Returning to Match as a Teacher

Before Shaniqua Choice enrolled at the Sposato Graduate School of Education, she was selling cars at the Herb Chambers Infiniti dealership in Boston. She didn’t know much about cars, “but I was learning,” she told me. A 2009 graduate of Match High School, Choice attended an event celebrating Boston charter schools nearly a year ago when she bumped into her tutor from senior year, Ray Schleck, who is now a principal at Match. As the story goes, Schleck asked what she was up to, and encouraged her to return to her alma mater, this time as a teacher-in-training. 

Studying to become a teacher wasn’t a random suggestion for Choice, a graduate of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, MA. She’d taught for a year at a charter high school in central MA after college graduation. But a poor experience in her first year had her questioning her long-term dream: to teach history, and African-American history in particular, at the college level. 

Choice has great physical presence. She is tall with a powerful build, big gold hoop earrings, chunky glasses and a headscarf (“because I haven’t had time to get my hair done in forever.”) You’d never guess from watching her move around the classroom and interact with students, that she spent six weeks in the hospital earlier this year after doctors discovered -- and removed -- a fifteen pound tumor in her intestines. She left her hospital bed two weeks early because she was so eager to get back to work. 

Choice works with one of her fifth grade students.

Choice works with one of her fifth grade students.

In the spring semester, like all first-year Sposato students, Choice student teaches twice a week. This week, her primary focus (what we call the “big takeaway”) was lesson preparation -- mastering the material, having a clear “target task” and planning the cognitive steps she wanted students to take  -- with the end goal of enabling students to do the deep thinking on their own. Her preparation worked. Transitions between whole-class instruction and small group work were smooth, and the resulting conversation, about whether or not an actor who voices the characters in animated movies should reflect the same race as their characters, was robust, but respectful. “You did an awesome job,” Christine Schepeler, a Sposato instructor, said to Choice in a coaching session later. 

When Choice isn’t student teaching, she works intensively with 10-12 fifth graders, usually, three or four at a time. In Hansel, Adrian, Rayven, and others, she sees herself: a kid of color who grew up without a lot of money, who wasn’t used to the intensive one-on-one attention that students at Match receive. “It can feel like a lot to have someone in your business all the time,” she says. “I really hated it at first and used to get in trouble all the time, but eventually I learned that my tutors were giving me feedback to help me be better.”

Choice says the similarities she and her pupils share, surprisingly, isn’t the connection point you’d think it would be. Building respectful, trusting relationships with kids by establishing a tone that is a blend of warm and strict is something she’s had to work at. In her first teaching job, she tried the approach lots of first-year teachers gravitate to: being cool. “It didn’t work -- the kids didn’t respect me,” she says. “This year I’ve made a conscious effort to marry high expectations and love: I love you, so I want you to do well.” 

Schleck, Choice’s tutor during her senior year, leads Match Next. The campus, which is Match’s home for all of our fifth graders, is a new model that relies on tutors to provide individual and small group instruction to students. This is all to say, Schleck has seen nearly 100 tutors cycle through his campus in the last three years. What makes Choice so effective with his students? He highlighted three things: first, as a Match graduate, she has a baseline understanding of what kids are going through (and isn’t surprised by much); second, she’s self-reflective and able to internalize and implement feedback quickly; and third, she’s good at advocating for herself, so she’s able to ask for the support she needs from her supervisors and mentors.

That last piece, about asking for support from her supervisor and mentors, is a big reason why she chose Sposato instead of another program. Choice is explicit about her long-term goals of teaching at the college level, but as a step towards that final destination, she wanted to build her teaching skills first, including the organizational and classroom management techniques she knows she’ll need. 

For now, though, she is getting excited about her new job next year, as a 10th grade history teacher at Community Charter School of Cambridge. “I’ll continue to give people lots of grace,” she told me. 

Career Panel at Match High School

Faculty at Match High School, led by 9th grade English teacher Ashley Davis and assistant dean of students Robert Hendricks, organized a career panel discussion for all students as part of the school’s celebration of Black History Month. Students were invited to ask questions and learn from men and women of color working in a variety of professions. 

Here are a couple of the questions that helped to guide panelists' remarks: 

1. Code-switching happens when a person has to purposefully change his/her speech, behavior, etc. depending on the setting he/she is in. Describe a time when you've had to code-switch in the workplace. 

2. Describe the racial makeup of the people at your place of work. Would you say its diverse enough? Why or why not? If not, how does it influence your day-to-day experience as a person of color?

Black History Month is not only an opportunity to acknowledge the great influence that Black Americans have played in shaping this country’s history; it is an opportunity to also observe the great potential we have to impact our future.
— Patrick McDowell

The boys heard from six men of color, while the girls heard from seven women. They talked through a wide range of issues -- from the simple (“what did you major in at college?”) to the not-so-simple (“how does our culture (as Black or Latino) affect our identity in the workplace?”). 

Here are a few highlights from the afternoon: 

Thank you to our panel participants for being so generous with their time and experiences: Andrea, parent advocate and entrepreneur; Jasmine Carr, student, Harvard Law School; Michele Carroll, director of employment, Match Beyond; Stesha Emmanuel*, attorney, Todd & Weld, LLP; Craig Engerman, CEO, Arimann Building Services; Elyshia Hairston*, associate, Iron Mountain; Daniel Joiner, student, Harvard Law School; Kelsey, student, Harvard Law School; Terrence Lomax, entrepreneur, Thinkforward Media; Patrick McDowell, financial analyst, Arrowstreet Capital LP; Jessica Popper, nail technician; Travis Roache*, technology operator, IBM; Kevin T. Taylor, educational C.O.O., KIPP Schools MA. 

*Match High School graduate 


Teacher Preparation and Development at Match

Like a lot of schools, at Match we strive to place the cognitive load of learning on our students – encouraging them to work hard, struggle, sometimes fail and try again – instead of using a more rote approach that would have them arrive at a predetermined answer.

But that’s not the way many of us (including many of our teachers) experienced school, so it requires intention and continuous practice. Think about it: how many times did you “learn” by copying down in your notebook whatever your teacher wrote on the overhead projector?

Instructional leaders at Match – also called assistant principals – have one primary responsibility: to coach teachers on their instructional practice, and more specifically, to ensure that our students are doing the hard (and fun!) work of learning. Their days and weeks are a blur of planning meetings, teacher observations and coaching sessions, as they support teachers’ efforts to master the substance of the content they are teaching and find new and creative ways to engage students.

Our assistant principals report to the principal at their Match School campus, but they also receive additional weekly support from our curriculum team, a group of six experienced former teachers who are charged with writing Match’s K12 curriculum.

Anne Lyneis is the curriculum team member responsible for English Language Arts at our elementary school in Hyde Park. In addition to developing the unit plans, lessons and assessments in use every day at Match Community Day (MCD), she spends a significant percentage of her time meeting with the assistant principals at MCD to talk through what’s going well, what could be better and plan for the week ahead.

Anne’s job could be – and sometimes is – like one big game of telephone. Anne explains the goals and structure of a unit to MCD’s assistant principals, Nola Kosowsky and Jen Mullen. But then it’s up to Nola (who works with third thru fifth grade teachers) and Jen (who works with our preK thru second grade teachers), to translate those best intentions to teachers.

During one recent check-in meeting, focused on preparing teachers for an upcoming unit on comparing and contrasting Greek myths, Nola and Anne talked through how to best help fourth graders develop the skill of narrative writing. Here are a few things they discussed:

  • How the practice of reading influences the practice of writing.
  • The importance of teaching writing through the lens of “author craft study,” where students are pushed to consider an author’s point of view, use of descriptive language and story structure.
  • Stressing quality of writing, over quantity of writing: it’s preferable for a student to write three short paragraphs that include dialogue, complex sentence structures and precise word choice, than six paragraphs that demonstrate none of that higher order mastery.
  • Encouraging teachers to put Greek myths in context, by helping students see connections between what they are studying in class and the modern world.

After Nola and Anne’s weekly meeting, Nola went off to lead a preparation meeting of her own. That meeting was video taped – or, rather iPhoned – and uploaded to TALENT, a website that allows us to share videos (for observation and teaching purposes) across all of Match. Anne often watches a recording of those meeting with two goals: to give feedback to Nola, on the effectiveness of her meeting, and to make any adjustments to her own practice of how she presents and frames the curriculum.

"We see you. You matter. You are important."

Like most public schools in Boston, the student population at Match is composed primarily of students of color: 93 percent identify as African American or Latino, and 56 percent learned a first language other than English.

Though our efforts to recruit and retain staff and leaders who reflect the diversity of our student body is still a work in progress (and one we think about every day), we have updated our curriculum -- and particularly our English Language Arts curriculum -- to invite greater diversity in our classrooms. 

Now, more than ever, our units intentionally showcase protagonists and historical figures from an array of non-white, non-mainstream backgrounds (meaning: two-parent, middle-income heterosexual households). 

We know from research -- and from our own experience with students -- that when a kid sees him or herself in a novel, on screen, or in a newspaper story, it can influence the complicated process of identity formation and self actualization. If we want our kids to be scientists and legislators, doctors and explorers, it’s on us to show them examples of people from all walks of life who have achieved their dreams. It’s also on us to ensure that our teachers and staff are fluent in array of cultures and comfortable leading these conversations. 

With this curriculum, we are saying to our students: “We see you. You matter. You are important.” 

There isn’t a month at Match where a student isn’t reading widely, but February -- the month we all celebrate Black History -- lends itself especially well to a short piece like this. A few specific examples: just this past month, our kindergartners completed a unit on segregation, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks; our sixth graders read "A Raisin in the Sun" by Lorraine Hansberry and explored the Harlem Renaissance through poetry; and our ninth graders read Chimamanda Adichie's "Purple Hibiscus,” the story of two Nigerian teenagers who question the societal ideals of their upbringing alongside an evolving culture.

Our mission, as an institution, is to prepare our students for college and beyond. But we also want to give our kids the space and tools to engage in discussions about race and class, and to learn how to advocate for themselves. Whether it’s simply starting to think about the ways in which people are similar and different, including skin color, and how those differences should not define who we are or how we are treated (as we teach our youngest students), to a more more complex interrogation of identity and the rule of law, our curriculum aims to empower students to stand up for themselves and for what’s right.

Match kindergartners recently read “Martin’s Big Words” by Doreen Rappaport. Our teacher, Ms. Kat Brea, read the book to students, then lead them through a series of questions designed to get kids to pull out the most important lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr. (They did a similar exercise after reading about Rosa Parks.) 

What’d our five and six year olds come up with?

Lesson 1: Show courage even when it hard. 

Lesson 2: Solve problems with words, not fists. 

Lesson 3: Always show love. 

We think that’s pretty good analysis. 

Visit Match Fishtank to access our ELA curriculum, where we’ve made all of our unit, lesson plans and assessments available.

Match's Curriculum Team

Match's curriculum team at work. Anne Lyneis is standing. 

Match's curriculum team at work. Anne Lyneis is standing. 

Anne Lyneis never travels anywhere without an armful of picture books, which she patiently stacks and restacks beneath whatever chair she happens to be sitting in. She is a curriculum director at Match, responsible for English Language Arts at the elementary level. 

Anne is one of six master teachers at Match who comprise our Curriculum Team. All happen to be women: three are dedicated to math; three to ELA. All are ferocious about good teaching.

The job of the curriculum team is threefold: to write unit plans, lesson plans and assessments for grades pre-k thru 12, to transfer knowledge to our instructional leaders at each school (who in turn work closely with classroom teachers) and to package up our material in a way that can be shared on Match Fishtank, a website that makes all of Match’s curriculum available to anyone with an internet connection, free of charge.

It sounds simple enough in theory – why wouldn’t every school operate in this way, with one centralized team of curriculum creators – but its execution is a carefully choreographed set of people, systems and stuff that isn’t all that common in most schools.

Lyneis meets with Jen Mullen, an assistant principal at Match Community Day.

Lyneis meets with Jen Mullen, an assistant principal at Match Community Day.

Match is betting big on two things when it comes to our public charter school in Boston. First, we are betting that enrolling students earlier in their academic careers (as early as pre-kindergarten) and hanging onto them all the way through high school will yield greater results for our students on the metrics we care about most:  graduation, college enrollment and college completion. And second, we’re betting that a unified curriculum that builds from one year to the next will be good for students and teachers – increasing rigor and retention for all. 

The curriculum team is new – about two and a half years old – but there are at least three things good outcomes we’ve seen thus far from this new way of operating:

1)   A K12 curriculum, all aligned to Common Core standards that moves sequentially from one grade to the next, ensures that we – as a school – are all pulling in the same direction. It means our students are introduced to concepts and texts at the same time in their schooling, making it possible for us to operate with greater certainty about what students have and have not been exposed to.  That certainty makes a big difference in the decisions we make about how to best engage and challenge our students to reach their academic potential.

2)    Match’s curriculum team is easing the cognitive load on teachers. Teachers, of course, still have to teach: they have to engage with the material and determine the best way to help their students master the concepts and content, but all the time they would have previously spent mapping out units and lessons, selecting texts and writing tests, in now time they can dedicate to their instructional practice. For a teacher in his or her first or second year in the classroom, this is no small thing. And even for a veteran teacher, the opportunity to step back from that work, can leave more room for creativity in the classroom and make a demanding job more sustainable.

3)   As we’d hoped, teachers are improving their instruction. This is due, in part, to the greater percentage of time they can dedicate to their practice. But it’s also due to the intensive coaching they receive weekly from the instructional leaders (the assistant principals at Match) whose primary responsibility to coach teachers. 

The time our instructional leaders spend with teachers – observing teachers, coaching teachers one-on-one, and running weekly meetings (organized by grade level) that zero in on everything from intellectual preparation to specific lesson plans – is the topic of our next story.