Through technology, more teachers have the tools and resources they need to help them prepare more students to succeed in college and careers.
Mathematics coach Lori MacDonald has spent a lot of time getting to know the material available on EngageNY, a comprehensive website for New York State’s educators, parents, and other interested stakeholders run by the New York State Education Department. The thing is, MacDonald lives and works in Berkeley, California, 2,922 miles away from Albany, New York’s capital.
“In our district, we are using exactly what schools are using in New York, and we’re using it for free,” MacDonald said. “A lot of what we need is on EngageNY.”
MacDonald is not alone in looking to the New York website for resources she can use to support the kindergarten through fifth grade teachers in her district. Across the country, educators and school leaders are turning to EngageNY as a source for comprehensive classroom materials aligned to new college- and career-ready standards adopted by most States. The website also is home to both free high-quality professional development resources, such as a library of instructional videos for teachers, and practical tools for parents including suggestions for educational activities they can do with their children.
New York State launched the site in 2011 with funding from Race to the Top, as well as other sources. Since then, the site has become a national resource and has attracted more than 6 million unique visitors from every State in the nation, averaging 22,000 each week. Not surprisingly, after New York, the State that had generated the most visitors as of August 2014 was California. Louisiana, which ranks 25th in population, generated the third highest number of visits, followed by Illinois, Washington and Arizona.
A Wealth of Standards-Related Resources
At the heart of the site are English language arts and mathematics curriculum modules that emphasize deeper learning, problem solving and critical-thinking. The modules provide teachers with detailed units of study, daily lesson plans, sample tasks and questions for students, homework ideas, quick quizzes and mid- and end-of-unit assessments.
The State revamped the website in 2014 based on feedback from teachers, making it easier to navigate and adding an e-newsletter that sends users updates when new content is posted. The new version of the site also makes it possible for teachers to tailor materials to better fit their needs.
The State does not require teachers to use the online materials, but some districts do. Many teachers use them as the starting point for creating their own lessons. Trudy Pruiksma, a first grade teacher in Cobleskill, New York, chose to make extensive use of the first-grade modules in both English language arts and mathematics during School Year 2013–2014. She said her students loved the content, were deeply engaged in learning, and made greater academic progress than in the past. “I found the modules easy to use and can’t tell you how proud I am of my students,” she said. In particular, she said her students had a better grasp of core mathematics concepts, such as place value, than in the past. In English language arts, she said they ended the year as exceptionally strong readers and demonstrated solid understanding of challenging concepts such as articles of speech in ways that surprised her.
Adam Baker, a mathematics teacher in Marlboro, New York, is among the many classroom teachers who helped write some of the EngageNY content. He said curriculum materials were reviewed multiple times by content experts to ensure the final products were high-quality, rigorous and closely aligned to the new standards. “Often we would write something and they would give us feedback, and then we would have to scrap it and start again,” Baker said.
“When we looked at it, we said, ‘This is going to really help teachers learn how to make these instructional shifts and meet the new standards,’” Russo said. He added that the district thought about creating its own curricula but opted against doing so because the quality of the EngageNY modules was so high. His district has instead asked its teachers to adopt the EngageNY curriculum modules as closely as they can.
Professional Development and Parent Tools, Too
EngageNY is more than just a source of curriculum. It hosts lots of professional development resources, including various PowerPoint presentations, handouts and other materials made available at State-led professional learning sessions and hundreds of videos of classroom teachers conducting exemplary lessons aligned to the new standards.
Superintendents often ask principals or instructional coaches to go through the materials on the site, see what would be helpful to teachers, and share them during observation, evaluation, and coaching meetings. Principals also show the videos at staff meetings and lead discussions around them. Teachers have found the videos offer useful suggestions that they can incorporate in their classrooms.
Pruiksma said she loves the videos and recently rearranged her classroom based on the setup she saw in one of them, which she watched during a professional learning session. “The teacher in the video placed the carpet at the front of a smart board, and the desks were close by and around it.” When she tried it, she saw that the students moved around between activities very quickly and fluidly without a lot of chaos and were more focused on the lessons happening at the front of the classroom. “It was just one of those organizational things that made sense when I saw it.”
Another part of the website is the parent and family resources section, which houses recommendations for learning games and explanations of the new standards and what they emphasize. Parents also can view the curriculum modules to keep up with what their children are learning and watch the videos to learn more about good instruction.
Marianne Strayton, a first grade teacher in New City, in Rockland County, New York, sometimes emails her students’ parents links to her favorite videos from the EngageNY library. “It’s really helpful to them, especially in mathematics, where some of the pieces look really new to parents,” she said. Strayton added that, like many of her students’ parents, her own mathematics education focused on computation and memorization rather than the mathematical concepts and problem solving strategies used in classrooms today.
Although students, families and teachers have had to get used to them, the English language arts resources have been a big help, said Andria Finch, a high school English teacher in Franklin, New York, west of Albany. Finch said she liked the organization and comprehensiveness of the modules. Each one included an overview of the standards covered, a calendar that helped with pacing and high-quality formative assessments, and a list of materials and resources to use with students. She said all this helps lead to better organization and standards-focused lessons and richer classroom conversations. “When reading Animal Farm (by George Orwell), for example, I used to tell the students how children were treated in the Russian Revolution. Now, they tell me how kids were treated. The light bulb is going on more. The level of discussion that’s been in my room has been really amazing.”
New York State officials say EngageNY is an evolving resource. They field hundreds of questions and comments on the site daily and use the feedback in the site’s redesign. State leaders say New York will keep the site running after its Race to the Top money is spent. In the future, they want to make the site more interactive and have it serve as a hub for educators to meet online and exchange ideas.
In the meantime, teachers from across the country seem pleased with what they have so far. “I went to a convening of teachers from all around the country in January in Phoenix,” said Finch. “All of the teachers I met were from different States, and they were floundering for materials. I showed them what we had in New York, and now they are using it too.”
- Provide real examples. Teachers find it useful to have high-quality videos of other teachers leading effective, standards-aligned lessons.
- Set the bar high for quality. Teachers want access to resources that have been thoroughly reviewed and vetted by other teachers and that they know have been examined for their quality and fidelity to State learning standards. That makes them feel comfortable using them.
- Make resources easily accessible and adaptable. Educators like having easy access to an abundance of varied free, online resources that are available in an easily adaptable format. New York recently created Microsoft Word versions of PDF materials on EngageNY so teachers could more easily modify them.
EngageNY home page.
Q&A with Andria Finch, a high school English teacher in Franklin, New York:
Q: You used the curriculum modules on the EngageNY website. What was that like?
A: “They are very detailed and break down the entire class period. I took them and used them but wrote my own lesson materials too, using the EngageNY lessons as models. It would be hard to adopt them entirely; every class is different and each teacher needs to adapt them for their own use, in order to meet the needs of her students. It is important to keep in mind that lessons that are teacher-created need to be standards based and that the right materials should be used to help students succeed and become independent with reading and writing skills.”
Q: What is new about the way you teach today, using the new standards?
A: “We’re reading more nonfiction than in the past. It can be a hard shift for an English teacher. It was hard for me. But it’s an important shift. The students are doing more research too, and I think we’re seeing that they’re becoming better readers and writers and more prepared for college and careers.”