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Learning

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2018 Regents exam results for Comsewogue students in problem-based learning classes versus traditional ones. Click to enlarge. Graphic by TBR News Media

“Teaching to the test” is a concept that no longer computes in Comsewogue School District.

Administration and faculty in Comsewogue, for the last two school years, have experimented with a problem-based learning curriculum for small groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders, an alternative to the traditional educational strategy of focusing assignments and assessments toward the goal of performing well on state-mandated standardized tests at the end of the year. Now, Superintendent Joe Rella has data to back up his notorious aversion to one-size-fits-all education and assessment.

In all subjects, Comsewogue students in PBL classes passed 2018 Regents exams, scoring 65 or better, at a higher rate than those in traditional classrooms, according to data released by the district. On chemistry, geometry, algebra II, global history and English 11 exams, PBL students achieved mastery level, scoring 85 or better, at significantly higher rates than their non-PBL classmates.

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs.”

— Joe Rella

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs,” Rella said of how he interpreted the data, meaning students taught by alternative methods still displayed an aptitude on the state’s required tests.

Though Rella and the district have taken steps to try to have PBL assessments replace Regents exams, no avenue to do so has been greenlighted by the New York State Department of Education to this point for Comsewogue. Emails requesting comment on the significance of Comsewogue’s test results sent to the education department and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) press office were not returned.

During the 2017-18 school year, about half of Comsewogue’s ninth- and 10th-graders, roughly 300 students, took part voluntarily in PBL classes, which emphasize hands-on learning and real-world application of concepts as assessments — similar to a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation — as opposed to the traditional “Regents model.” The students were still required by the state to take the Regents exams as all students are, and their performance has inspired the district in year three of the pilot to expand its PBL curriculum offerings on a voluntary basis for 2018-19 to its entire student body — kindergarten through 12th grade.

The superintendent said the impetus for the district to experiment with PBL started three years ago, when he and about 20 Comsewogue teachers spent a day at the New York Performance Standards Consortium in Manhattan. The organization was founded on the belief that there was a better way to assess student learning than dependence upon standardized testing, according to its website.

“In traditional settings, the teacher did most of the work, we listened, we copied notes and then we were tested on it,” Rella said. “The way the structure was, you spent a year learning stuff. At the end of the year, you took a test to see what you knew.”

In PBL classrooms, regardless of subject, Rella explained that a problem is initially presented, and students learn skills that are meant to help them practically find an answer to the problem. One group of PBL students during the 2017-18 school year decided to approach opioid addiction as a subject matter. Rella said chemistry students and English students worked on parallel tracks addressing that problem, with the science classes researching and presenting on the science behind addiction and the brain, and the English classes creating a public service announcement on the topic. The students presented and defended their findings and approach to the Suffolk County Legislature, with two students eventually being asked to join the county’s commission on substance addiction, according to Rella.

“It’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

— Joe Rella

“You have to acquire knowledge in order to solve the problem, so there is traditional teaching going on,” he said. “But right from the beginning, it’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

Rella credited District Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Polychronakos as the driving force behind professional development and empowering district faculty to embrace the district’s new approach.

“We’ve so far created about 20 units of study districtwide that are ready to go for next year and we’ve piloted some of them and worked out some of the kinks,” Polychronakos said. “We’re going to continue to really just take the standards that we have from the state and make them into more of a project-based, or problem-based, learning type of experience for the kids.”

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There’s a lot of talk about public-private partnerships at all levels of government. If our state officials can strike a deal to benefit New York’s inmates, we think it’s time to negotiate for the benefit of our collective future — Suffolk County students.

New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision announced a deal with a private company, JPay, to provide free tablets to approximately 51,000 state prisoners. JPay is a Miami-based company that provides technology and services to help the incarcerated stay connected with people outside prison. The state prisoners will be able to read e-books, listen to music and even have family send money back to them.

“The decision by New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to allow inmates to be provided free tablets is a slap in the face and an insult to every hardworking, law-abiding, taxpaying family across New York State that struggles to provide these same tablets and other school supplies for their children,” said state Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue).

We have to agree. To be clear, helping incarcerated citizens develop tools for success upon their release is a worthwhile endeavor for both the individuals and the society they hope to assimilate back into at the conclusion of their sentence. However, if such a deal can be struck for those in jail, we’d like to see the New York State Department of Education at least attempt to negotiate a private-public partnership with technology manufacturers or educational software providers to see if a similar arrangement can be made.

It’s no secret that many Suffolk County teachers wind up purchasing basic supplies — crayons, construction paper, glue, markers, calculators and other supplies — for their classrooms out of their own pockets. If a penny of funding for basic staples is coming from teachers’ pockets, more expensive, big-ticket items must also be a problem, despite the passage of the Smart Schools Bond Act in 2014, which was enacted for the purpose of updating technology in schools.

Kings Park High School announced it received approval for its state technology initiative in November 2017, one of the first districts on Long Island to do so. It is the first time the district can afford major technological upgrades in 10 years. Let that sink in — the computers, networks and internet capabilities our students rely on are more than a decade old.

Suffolk County’s public schools educate more than 235,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the New York State Department of Education’s figures for the 2016-17 school year. While this is five times more than our state prisoners, it should not be perceived as impossible.

We’d like to see the state education department and our school districts get creative in finding solutions to budgetary problems. School budget season is getting underway and finding and negotiating public-private partnerships with some of the large businesses in their backyard could be the solution taxpayers are looking for.

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We rarely get anything completely right the first time. I’m not just saying that because I’m a second child. I idolize my older brother. In fact, I’m fond of my younger brother, too.

We need practice. When we’re young, we take a few steps and we fall hard. Fortunately, at that age, we’re practically made of plastic, bouncing off the nearby floor as if it were a downy soft trampoline. As we age, the floor gets harder.

With each figurative step through life, we make adjustments, learn on the fly and revise our approach.

We recently visited a few colleges with our daughter. The cheerful school representatives were selling us on the idea that their classes were great, the students they admitted were incredible and the opportunities were extraordinary.

One theme that stuck out, especially after several schools presented it as if unique, was that they made students uncomfortable. They wanted to challenge their undergraduates to reach outside their comfort zone. They wanted eager students to fall down and, in so doing, learn to get back up.

This idea of falling is part of the charm of enjoying the ride. We listen to elementary school music concerts in which someone plays a few notes after the conductors arms have stopped moving, we nod encouragement when the young person on stage says a few of the wrong words in a speech, and we suggest to our kids that they’ll spell “because” correctly the next time.

The country may have forgotten that our strutting president, who has been in the public eye for so long, has never been a politician. He’s definitely outside his comfort zone, acting like a president when he hasn’t even been, to borrow a phrase from him, “elected dog catcher.”

People pounce on every mistake, every breach of protocol and every misstatement, ready to tar and feather him for saying or writing something that probably would play better on a fictionalized reality TV show than it does for him as president of the United States.

He’s so eager to be a part of every story and to expand his brand — something he’s been doing reflexively for years — that he doesn’t appear to take the time to recognize or
acknowledge mistakes.

I know how it is to say, “my bad.” Many people consider admitting a mistake some sign of weakness, instead of a reflection of strength and self awareness. Erring, as the saying goes, is human.

You don’t get many free passes when you’re president. You either learn or you don’t, you either unify or you don’t, and you either say or do the right thing, or you don’t.

Still, it seems to me that he might endear himself to more people, and win higher ratings, if he took a few extra seconds to think about whether he might write or respond to something in a different way. He doesn’t seem burdened by the kind of reflection that allows for his own second thoughts to enter the discussion.

People are eager to rip him apart each day, but let’s remember something his handlers and cohorts seem to embrace regularly: He gets angry when people point out that he’s fallen down. Maybe he can meet us halfway, by learning to take an extra second to edit his thoughts or speech. When he takes a few steps without falling, we can breathe a sigh of relief, the way parents do when they’re no longer bending over to protect their children from bumping their heads on nearby coffee tables.

The library is decorated with book recommendations and lists of readers’ personal heroes. Photo from Susan Guerin

A surgeon, parents, a brother, first responders, the Angels of Bataan — these are some people Comsewogue Public Library readers consider heroes.

Top summer reading titles

“The Girl on the Train,” by Paula Hawkins

“The Husband’s Secret,” by Liane Moriarty

“The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah

“The Museum of Extraordinary Things,” by Alice Hoffman

Scores of bookworms shared their own as they participated in the adult summer reading program, which encouraged the library patrons to read about superheroes or try something new through its “escape the ordinary” theme. Trying something new could be discovering an author or joining a library program. To facilitate that, Library Director Debra Engelhardt and adult services head Susan Guerin said, the library steered people toward its resources for finding books or learning online and hosted different programs like an arm-knitting workshop and a drum circle.

“It’s about bringing a lot of different and unique ideas,” Guerin said.

According to Engelhardt, about 350 people signed up for summer reading and, with the program coming to a close this weekend, many of those have completed it — reading at least three books of their choice and submitting recommendations for them. After finishing a book, the participants received a raffle ticket for a chance to win prizes from local businesses.

There were also matching superhero-themed summer reading programs for children and teenagers, which hundreds of young people have already completed.

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Teq CEO Damian Scarfo, and President Chris Hickey. Photo from Lisa Hendrickson

There’s been a lot of hubbub about the 21st century classroom, where interactive whiteboards replace chalk, and pencils and pens are subbed out for iPads and Chromebooks. Even our own governor has incentivized such reforms at our schools.

But let’s push pause and ask: Is all this technology helping or hurting? And what benefits are we missing out on in the real world beyond the bright screens?

This week, a Huntington Station company, Teq, announced it had partnered with Canadian company SMART Technologies — yes, the creators of the famous SMART Board that is a staple of today’s classrooms — to be the sole distributor of Smart products for grades K to 12 in New York. That’s a big deal and we applaud Teq’s success. The educational tech company, already projecting sales of $50 million this year, anticipates the partnership will boost its revenues 20 percent.

That’s not just chump change, and it’s a good deal for Long Island’s economy.

Yet how much of our new technologies are really needed for learning and how much are we just advancing for the sake of advancing? It feels like a lot of the new software and hardware is needed only to keep today’s student boredom at bay, as many kids are so used to having tech products in the home that they will not concentrate on paper.

A culture of distraction is one of the greatest setbacks of today’s overly technological society. We understand that it benefits our students to be familiar with today’s gadgets, so they will be prepared for tomorrow’s success. But it also benefits children to know what it feels like to hold a real book in their hands, to solve a difficult math problem using a pencil and loose-leaf notebook, to be able to tell time without a digital display, to play outside instead of staring at their phones.

Today’s kids are being handed iPads not long after retiring baby bottles.

Steve Jobs once told a New York Times reporter that he limited his own children’s tech time at home. Instead of rushing to live in a completely digital world, our educators, parents and political leaders should place importance on carving out some time for a little reality — some quiet time and disconnect to facilitate thinking and creativity.

Teq CEO Damian Scarfo, and President Chris Hickey. Photo from Lisa Hendrickson

Teq, a Huntington Station-based educational technology and professional development firm, has been named the official provider of SMART Technologies products for all K-12 districts in New York.

The company will also offer professional development for SMART products and technical support from SMART certified professionals. The official partnership will begin on Oct. 1.

SMART Technologies, a Canadian company, is best known for inventing the first interactive whiteboard in 1991. The company now offers interactive tables and pen displays, conferencing software, interactive learning software and more.    

“We are thrilled to be selected as SMART’s sole vendor for K-12 in New York,” Damian Scarfo, CEO of Teq said in a statement. “SMART offers the best interactive displays available, and we couldn’t be happier to align ourselves with the innovation SMART is bringing to classrooms around the world.”

The partnership is projected to increase Teq’s revenues by nearly 20 percent, and the company is projecting $50 million in sales for the year, according to Chris Hickey, president of Teq. The company used to be one of six companies reselling SMART products in the state.

SMART’s president touted the partnership and the Huntington Station company’s solid reputation for professional development.

“We are delighted to name Teq as our sole education partner in New York,” Greg Estell, president of SMART Education Solutions said in a statement. “Teq has an incredible reputation for professional development, enabling educators to deliver best-in-class learning. This, coupled with SMART’s world-leading education technology, makes for a powerful combination.”

As part of a strategy to get more SMART products into state schools, the company has submitted a bid to the New York State Office of General Services to try to negotiate a contract to be a listed vendor of classroom technology to New York. SMART is looking to set a maximum price point at which products can be sold to municipalities through this contract.

Like SMART, Teq will also be looking to further its relationship with schools, hoping to partner with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services to get more technology into the districts. The company is hoping to benefit from $2 billion in funding offered to school districts through Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) SMART Schools Bond Act by offering districts that seek funding delayed payment options.

The act is intended to bring about 21st century upgrades to educational technology and infrastructure in schools to ensure that students graduate with the skills they need to thrive in today’s economy. Voters approved the act in a November 2014 referendum.

Teq will be offering a complete range of SMART products and software, including SMART kapp iQ and Teq Unlimited.

SMART kapp iQ is an ultra HD interactive display that can multi-link student devices so that all participants can collaborate, contribute and see what is being written in real time. Teq Unlimited is a software package that teaches how to successfully integrate new technology into the classroom.

“Kapp iQ is not only specifically designed for the needs of teachers and students … it’s designed for how kids learn — using devices and naturally interacting with technology,” Hickey said.

Teq is offering a free trial period for districts in New York. The trial, which lasts 30 days, includes delivery, setup and two hours of professional development of whichever products the districts chose to try, according to a Teq statement.

Teq has been in the business since 1972, and was originally located in Oyster Bay out of a barn. According to the company, its mission is to support the continued evolution of the modern classroom by offering world-renowned professional development and providing service and equipment that enables student achievement.

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MaryEllen Elia succeeds John B. King Jr. as the state’s next education commissioner. Photo from state education department

School boards across Long Island swore in new members and re-elected trustees in the last couple of weeks to kick off a brand new school year. With every fresh start, we have an opportunity to better our communities, and ourselves, but this idea carries even greater weight when a top state education official is also starting a new term.

Our greatest hope is that our superintendents, school board trustees, parents, principals, teachers unions and other leaders will make every effort to partner with the state’s new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia.

The New York native, who was a teacher in this state and a superintendent in Florida, took the helm from controversial former Commissioner John B. King Jr. this month. She certainly has a rough road and a lot of work ahead — agreeing to pilot an education system in which large numbers of students are refusing state exams and concerned parents are protesting the Common Core Learning Standards on a regular basis. It’s not a job many would envy.

King’s approach to implementing the Common Core left a bad taste in a lot of parents’ and educators’ mouths, but we should be careful not to allow that sourness to affect our relationship with Elia — she deserves a chance to prove herself.

We should do our best to open the dialogue and calmly communicate our grievances. We should keep open minds and be willing to collaborate.

Our children and our education system are important to our communities. In order to stay competitive globally and to further challenge our teachers and students, we need to keep as our No. 1 goal the improvement of our educational system. It sorely needs improvement.

Let’s do everything we can to build a positive relationship with this new commissioner, and thus build a more positive school environment for our students who will inherit the future.

File photo

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) and the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless are seeking the public’s help to provide more than 4,000 school supplies and backpacks to kids in need.

Drop off school supplies at Stern’s office at 1842 East Jericho Turnpike in Huntington, through August 10, anytime between Mondays and Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Supplies sought include backpacks, crayons, pencils, binders, erasers, sharpeners, calculators, glue sticks, pens, colored pencils, highlighters, pocket folders, compasses, index cards, protractors, composition books and more.

For more information on how you can help, visit the coalition’s website here.

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What if we told you that you could travel to Paris this summer? What if you could finally achieve your dream of becoming an astronaut? What if you had the opportunity to travel back in time to the 1890s or 1960s? Well, you can. Just pick up a book.

Some of our school districts already require students to read one or multiple books over the summer. We commend those districts and think others should follow suit and implement their own summer reading programs in the future.

Summer learning loss, or the summer slide, is real — but we can prevent it. This is more important than ever before as students are being held to a higher standard.

We’ve heard the argument from parents that summer break should be just that — a break — and mandating a child to read a book defeats that purpose. We disagree.

Instilling the value of reading into our lives and those of our children is important. Reading stirs the imagination, helps you think critically and makes you a lifelong learner.

While reading may be difficult for some kids and others may just not like it, there is a book for everybody — or at least an educational magazine — and there are so many places to find them.

Visit your local library to find summer reading programs for kids and adults. Go online and download an eBook. At the bare minimum, try out Audible and listen to an audiobook.

We urge everyone to turn off the video games, get off the computer and escape for a few minutes in the pages of a book. Relax — you will be OK and you may even find it fun.

In the time-honored tradition of required reading, we end with a quote from Betty Smith’s 1943 classic, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

“The world was hers for the reading.”

May the world be yours this summer.

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