it means for them, their families and the country.  Parents have been reaching out for help processing this election with their children.  Staff at 276 rallied to help our students begin to process this surprising turn of events.

Our kids learn a lot from watching grown ups. The thought that kept me up most of the night Tuesday is what message they take away from the election.   They will have questions and we need to answer them as best we can.   They may be wondering if it is okay to speak and act disrespectfully of and towards others.  We need to make sure that they know it is never okay to be disrespectful, that we expect them to be kind and compassionate to themselves and others and that we continue to work to insure their physical and emotional safety.
We will continue our work at school towards creating a more just world — one where all children have the right to be safe, to be loved, to be treated respectfully —  a world in which we expect our children (and ourselves) to treat others with dignity and compassion.  We have units of study on this built into our planned curriculum. Currently our fourth graders are discussing a variety of social issues as they read books that explore topics such as bullying and civil rights and the larger consequences of action and inaction.  Our eighth graders are studying human rights issues in collaboration with the Jewish Museum.  Our kindergarteners practice the “golden rule” and discuss how we need to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. In myriad ways, we weave compassion, respect and responsibility for our actions into the school day and year for all our children.
I spoke to the teachers  on Tuesday about the importance of making sure our curriculum helps students learn to be critical thinkers — to evaluate information depending on its source, to question our own assumptions and the assumptions of others, to engage in democratic, civic and civil discourse. Too often, I fear that schooling is a place where compliance and getting the “right” answer is valued over building deep thinking skills. The faculty and I are constantly working towards helping kids learn to think and to question.  Our children and community also engage in service projects. Whether we are participating in a food drive, raising money for cancer research, or creating a chalk mural on the side walk as a forum to raise awareness about issues of justice, we are talking with our children about their lives and ways that they can help others.
We also are very proud of the inclusive nature of our school.  We celebrate the diverse life experiences of our families and faculty. The world is a complicated and messy place.  We need to learn to get along with all kinds of people. To do this, we need to think about the implications of our actions on others and work to be honest and kind.  When kids make mistakes, and they will, we need to help them reflect on their actions and repair the harm they may have caused others.
Yesterday provided us with a powerful “teachable moment.”  Teachers led conversations with the students about how democracy works.  Once we vote, our work is not over. We need to be clear about our values and make sure our responses to events at home, school and the world are aligned to them.  Conversations in classrooms today were around qualities of leadership, taking time to reflect on our visions for our country and our contributions in achieving that vision, and learning about the election process. Political conversations are complicated for teachers. They worked to create safe spaces for students to agree and disagree.  These conversations at school and at home help children learn to be active and positive members of civic society. This, too, is an important aspect of our school curriculum.
What can we do as adults?
  • First, be mindful of our own language and behaviors. Our children watch and learn. How we carry ourselves sends an important message. What we do and say matters.  We don’t want to use divisive us/them language. We need to be having productive conversations with each other.
  • Help our children think about issues of justice and actions they can take to make the world a safer and more just world.
  • Read books with our children about difference makers — Rosa Parks, Sonia Sotomayor, Susan B Anthony, Malala.  There are many picture book biographies that broach these topics in appropriate ways.  Basia and the librarians at the NYPL can help you locate some of these titles.
  • You may have seen this article on Huffington Post that also has some guidance.
  • Talk about losing and winning with grace and show your children how it is done.  This year, more than most, the graceless election season requires all of us adults to lose or win with grace.  It is the path needed for our country to heal.

Music at 276

One of the less well known aspects of our program at 276 is our performing arts.  This year, we have an exceptionally rich music program.  Stephanie Mazarakis continues to teach band to students in grades 4-8.  She also has developed an outstanding general music history class for our 8th graders.  They track the development of popular music from the blues through to hip-hop. Stephanie leads the 8th graders through an exploration of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the musicians that influenced them and who they in turn influence.  Each year, this program is enhanced through a partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Four times a year, we have jazz musicians perform for the 8th graders and talk about the development and importance of jazz in the American story. Here is a clip from our first performance last Thursday.  (Students are clapping in the background.)

Krista Bruschini, our new music teacher, is teaching general music to students in kindergarten through third grade. She is also teaching chorus to our students in grades 5-8.  By offering chorus, we are giving students in grades 5-8 the option of learning an instrument or performing vocal music.

I am so proud of our rich music program this year. Learning about music and the skills of working collaboratively on a performance  allow students to tap into different aspects of themselves.

Mathematics in Middle School

First, I want to assure all parents that we will continue to offer Algebra 1 for students who are ready for the fast pace and academic rigor of this program. For the past 5 years, we have offered Integrated Algebra or Algebra 1 and the corresponding Regents Test for our 8th graders.

Last year, Ariel and Dawn held an info session for parents on tracking and mathematics. This power point is available on our school website under the for parents tab/math workshops and information/grouping in mathematics. Key findings in mathematics research is that there is surprisingly little benefit of tracking (ability grouping) in math.

Our goals are for our middle school students to have a strong foundation in math concepts, to be able to communicate about mathematics effectively (in problem solving, representing, modeling, writing, justifying and discussion), to work with a diverse (in many ways) population of peers, and to have confidence in their ability to solve complex math problems effectively.

Some of our students are ready to tackle Algebra 1 by the time they get to 8th grade. Some are not.  We want to make sure we are setting students up for successful math experiences in middle school, high school and beyond. We will be sharing some programming considerations, information about middle school math in general, and criteria that we use to consider if students are ready to take on the accelerated pace and academic demands of Algebra 1 at an information session for parents from 8:30 to 9:10 on Friday, November 4 in the auditorium. We look forward to sharing with you how we are working to ensure that each student has a rigorous and enriching math experience.