In Principal’s Office, a regular feature of SchoolBook, a city school principal is interviewed for insights into school management and the life of a school leader. What do you think makes a good principal? Join the conversation below.
As she led a tour of Public School 186 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, the principal, Bayan Cadotte, stopped often to comment on the myriad student projects displayed along the hallways. The work serves as abundant and creative evidence of how teachers at the school are carrying out the Common Core curriculum requirements.
New York State adopted the national Common Core standards in 2010 but gave district leaders and principals time to figure out how put them into place. Students are scheduled to be tested on the new standards beginning next year. The new standards emphasize analytical skills, nonfiction literature and mathematical word problems, and all teachers in the city were expected to teach one unit with the new standards this year. The staff members at many schools, like P.S. 186, have been spending a lot of time learning the new practices in professional development workshops and in school peer review sessions.
P.S. 186, which scored a B in its last progress report, has 958 students in pre-K through fifth grade. Ms. Cadotte, 38, joined P.S. 186 in 1999 as an assistant principal, and became principal in 2004. In addition to its push to use the Common Core standards, her school has an extended day learning program, a project provided in partnership with Brooklyn's NIA Community Services Network, with a framework and professional development from the After-School Corporation, to help students bolster their math and reading skills. This interview was edited and condensed.
A lot of the projects we see here are related to the implementation of the Common Core standards. How hard was it for teachers to adapt to these new ways of teaching?
The chancellor and the deputy for instruction, Shael Polakow-Suransky, wanted us to to complete two project-based tasks this year, one in math and one English Language Arts. The students go through a task and there's a conclusion at the end. They gave samples online -- however, we didn't actually use the samples. Our teachers were saying to us, "Where am I fitting this in?" We said: "Let’s not look there. Let’s look at your readings. What are you reading? Let's take a look at what you're going to read in two weeks," and then we had them create a task out of that.
How does that actually work?
We kept telling them, when you do these projects, you need a hook. So for example, in the first grade, they were reading about animals. They did this beautiful performance task where they created a brochure about dogs, about how to be a responsible dog owner. One of the teachers has two dogs. Her husband and her brother brought the two dogs in.
The kids did a Venn diagram on the two dogs. They asked them, What does this dog look like? What does this dog sound like? What does this dog eat? They said both of these dogs have birthdays in September, but one of them is older than the other one. So they had fun facts on the dogs and a diagram and they had a publishing party for the dog brochure that parents came to. It was really adorable.
How does this help them in state tests?
Last year we did not think we were getting the results we wanted in the state tests, so we did something about it. We changed to the Journeys reading program, which is more balanced literacy. We were reading fictional stories before that were fun to read, but we felt very strongly that we were missing the nonfiction. What we like about Journeys is that every topic, like the rainforest, which is a topic in first grade, has two pieces of writing in each unit, one that’s fiction, one nonfiction. Now when they take a state exam, look at all the prior knowledge that they have. The performance task on animals helps to reinforce all that.
How do you help teachers learn to become better at their jobs?
We had a share fair recently. We had the teachers come down during one period with best practices, with their tasks.
They brought down some of their students' writings, a clip of work they had recorded. We told them you can do anything you want, and you'll have five minutes to present it. You can bring a book you bound together with everyone’s work, dioramas, sample writing. We had them display the work on tables. Then we gave everybody Post-its and they had to walk around looking at everybody's work. We basically said we want you to look and find the wow and then a wonder on every project.
What's a wonder?
As an example, for the third grade, which had a debate, someone could have said, "I wonder, did you show the kids what a debate looks like before you did it?" And actually, they didn’t. They defined it, they talked about it, they never showed it. They said, "You know what, we didn’t think of that."
Do you think teachers liked this or did they feel singled out?
It was helpful. And it was fun for everyone to even see what the others were doing. They shared. They gave each other very valuable feedback. It wasn’t anything we collected. We told them, "It’s for your growth, colleague to colleague."
Is there more of that sharing of best practices than when you first started here?
I would say so. Our goal is still to mix it up a bit. It’s still grade by grade for the most part, but we want the sharing to go beyond a grade level. We want them to know what goes on in the grade before you and the grade after you.
Your school invites parents in a lot, especially to the "celebrations," where students are presenting a certain lesson or project in a classroom. You try to drop in on a lot of those, too, which can't be easy with more than 900 students. Why is it important for you to be there?
Well, because No. 1 it’s patting the teachers on the back to say, great job. This is your celebration, too. And for the kids it’s like giving them thumbs up and they like to see you there and then you have something to talk to them about. And then the parents are there. So it’s always good to see the parents, and it’s good for the parents to see that this is important to you, that you’re making the time to be there. When you walk in you wave at the parents, and as you leave you always say: "Thanks for coming. We really appreciate you being here."
All these cute projects out here, like the models of habitats, they are part of some written assignment to meet state requirements. How do you make sure the children understand what is being expected of them and how it ties into these models?
The second-grade teachers did habitats. They’re really giving things a little bit more thought, and I think that’s helped make a difference. And they’re giving them more feedback. Last year, they had the rubric and they didn’t share it with parents. This year they did. As a parent, I would love this. "What are you looking for?" Now we're going a step further. We're asking the teachers, "How did this child do with this rubric?"
What was the feedback? How is this child going to know how he got this grade, what he still needs to do? The teachers are doing that a lot better now. These projects came in yesterday, and look at the feedback that was already given. They already had the kids share, present, and they gave them quick feedback.
We keep saying to the teachers, this is going to help you. When you quickly give feedback as the kids present, they're going to produce for you the way you want them to, and it’s only going to help.
Tell me about the extended day learning. How many students take part in this?
There are 350 students in the extended day program, which runs until 5:30. We targeted two grades, second and third. We picked third grade because they’re going to be tested for the first time and we wanted to support them more. And then we picked second grade because they will be testing soon and we wanted to get them ready.
It’s not about just getting a 4 on the test. It’s a little bit of everything. We’re here to educate the whole child. It’s about having them develop the interests they choose, having them socialize, having them learn new skills, as well as getting the extra support with their instructional work.