Principal turns to ‘authentic’ lessons, new teachers

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During his first week as principal of Corliss High School, Anthony Spivey made the evening news.

Large numbers of students were arriving late for school and hanging outside the building. Spivey ordered them to come inside. When they refused, he locked them out.

Students went home and told their parents, who called the media. In front of television cameras, Spivey explained why he locked the doors, and said he would stick by his decision.

That was two and a half years ago. These days, fewer students are tardy, and those who are caught hanging around outside the school know they will suffer the wrath of Spivey, a big man with a booming voice.

Spivey, who spent a year as principal of Partee Academic Prep Center before moving on to Corliss, has shaken up the Pullman neighborhood high school. Some teachers say for the better, others say it’s too soon to tell. But Corliss staffers generally agree on one thing.

“Mr. Spivey has brought order and stability,” says James Simich, a longtime English teacher and counselor. “Look at the hallway. Do you see any students?” Spivey has also required students to wear uniforms of white, collared shirts and black pants.

This fall, he replaced nearly half of his teaching staff and, with a $300,000 grant from the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation, he also unveiled a host of initiatives to improve instruction.

Last spring, the Fry Foundation launched a five-year, $6.5 million school improvement project at six CPS high schools. Corliss will get $1.25 million over five years.

“We were looking for schools in the middle range,” says Senior Program Officer Ann Billingsley.

Principal-teacher leadership teams from each school attended training workshops and then wrote proposals explaining how they would use the grant. “The schools came up with pretty different proposals,” Billingsley says. “The process generated a lot of thought about how they can make improvements.”

The heart of Corliss’ proposal is to improve the quality of instruction, first in freshman and sophomore classes, then expanding to the upper grades in later years.

“We’ve selected one of the most important, yet most difficult things to do,” Spivey says. “You can’t [blame] your students. We’re a general high school. We serve the public. If our students read at 6th-grade, 7th-grade level, what do you do? You have to improve the quality of the teaching.”

This year, Corliss is spending part of its Fry grant to pay two veteran teachers to serve as instructional team leaders, coaching freshman and sophomore teachers in a variety of tasks from lesson planning to classroom management to teaching strategies.

Some of the money will pick up the tab for two external partners. David Jolliffe, a DePaul University English professor, is showing teachers how to create “authentic” lessons that teach students to construct and apply knowledge, not just to memorize and rehash it. The other external partner, consultant Patricia Buckney, is analyzing test data and using it to introduce a new teaching strategy called Focused Thinking.

The proposal also calls for students and teachers to create portfolios of their work. Teachers also are being asked to attend at least four staff development sessions outside of school, to observe colleagues’ classrooms and to videotape themselves so they can analyze their own teaching.

Every Wednesday, freshman and sophomore teachers attend a two-hour staff development session after school, and every few weeks students leave early so teachers can have more workshops.

Some teachers say the number of new initiatives is overwhelming. “A lot of teachers are confused because there are so many new techniques being thrown at us,” says one veteran teacher. “Student portfolios, teacher portfolios, CASE scores, TAP scores. We’re told to teach at a higher level, and then when our students are failing, we’re called in because our failure rates are so high. It’s very frustrating.”

However, one of Corliss’ new teachers, Dan Bradshaw, views the new teaching strategies and assessments in a different light. “The things we’re trying can only help,” says Bradshaw, who teaches English. “You have to have high expectations and go out and take chances.”

Thursday, Jan. 10

Teachers get coaches

Celeste Carr was an English teacher at Corliss for seven years. This year she has been promoted to instructional team leader for freshman academy teachers. Juelene Bean, a Corliss English teacher for 19 years, is the team leader for sophomore academy teachers. Salaries for both teachers are paid through the Fry grant.

“We provide the teachers with materials, help them prepare for testing and provide them with staff development once a week,” says Carr. She and Bean also observe classrooms and then follow up with teachers to give them pointers. Both say they aim to assist, not evaluate, their peers.

“Our role is like a coach or mentor,” says Carr. “For the most part, it stays between us and the teacher. The principal will ask how things are going, what are the issues overall we see. Our role is to prepare [teachers] for an official observation.”

This morning, Carr is visiting new teacher Claire Gadbois, whose environmental science class is reviewing for tomorrow’s quiz and getting ready for the semester final exam next week. Gadbois passes out a checklist to each student that shows them which assignments they’re missing.

“Replace your zeros people,” she implores them. “I’m giving you a chance to pass and make up this homework. All these zeros are pulling your grades down.”

Gadbois is giving them other breaks, too. Dropping their lowest exam grade. Making the next day’s quiz “open book.”

After class, Gadbois tells Carr that the checklist was a wake-up call for her students. “They’re scared,” she says. Carr suggests that Gadbois give students their own checklist of assignments so they can keep track of what they’ve turned in and avoid end-of-semester panic.

Carr is keeping her own checklist, tracking what she observes in class in categories such as “what’s positive” and “suggestions to improve.” Later, she meets with teachers to discuss what she observed.

Both Carr and Bean are getting high marks from many teachers. “They’re putting in a tremendous amount of time to make our jobs easier,” says earth science teacher Mark Dring, who taught at a Catholic high school in Chicago before switching to Corliss this summer.

“They’re the best part of our staff development here,” he adds. “They’ve helped me plan lessons, and they’ve been in the classroom a long time and have good ideas. They’re wonderful and very helpful.”

Monday, Jan. 14

Computers at last

A new foreign language computer lab is ready to open this week. This afternoon, technology coordinator Delbert Washington is checking for correctly installed software on the lab’s 23 new IBM computers. German, French and Spanish classes will begin using the lab weekly.

Two years ago, Corliss had no computer labs.

“Before Mr. Spivey came, we had one computer on the Internet in the library” and often it didn’t work, says Washington. “He decided to use part of our [discretionary] budget for technology.”

In the last couple of years, Corliss has created three other computer labs for math/science, business and English. The school has also wired 56 classrooms for the Internet, and central office has promised to furnish desktop computers for each.

“We’ve come a long way in two years,” says Washington, who proudly shows off the lab’s voice recognition software. Students speak into a headset, and the computer corrects their pronunciation of foreign words. “The students are going to love this,” he says.

“This is going to be great,” says German teacher Suzanne Cucchetti, a new teacher who taught English in Germany last year. “The kids will have a chance to hear a native speaker and try to [speak] like they do.”

Spivey says his push for technology was part of his drive to update instruction and the school’s facilities.

“The roof was leaking; you couldn’t see out of the windows,” he recalls. “We fixed those things. We got new air-conditioning, an electrical upgrade, and we got wired through the e-rate process. We have a lot of things we still need to work on but we’re moving forward.”

Moving forward was the reason Spivey says he hired so many new teachers. “Over the summer we made a decision to try and bring in people who were receptive to new ideas,” he says. “We wanted fresh faces, fresh ideas, people who have a lot of energy.”

Some teachers left on their own, others “were encouraged to leave in one fashion or another,” Spivey adds. Roughly 35 teachers on Corliss’ 76-member faculty are new. Total student enrollment is 1,060.

One teacher says many faculty members left because they had problems with Spivey’s demanding style of management. “If you have a problem with someone, call them into your office to talk about it, don’t do it in front of their peers,” says the teacher, who recalls several incidents of peers being reprimanded publicly. “You can’t treat people like that. A lot of them decided to retire, and I hear more are leaving at the end of this year.”

Some who remain credit Spivey for including them in the hiring process and delegating more responsibility to them.

Asked if he is difficult to work for, Spivey responds: “I’m driven by what I’m trying to do. I have certain expectations and standards that I try to set. I try to make sure those expectations are realistic.”

He has the support of Corliss’ local school council, which last spring awarded him a four-year contract after he had been interim for two years. LSC president Don Martin credits Spivey for steering Corliss off probation during his first year as interim.

In 1999, only 18 percent of the school’s 9th- and 10th-graders scored at or above national norms in reading on the TAP. A year later, 25 percent hit the mark. In 2001, scores slipped to just under 22 percent. Spivey isn’t sure why Corliss’ scores dropped last year, but he says the dip mirrored a 3 percent drop in CPS’ citywide high school reading scores.

Teachers say improved discipline, an intensive reading program and dividing Corliss into smaller schools—one for each grade level—helped boost scores initially. “He brought a new system here,” says Martin. “Breaking the school into smaller groups was instrumental in getting off probation.”

Wednesday, Jan. 16

Frosh-soph experiment

For advisory period this morning, thick mats are rolled into a large, open area on the first floor. Students take off their shoes, empty their pockets and begin practicing aikido. Mark Dring, a new science teacher who has studied the Japanese martial art for five years, leads the class.

Corliss is experimenting with a new twist on freshman and sophomore advisory. Students choose among 23 areas of interest and spend one period a week for a semester working on a project. Gospel choir, sign language, poetry writing and chess are among their choices.

Eight aikido students are working on the three moves they’ll need to master by next week to pass advisory. Six others are sitting against a wall, not participating. Most of them are basketball players who are afraid they will get injured, says Dring. (Originally, advisory projects were pass-fail courses, but the school has since changed the policy.)

Dring demonstrates a backward roll, tucking in one knee underneath him. The eight students try it. “It looks all neat when he does it, but we look all sloppy,” complains one.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Dring responds. When freshman and sophomore academy teachers were asked to propose a personal skill they could teach advisory students, Aikido was an easy choice for Dring.

“I love doing aikido, so for me, it’s great to be able to be teaching it,” he says. “Hopefully, it will teach the kids discipline and focus, and they can apply that in other areas, like in the classroom.”

Students have mixed reviews. Freshman Jeremy Thornton says it’s more fun than sitting in a classroom for a traditional advisory. But sophomore Latora Thornton, who isn’t participating, says she doesn’t like all of the rolling around and she’d rather be sitting in a class. aikido was different than she thought it would be, Latora says. Next semester, she plans to choose a different project.

Meanwhile, everyone in Room 113 is participating in the advisory project there. Harvey Burton, who directs Corliss’ celebrated marching band, is teaching his students how to build and paint small step stools. Burton received $200 of the Fry grant to pay for supplies.

Burton has shown his students how to use three colors to paint a simple island sunset on the top of the stools. Some students have already completed their step stools and have sold them to school staffers. Burton hopes the sales will offset the cost of supplies for his advisory project next semester.

Freshman Darrien Wilson paints an orange and yellow sunset on his step stool. “I like project advisory better than wasting time sitting and talking,” he says. “Here you can put your time to creating something positive. And I like to draw and paint.

Wednesday, Jan. 23

Students, teachers compile portfolios

This year for the first time, teachers are required to keep portfolios with examples of assignments and reflections on their teaching. Freshman and sophomore teachers must turn in a first-semester portfolio to the instructional team leaders by the end of February. Junior and senior teachers are required to file portfolios with Assistant Principal Betty Sandifer by the end of the school year.

External partner David Jolliffe has been charged with helping freshman and sophomore teachers learn how to compile portfolios. Today, consultant Annie Knepler, who works with Jolliffe, is talking to 16 teachers who are gathered in the media center for the 3-to-5 p.m. workshop.

Teachers get overtime pay to attend, and about three-quarters of them usually come, says instructional team leader Carr, who begins the workshop, then turns it over to Knepler. “We want them here, but we can’t force them to come,” she adds.

After the group snacks on pizza, Carr explains what portfolios should include: one authentic learning assignment, samples of students’ work from that assignment, a professional development log, a peer observation report (teachers must observe at least one colleague) and documentation of parent or community involvement, such as a student call log and a written narrative of a classroom lesson or student field trip.

Knepler asks the teachers about their students’ winter break projects. For instance, English and history teachers teamed up and created a joint assignment. Students were told to research a historical period, then become a character from that era and write a short essay from that person’s point of view.

One teacher reports the project was a success in her class. One student dressed up in period clothing to read her essay to the class. Another teacher says her students were initially excited about the assignment, but many came back after break without having completed the work. Several teachers concur that struggling students were more likely than A and B students to do the work. Perhaps those students blew off the project because they believed they would pass anyway, they say.

“This is exactly the kind of reflecting you want to do for the teacher portfolios,” says Knepler. “The ‘why’ is important. Think about why something worked or didn’t work.”

After the workshop, several teachers say they see the value in compiling portfolios. “At first, I thought it was going to be a lot of work,” says Marsha Gooch, a new math teacher. “But when I broke it down, I saw it was mostly stuff I already had. You just have to get it all together.”

Jolliffe or someone from his team visits Corliss every two weeks, helping teachers assemble portfolios or showing them how to use authentic pedagogy, or applied learning, for projects and for daily instruction.

Authentic pedagogy calls for assignments to be connected to the students’ lives, says Jolliffe. Teachers were wary at first but recently more are buying into the concept, he adds.

“It has to do with the kinds of questions you ask students,” says instructional team leader Bean. “It gets the child to think and go further. These assignments are forcing our students to extend themselves.”

However, getting students who won’t do homework to do more difficult assignments can be tough, say several teachers, who estimate only half of their freshmen and sophomores turned in their winter break assignments.

Getting students to show up over winter break for extra credit also turned into a lesson in frustration for teachers, who had planned lessons around exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry that aimed to boost CASE science scores. Only four students showed up.

“We sent letters home to 250 kids and hoped we’d get a decent turnout,” says one science teacher. “It was so disappointing.”

Teachers have also struggled to get freshmen and sophomores to do quarterly portfolios. Veteran math teacher Paula Murphy says about two-thirds of her first- and second-period classes turned in first-quarter portfolios. Honors students were more receptive, she says. Only four of 28 students didn’t hand them in.

Freshmen were more willing than sophomores to do portfolios because they were new to high school and didn’t know what to expect, Murphy says. “The sophomores were more resistant,” she says. “For those that did do it, it was worth the time,” she adds. “It gets them to reflect on their work.”

Murphy keeps boxes with folders of student work in the back of her classroom. Students select two or three pieces of work to put in their portfolios, along with narrative reflections on each piece, an essay on what they’ve learned that quarter and a cover letter. Portfolios will count for 20 percent of the students’ semester grades.

“Education is changing,” Murphy notes. “There are many ways of assessing [students’] progress. There should be a balance in the way we assess students, and testing should be just one part of that.”

Team leader Bean says she expects more students to turn in portfolios for the second quarter. “We’ve been passing out [portfolio binders] for the next quarter,” she says, “and the kids couldn’t get them fast enough. This time, they wanted to get them. They liked doing it and took pride in them.”

Monday, Jan. 28

Cracking the whip

Spivey gathers his staff in the Media Center at noon today before they are scheduled to split up for staff development. He delivers a stern lecture.

He reminds them of the staff development session held last June at the Museum of Science and Industry. Everyone participated, including janitorial and cafeteria staff, in the workshop to create authentic lessons using museum exhibits.

Despite initial complaints from some staffers, “it was the best staff development in a long time, involving the whole school community,” Spivey says.

Then he targets those who have not fully bought into Corliss’ new initiatives. Visiting colleagues’ classrooms to observe is a requirement, not an option, he exhorts. Attending staff development on your own is required. Communicating with parents is required. Making use of new computer labs and other technology is required.

“We have a common vision for something great here at Corliss,” he says. “This train is rolling, and either you’re on it or you’re not.”

Later, Spivey confides that the lecture was intended to jump-start several teachers who have had trouble finding time to meet and create common lesson plans. “They needed a reminder about what’s expected,” he says.

The freshman and sophomore teachers attend a staff development today, this time led by Corliss’ second external partner. Patricia Buckney runs her own educational consulting business and worked with Corliss last year. This afternoon, she is presenting her analysis of Corliss’ test scores and failure rates from last winter.

“Instruction should be data driven,” she says as she distributes data and her report. “This will help us design instruction for this year.”

On an overhead projector, Buckney walks through Corliss’ test score history for the last decade. A low of 10.8 percent of students met reading requirements in 1994; a high of 24.8 percent met them in 2000.

“If you were consistent in how you were teaching here, this wouldn’t fluctuate like this,” she says. [Editor’s note: High school test scores have gone up throughout the city; researchers credit the higher scores of entering freshmen.]

Next, she points out the differences in TAP results by classroom. The two teachers whose classes posted the highest TAP reading scores last year have left Corliss, she says. Buckney has also analyzed what types of TAP questions the students are likely to miss, and the grade distributions by subject. Last year, for instance, science teachers failed more students than teachers in other subjects. Sixty-six percent of science students got D’s or F’s.

“Why did you fail more kids than anyone else in the school?” Buckney asks them. “You need to examine this.”

Six of Corliss’ eight science teachers are new to the school this year. Looking for ways to improve on last year’s work, the teachers’ discussion turns to students’ low reading level and their lack of motivation.

“What do I do when I have to keep going back because they don’t understand it?” a chemistry teacher asks. “I can’t cover everything I have to for the CASE exam.”

Then, science teachers commiserate about last week’s CASE. Students were filling in answers without reading the questions, they say. One teacher says students got frustrated early on and gave up on the rest of the multiple-choice questions. Many also had trouble with open-ended, or constructed response, questions. One teacher says only three of his students passed the constructed response section.

All the science teachers agree that students need more practice writing. For next semester, they agree to increase the number of writing assignments and include more open-ended questions in quizzes.

Several times, the teachers revisit student motivation. “I go home at night and spend hours trying to think of anything I can to motivate them,” says one frustrated science teacher.

Ron Martin, at Corliss two years and a science teacher for 31, says “D syndrome” afflicts many students. “If they can get by with a D, that’s fine with them,” he says. “It bothers me because when they go out into society, that attitude isn’t going to cut it. [But] it’s a hard attitude to change.”

Buckney points to a chart. “The way you motivate them is to use this flow chart,” she says. The chart identifies skills students need to learn before reading a passage, such as making predictions and comparisons, and what they should do after reading it, such as drawing conclusions and evaluating.

“Your job is to find some way to connect what you’re teaching to some experience they’ve had. If you’re teaching about the rain forest, well, they’ve been in the rain.”

Teachers don’t sound convinced. “If I have students who will not or can not work, why is it my fault?” one science teacher asks.

“Motivation is your responsibility,” Buckney responds.

Several days later, at least one teacher reports some success using Buckney’s reading strategies. Martin says he talked about students’ prior experiences with a new science topic before they read an article about it. “It was useful,” he says. “It built some interest.”

Tuesday, Feb. 5

Getting inside students’ heads

Corliss’ proposal to the Fry Foundation includes expanding a project-based math curriculum schoolwide in two years. Interactive Math requires students to use algebra, geometry and basic math skills to solve real-life problems. Math teacher Paula Murphy learned how to teach the curriculum five years ago and, until this fall, was the only teacher at Corliss using it. Now all freshmen are using the program’s textbook, and when they become sophomores next year, they will continue following the curriculum.

“Mr. Spivey decided that this math program fit in well with his plan,” says Murphy, a Corliss teacher for 17 years. “It does fit in well with authentic pedagogy.”

Murphy’s fifth-period freshmen are starting a new unit today called “The Overland Trail.” It will last nearly six weeks and will have them taking a virtual trip to California as pioneers.

She tells them they’ll be making decisions on things such as what to take on the journey, “and if you make bad decisions, your family might die.”

Using one of Buckney’s reading strategies, Murphy begins the lesson by asking students what the Overland Trail makes them think about. They shout their answers: Travel! Hiking! Horses and carriages!

She picks their brains about how and why pioneers traveled west. Most students appear engaged. Then, they read a short textbook passage about a pioneer woman’s journey. Their homework assignment is to write a couple of paragraphs comparing her journey to a modern trip, such as Cubans traveling by raft to America or a personal journey to a new home.

No math has been done today, but Murphy says the unit will cover a range of algebra, geometry and problem-solving skills in a real-life way.

“I’m convinced students only learn what they develop and internalize themselves,” says Murphy. “That’s part of the problem when teachers say, ‘I taught that, and they don’t know it.’ With Interactive Math, there’s more ownership. You find the skills you need to solve a problem, instead of learning a bunch of skills and trying to find problems those skills will work on.”

In his office this afternoon, Spivey is reflecting on Corliss’ efforts to improve instruction. Perhaps he’s trying to do too much too quickly, he wonders. The school’s proposal to Fry says the new programs will be in place schoolwide in two to three years. But now he’s considering revising those expansion plans to roll out the new initiatives more slowly.

“We made a mistake, and it’s my fault,” Spivey says. “When I see a problem, I want to go tackle it head on. Now, I wish we’d started with the freshmen only.”

This year, Corliss has been “an educational shock for many of our students,” he adds. “The quality of instruction in the elementary schools hasn’t prepared them for this type of instruction. This is going to take time.”

Corliss’ first-semester failure rate for freshmen and sophomores is up from a year ago, Spivey says. But that is a reflection of the higher-level work they are expected to do, he adds. He believes that the failure rate will continue to rise as students develop better critical thinking skills and work habits. “An A here isn’t the same as an A at the top schools,” he says, “and we’re trying to close that gap.”

Math teacher Murphy agrees that an extra couple of years would help the school cultivate improved instruction practices and give students time to adjust to more rigorous coursework. “It has been a problem in the past that the board expects things to happen too quickly,” she says. “Change is never quick and easy.”