April 25, 2010

Teacher of the Year defines excellence in classroom

Source: New York Teacher
Caption: Debbie Calvino makes a lot of connections between art and math. Students enjoy working on tessellations, or patterns. “It helps students see where math appears every day.” Photo by Maria R. Bastone.

Peek inside the classroom of New York State Teacher of the Year Debra "Debbie" Calvino and you'll see lots of "Aha" moments.

Always in perpetual motion, the Valley Central High School teacher darts around her Academic Intervention Services tutorial period, pausing briefly to help each of the students who need intensive help in algebra. One young lady is struggling with probability.

First, Calvino tries explaining what's written in the textbook. When that doesn't work, she patiently goes over the guided notes, reteaching the key points and asking some pointed questions. It's obvious nothing's clicking.

Suddenly, Calvino gets another idea and quickly walks over to her desk drawer.

She pulls out a deck of cards and deftly uses the four suits and 52 cards for a hands-on demonstration of how probability works. For the frustrated student who can't navigate the turgid textbook, it starts to make a little more sense.

"Some children need to manipulate it, hear it, touch it, see it," Calvino said. "I never teach probability the same way."

Some might call it differentiated instruction. Calvino simply smiles and says it's just an "Aha" moment from her 29-year-old bag of tricks.

"Never give up ... on math, on teaching .... on learning," says Calvino, as she delivers workshops and speeches around the state as this year's Teacher of the Year. "There's always a way to reach a student. The trick is to find it."

Calvino, a math and special education teacher who has spent her entire career at the Orange County school district she graduated from, is a master teacher and mentor to both new and veteran teachers, said Valley Central TA President Tim Brown.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said Calvino exemplifies the very best in the teaching profession.

"Through her work and the example she sets, Debra defines the excellence that makes us all proud to be in our profession," Iannuzzi said. 

It was that "Never Give up on a Student" attitude that was a common thread through so many of the nomination letters in Calvino's Teacher of the Year application.

One former student who moved into the district and was initially a little lost wrote a touching tribute crediting Calvino with not only getting her past her difficulty with math — but encouraging her to tutor other students who needed help. Obviously, Calvino recognized something special: The young woman's a thriving math teacher today.

Indeed, Calvino's efforts have helped instill a love of math in generations of students, using art, technology and real-life learning to make lessons more relevant and interesting for each and every child. She relishes the challenge of turning a "math phobic" into a mathematician.

"When I tell students math is life, they look at me like I'm crazy," she said. "They're so used to arithmetic, numbers and — God forbid — fractions. In real life, math is logic, patterns, thinking and reasoning."

On a recent visit, Calvino and Allen Stout are co-teaching a course called "Math in Action."

Designed for students who have passed algebra but need another math credit, the course helps them learn traditional math principles in a different way. "Instead of sitting in a lecture approach class, we apply as much hands-on learning as we can," Calvino said.

Today's assignment starts students on an exploration of interactive math games and puzzles on Their goal is to master one of the games and then prepare a class presentation on how it works.

"You have to teach it to us and we're not too smart," Calvino said. "You'll have 10 minutes to show you understand the math behind it."

The students are immediately engaged in a variety of puzzlers, from Sudoku-like exercises to geometric patterns. "I think success in this classroom is when students think they're not learning math, but they are," Stout said.

He said Calvino's combined background in math and special education have really accentuated the beauty of differentiated instruction.

The co-teaching model has also been highly successful in Calvino's traditional algebra class with Elaine Keefer.

Through the period, the two work in tandem, finishing each other's sentences and sprinkling in lots of math humor. While kids are simplifying algebraic fractions, Calvino reminds them they'd be "mad homewreckers" if they break up a polynomial family by failing to use parentheses.

The 40-minute algebra period zooms by as Calvino and Keefer keep things moving with their running dialogue and different approaches to the same problem. 

They constantly offer students a chance to use the Smart Board, race against a fellow student to solve a problem or ask a tough "candy question" that wins the student with the correct answer a trip to the candy basket. "I think they learn best when they're active and engaged," Calvino said.

Her enthusiasm for math and learning extends to her role as a teacher leader: She serves as a master trainer in data analysis, fostering district-wide support for, and use of, data-driven instruction to improve student achievement.

As secondary math supervisor, she has helped lead her district toward outstanding scores on the state's math exams, moving the middle school off the Schools in Need of Improvement list and dramatically improving results for students with disabilities.

"People are afraid of data, but I tell them data is your friend," Calvino said. "We do extremely detailed item analysis and use the results to improve teaching — we work as a team to figure out what works... I learn so much from my colleagues."

For example, Calvino said, if a teacher's classroom test results reveal her students have a firm grasp of probability, she shares her best practices.

On the other hand, the math team analyzes a geometry unit test and sees a majority of students missed question No. 32. "That's knowledge for us," Calvino said. "Was it a good question? Misleading? Did we teach that? If not, we can work to correct that."

The team concept promotes staff retention and sharing of best practices. After teachers agreed on the need for students to have more automaticity to avoid test fatigue, now many of the math teachers started using "fast factoring" at the beginning of class, complete with a timer. Promising lessons are posted on the school's Web site so any teacher can learn a different approach to try.

"We all learn from each other every single day," Calvino. "That's why I love teaching so much."

Calvino thinks back to nearly 30 years ago when she graduated from college with two job offers — one from IBM at twice the salary and the other from Valley Central High School. "It was my dad who spoke the words of wisdom I needed to hear," she said.

Where were my gifts and talents? It was not hard then to decide. The little girl was a teacher! I have never looked back nor have I had one regret!"

Grade 7 Math

Percent of students meeting proficiency











Source: NYSUT Research and Educational Services

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