Monthly Archives: January 2014

Teaching is a Three-Way Street

By Earl Jones January 30th 2014 5:20 PM

One of the perks of my teaching career is that I get to travel for work. This travel doesn’t take me to other countries, or even other cities. Rather, my work takes me around my school community, visiting the families of my students.

There is no teacher who would deny that building personal relationships with students and families contributes to student achievement. Fortunately, my school, Bancroft Elementary, partners with the Flamboyan Foundation. Founded in 2006, the Flamboyan Foundation aims to increase educational outcomes of public school students by providing teachers with training, resources, and assistance related to family engagement.  One key component of the partnership is that all teachers must conduct home visits. During the summer and fall months, teachers visit the homes of their students to initiate and strengthen relationships with parents.

As a participant in this program, it is truly enlightening for me to be able to talk with families and students during these home visits. I discuss the hopes and dreams of my students and expectations for the school year, such as classroom participation and homework. But, most importantly, I get to know families and students on a personal level.

Through these home visits, I’ve started to understand what influences the character of my students. Students have shown off their trophies and pets. Immigrant parents have told me stories from their childhood in their home countries. Families have even shared with me their hobbies and interests. Parents have also shared disheartening news such as past homelessness, divorce, family death, and illnesses that provide insight into a student’s emotional state.

Making this teacher-family connection allows students to feel a sense of security in the classroom, allowing them to take more risks when learning. It permits teachers to cater to students not just academically, but socially, mentally, and emotionally. It goes without saying that conducting these home visits has opened a three-way street among student, family, and teacher in my classroom.

Earl Jones is a fourth grade teacher at Bancroft Elementary School.


The Common Core for our Uncommon Learners

By Jennifer Krystopowicz January 29th, 2014 1:45 PM

As a special education teacher in DCPS for the past seven years, I have learned to accommodate and modify almost everything the general education curriculum has to offer so that students with disabilities, particularly my students with autism and intellectual disabilities, can access the material.

With the common core at the forefront of our instruction, special education teachers like myself are faced with the new challenge of making the standards accessible to all learners.  Difficult? Yes! Impossible? No!

The following are three tips that led me to success in ensuring that all learners have exposure to the common core.

1.  Simplify the standard into ONE task:

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) in Tampa, Florida.  LDC is committed to equipping elementary school students with the literacy skills they need to succeed in middle and high school by providing a collection of templates that are fill-in-the-blank “shells” that allow teachers to insert text to be read, writing to be produced, and content to be addressed.

To get a better understanding of this approach, let’s look at the common core standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.3.3: Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

The LDC task template for general education may ask: After reading_____________________, choose a character and describe their traits.  Use at least 3 examples from the text to show how their actions play a role in the events of the story.

It’s essential to simplify this task because some students with disabilities find it difficult to complete multitask questions and may get overwhelmed or discouraged during this activity. By asking students to complete only one task, teachers can eliminate that stress while still allowing students to reach their full potential and access the common core.

This is how I would simplify the question into one taskAfter reading_____________________, choose a character and describe the character by including at least 3 traits described in the text. 

Of course, teachers can modify this task template further by providing pictures, larger print, or bullets, depending on the needs of their students.  Just remember that sticking to one task is essential!

2.  Manipulatives glue the pieces together:

Every common core lesson should be supplemented with a manipulative when teaching our most difficult learners. Many teachers find this counterintuitive, thinking that manipulatives have to be fancy and complex or fearing that they cause students to get distracted.  However, manipulatives can be as simple as using a graphic organizer to generate ideas, or even using a highlighter to follow along while reading!  Manipulatives are imperative for our students with special needs to access the general education material because they give students a visual model that allows them to piece together the areas of learning that they are struggling with.

Here is an example of easy to make manipulative for workstations:

Counting money workstation

Counting money workstation 

3.  Open mindset creates open learners: 

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”  At the end of every experiment is a result, and if you don’t like the result you can always make a change.  As a special education teacher, I encourage you to experiment when you are teaching students with special needs.  Don’t be afraid to try something new to help your students access the common core.  Keeping an open mind will expose your students to new ways of learning, and one of those ways might be the answer to helping your student understand a concept that he or she had not been able to previously master.

Learning how to incorporate the common core into the curriculum of our most challenging learners takes time.  With the release of the common core only three years ago, this process is still ongoing.  However, through experimentation, I have found that these tips are a great starting point to drive student achievement.  I look forward to future discoveries about what works best for my students!

Jennifer Krystopowicz is a special education teacher at Tyler Elementary School.

English as a Second Subject: How Social Studies Teachers Can Use Literacy Techniques to Support Student Achievement

By Sean McGrath January 28th, 2014 10:00 AM

In social studies, we have a tendency to focus on content: who did what, when, where, and why? We’re obsessed with facts, order, and chronology, and we want our students to be, too. I once received a paper from an eighth-grade student who had written the following sentence in response to the prompt, “Why did the Pilgrims sign the Mayflower Compact?” (all spelling errors are from the paper): “The Pligrum singed the mayflower compak to fre th salves from slavary.”

I approached the student after class, because I found it so difficult to believe that a student who flourished with brilliant verbal responses in class could struggle so much when writing a response to this basic question.

“Hey Malia*, can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, Mr. McGrath, what’s up?”

“Hey, can I ask you a question about the Pilgrims?”


“Why did they sign the Mayflower Compact in 1620?”

“Because they needed to create their own laws because they weren’t part of any colony in North America so they had to make their own laws.” I nodded in ascension, and then dramatically, perhaps overly so, I produced her assignment and showed it to her.

“So why did you write something else?” Malia was quiet for a bit and then laughed.

“I don’t know, Mr. McGrath. That ain’t the answer though.”

It was this interaction with Malia that completely changed my belief about the role of social studies in education. Yes, dates, facts, and times are important, but being able to analyze that importance is even more critical. It’s why I’ve absorbed every piece of information provided to me at the quarterly district-wide professional development days. As the district turns its focus on literacy, it’s gaining importance in social studies. As a result, social studies teachers have been coached on how to construct lessons to both support our students’ reading goals and reach our curricular objectives. We’ve been taught how to lead activities called close reads, a careful and sustained interpretation of a complex, above grade-level text. At the school level, we have weekly staff meetings focused on the integration of literacy and social studies (or literacy and science) in the middle school curriculum.

Since implementing literacy-focused activities within my classroom, I’ve noticed that my students are better able to express themselves through writing. Every morning – or just about – when my students walk into my classroom, there is a Do Now on the board that challenges them to manipulate the English language to form complex sentences. One of my favorites is “But, Because, So,” where I give my students the prompt: “The Pilgrims signed the Mayflower Compact” (to go along with Malia’s story from earlier) and students have to answer the statement in three different ways using the words but, because, and so. This gives them a better grasp on these transition words and allows them to reflect on their own reasons for specifically choosing one word over another.

The most recent staff meeting was about sentence structures, and excitedly, I altered my planned Do Now for that day to incorporate this new focus area. In this activity, called “When, Where, and Why?” (notice a theme?), I provided my students with a short stem: [noun] [verb]. In my example, I listed “George Washington” as the noun and “rides” as the verb. Students then came up with the When, Where, and Why parts of the sentence (When did George Washington ride? Where did he ride? And so on). After class, I had students turn in their warm-up sheets so that I could gauge my effectiveness in explaining the concept to the class. For the most part, I received some pretty mundane and factually accurate sentences. But then, I saw the holy grail of sentences: “In 1372, George Washington rode to Australia because he was hungry.” Anachronistically absurd but structurally sound, this student received an A.

We’ve been bombarded with sentence starters, graphic organizers, signal words, writing activity books, and a host of other materials that seem to eschew our content for that of the English teacher’s. Indeed, many history purists decry this marginalization of social studies. They seem to insist that the continued prioritization of reading and math over social studies and science is having a detrimental effect on our student population. While I would prefer for my subject to be seen as the paragon of education that I believe it to be, I also know that if our students can’t read, they certainly can’t appreciate the nuanced philosophies of Thomas Jefferson.

Sean McGrath is a social studies teacher at Stuart Hobson Middle School and a member of the Chancellor’s Teachers Cabinet.

School Partnerships: Strengthening in Two Ways

By Amanda Rogers January 23rd, 2014 6:00 PM

Very often in teaching, my colleagues and I find that we are attached to our routines, keeping the train on its tracks, moving full steam ahead.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. By stepping outside of the routine and seeking out educational partnerships, we can give students authentic experiences with people outside of the educational world and see an enriched learning environment in the classroom.

Amanda Rogers Image 1 In my experience, there are two kinds of partnerships that teachers can seek out to enhance their classrooms and inspire their students; partnerships that provide a service and partnerships that provide a product. Partnerships that provide a service can include activties like therapeutic yoga classes, musical performances by local artists, and science programs with mobile laboratories. Product-oriented partnerships can bring school supplies, modern technology, and healthier local food to schools.

This past summer, when I was researching what kind of service partnership I wanted to bring to Langley Elementary, I knew I wanted it to be mental health oriented. In an age where we are constantly measuring student achievement via test taking, I wanted my students to be able to feel successful before the pencil ever marked their tests. I wanted them to feel confident in controlling their emotions, reflecting on their lives, and using their minds and bodies in a way that the regular education classroom was not teaching them. This is where the non-profit organization YoKid came in.

YoKid is a non-profit that provides instruction in yoga for kids and teens in the DMV area. It was created to help kids and teens confront the complex challenges of living in an urban environment by increasing their self-awareness, concentration levels, and physical activity through yoga.

Fast forward to this October, when YoKid was part of my school’s schedule. Along with ten other students at Langley, I lay on my yoga mat and marveled at how engaged my students were. I could see immediately how beneficial this partnership was going to be for my student’s wellbeing and the overall building environment. The yoga instructor was professional, motivational, and gave the students exposure to an activity that some of them had never even heard of. As Richard Karpel, the President and CEO of Yoga Alliance recently said, “It’s hardly surprising, then, that yoga-in-school programs like the Washington, D.C.-based are widely praised by both teachers and parents.” (Karpel, Richard. “Exercise or Religion? Yoga is for Everyone.” USA Today 20 May 2013)

When it comes to service-related partnerships, I have the most experience with Donors Choose. is an online charity that connects classrooms to the general public who want to help students in need. Public school teachers post classroom project requests on the web site, and individuals can give any amount to the project that they choose to support. When a project reaches its funding goal, Donors Choose ships the materials to the school.

As an art teacher, I am always scrounging for supplies for my students to use. Donors Choose helped my classroom in immeasurable ways, providing my students with simple supplies such as markers, crayons, and paper to more complex materials like clay and digital cameras. Donors Choose is a wonderful partnership for all teachers in need of supplies, no matter what the subject. A well-stocked classroom directly links to student achievement and student engagement.

Amanda Rogers Image 2

So, consider stepping outside of your well-oiled routine to provide your students with a partnership related to your teaching field. Whether it is a hands-on experience like a science assembly or a motivational speech from a local athlete turned professional, find what inspires your students and partner with that cause.

Follow Amanda Rogers on Twitter: @NEcityart

Amanda Rogers teaches visual arts at Langley Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate!

By Angelique Kwabenah January 22nd, 2014 7:00 PM

There are eight hours in a school day. In that eight-hour time period, principals expect teachers to find the time to collaborate.

Really??? Yes! It can and must be done for student success!

When I first became a teacher, I worked in isolation because I felt like I didn’t have the time to reach out to my colleagues for help. As the years progressed, I learned that collaboration actually took a lot of the stress away because I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.  Over the years, collaboration has helped me improve my practice as a teacher by acquiring new strategies from colleagues in addition to providing me with feedback on strategies that I currently utilize.

At DCPS, collaboration is encouraged through collaborative planning sessions.  These meetings are a team effort, and every teacher has the opportunity to participate and benefit from them. At the Incarcerated Youth Program, the school where I currently teach, there are two collaborative planning groups. The SPED Team meets every week to schedule meetings, discuss students, and consider new strategies. The other focus team is comprised of all content area teachers and service providers. This team meets weekly and each content area teacher is assigned to present a Teach strategy, a Common Core strategy, or a Cross-Curricular strategy to the group. Following that activity, the school worker presents stress management tips and behavior management strategies that can be easily implemented in each classroom. During the last ten minutes of the collaboration meeting, teachers give comments, ask questions, share concerns, and give out kudos to one another. Teachers are given an opportunity to share and provide feedback to the presenter and to reflect upon how they might use the information.

As the lead teacher, my job is to ensure that each staff member has all the materials necessary for a successful presentation and to follow up with teachers after the meeting.  I look forward to collaborative time because it gives me an opportunity to learn from colleagues and to receive encouragement on those days when it seems like everything isn’t going exactly as planned. I am always looking for new ways to present material in a reading context, and the collaborative meetings provide me with a feasible way to get that done given the time constraints throughout the day.

Collaborative time at IYP is an opportunity for teachers to let their hair down and come together in a non-threatening, supportive meeting of their peers in order to collectively decide what school-wide strategies are working and what strategies are not working. We collaborate in order to elevate the quality of instruction that we provide to our students. We can, we must, and we do collaborate at IYP! Do you??

Angelique Kwabenah is a Reading Specialist at the Incarcerated Youth Program in Washington, DC.

Three Tips for Successful Teacher Leadership

By Rabiah Harris January 16th, 2014 3:45 PM

“How is it going?” she asked me.  She asked every day whether I had a smile or a frown. She asked and waited for my answer, never rushing off to complete her own tasks.  I was grateful.  Whenever I stopped in her room, she wanted to help and would offer countless resources and ideas.  When I came up with a new idea for the chemistry teachers to try, she, a 40-year veteran of teaching, would listen to me and try it out herself.

That woman was Ms. Petree.  She wasn’t my department chair, instructional coach, or principal.  She had no higher job title other than “Chemistry Teacher,” but she was more than a teacher to me.  She was a leader, defined as someone who guides a group, and she did it without the title or the monetary rewards.  She had many years of experience teaching what I had been teaching for just weeks, and I relied on her tremendously. When I look back at her mentorship during my first three years teaching at Wilson Senior High School, I feel nothing but grateful.

When I began teaching in DCPS almost nine years ago, I would never have imagined that I would one day be a teacher leader, helping to push achievement in academic areas and to build on the great work already being done. Yet, here I am. I am a science teacher and a TeachPlus Teacher Transformation Team (t3) member as the science team lead.   I have learned many things in my roles, but here are the three tips that led me to success:

  1. Be humble.  Whatever leadership position you take at your school or in your department, it’s not about you.  It’s about the work you do to raise student achievement.  Ms. Petree never reminded me of her many years of teaching experience when she was introducing her own ideas or listening to mine. She was humble in the work that she did, always focusing on the progress of those around her rather than herself.
  2. Maintain purpose.   Always keep sight of the reason you are doing the work. Whatever you team’s goal is, whether it is family engagement, positive behavior systems, or content mastery, keep what brought you to the position, school, and profession in mind.  When our chemistry division meets, we have goals in mind of what we want to do, whether it is making common assessments or reordering units. This keeps us grounded in the work of student achievement and tracking data across groups of students and teachers for equity.
  3. Grow capacity within your team.  Always remember that everyone on your team has something to bring to the table. Find ways to make sure that not only does each member feel included, but he or she also knows that their expertise is valued and needed.

Want to continue the conversation? Connect with Rabiah on Twitter at @dcSTEMspark.

 Rabiah Harris teaches science at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7. 

Students Learn More by Doing: Benefits of Assigning Projects to Your Students

By Destinee Hodge January 15th, 2014 10:30 AM

I don’t know a single teacher who wants learning to be boring. I also don’t know a single teacher who wants to do all the heavy lifting in their classroom. Yet these are two things that, from my experience, happen quite often as the school year trudges along. We begin printing worksheets without regard for our students’ perspective and without pushing them to be inventive, independent thinkers.

I remember taking one week toward the end of my first year of teaching to actually sit down and do the work I was assigning to my kids. This is boring, I thought to myself. All of a sudden, I could understand why my seventh grade class was not having it.

by Destinee Hodge

by Destinee Hodge

That experience got me thinking. I wanted to make learning interesting, and I wanted my students to take ownership over their work. I also wanted my students to actively use their minds and begin to think in different ways. What could I do to accomplish these ends?

Enter project-based learning. Of course we’ve all heard of classroom projects being hailed as generally awesome. But when you sit down to plan, what does including a project in your lesson look like? And sure, projects make learning interesting…but is that it? Since projects are a huge part of my teaching, I thought I’d address a few common questions about integrating them into the classroom.


Q: Sure, projects make learning more interesting, but is that it?

A: The biggest benefit of assigning projects is that it shifts the responsibility of learning from you to your students. For example, once I do the preliminary work of creating a rubric and a detailed outline of the project, it’s up to my students to do the work and me to monitor. That’s much more sustainable than constantly being the creative force behind everything in the classroom. Also, having your students create something is considered a higher order thinking skill on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Q: Uh, you teach Spanish, do projects really apply to every subject?

A: They most certainly do! While the nature of my subject lends itself to projects more often, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be done in every subject area.  For example, math teachers can have their students pretend to be interior designers and calculate the area of different spaces in a room. It requires you to really think, but the result is that your students will want to do the work.

Q: Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t have time for a project.

A: Not true. A project can be anywhere from one day to one year in length. YOU determine how long a project should be. For example, I’ve had my students create a skit about ordering food in a restaurant in one day and then present it the next.  I’ve also had students read information about Hispanic culture and then create a visual representation on chart paper (all in the same day). You just need to be intentional about planning appropriately.

Q: I have no idea how to plan a project. How do I start?

A: The most important factor is that projects cannot be random. You need projects to be integrated into your unit plan so that they will allow students to show mastery of specific standards.

  1. Decide on the content and skills you want them to learn. This is where you look at your unit plan and decide what information you want the project to help your students bring together.
  2. Develop rubrics, formats, and exemplar. This is SUPER important. If you don’t have clear guidelines, you will receive a number of completely different products.
  3. Develop a timeline and scope for your project. How long do you want students to be able to work on it? When do you want the final product to be due? If you don’t do this, you’ll find yourself spending much more time than necessary on the project because your students don’t have a sense of urgency.

Q: Is it better for students to work in groups or individually?

A: You know your students best, so you need to decide. Working in groups is obviously a life skill (life is in and of itself a group project), but at the same time, you may want each student’s individual expression to show through during the project.

Learning can be both rigorous and engaging. Hopefully you’ll consider using projects to make it both of these things.

Destinee Hodge is a Spanish teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7.