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Brain-based teaching part of Rivera’s plan to rebuild Norwalk schools

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Kendall Elementary School Principal Tony Ditrio explains brain-based learning to the Norwalk Board of Education last week in City Hall.

A slide from Tony Ditrio's presentation.

A slide from Tony Ditrio’s presentation.

NORWALK, Conn. – Poverty is an important factor in the educational success of school children, but it’s not a game changer, according to Kendall Elementary School Principal Tony Ditrio.

“You don’t have to write schools off or kids off just because you have a high poverty rate,” Ditrio told the Board of Education last week in an enthusiastic presentation of new teaching techniques that Norwalk Superintendent Manny Rivera said are part of the “major plan to fundamentally rebuild our public school system.”

Ditrio shared ideas that will spread next fall from Kendall to four other Title 1 Norwalk schools, ideas he said he first learned about a year ago at a national elementary schools principals’ conference in Baltimore. They’ve been tried at Kendall with good results, he said.

Ditrio said he chose to go to a seminar titled “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” where Eric Jensen was the speaker.

“Being from my very high level of poverty in a Title 1 School, I said this might be something good. It turned out to be a life-changer for me,” Ditrio said. “… It really was like he was talking about the kids I have in my building and the kids that I know that we have in many other buildings in Norwalk. Why are we missing them? We have been working so hard on our math, so hard on our reading. Those things that we have been working on took us just so far and we have kind of hit a plateau. We’re just making that next level. We are not getting every kid.

Ditrio said he came back from Baltimore with the enthusiasm he had as a rookie teacher because Jensen had put it in a way that “made so much sense and seemed so doable.”

It’s “brain-based teaching,” he said, which builds on 10 years of “amazing” research about the brain. He shared a list ranking 12 things that impact student achievement. From highest to lowest, those are:

  1. Student self-assessment
  2. Ongoing formative evaluations
  3. Reciprocal teaching
  4. Classroom climate
  5. Teacher clarity
  6. Feedback (in both directions)
  7. Teacher-student relationships
  8. Spaced vs. massed content
  9. Cognitive skill building
  10. Not labeling students
  11. Socioeconomic status
  12. Parental involvement

His favorite on that list is cognitive skill building, although he didn’t know what it meant before learning from Jensen, he said.

“We can have the best math lesson in the world, but if they are trying to put 5 pounds of something into a 2-pound bag, you can’t do it. You have to make the bag bigger. That’s what building cognitive capacity does. It gives them the ability to learn what we’re doing when we teach them the reading, teach them the math,” Ditrio said.

Working memory is the best predictor of the success 5-year-olds will achieve at age 11, he said. So Kendall used BrainWare Safari, a set of computer games that use the same principals as Lumosity does for adults, for the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, he said. It’s only designed to be used for 12 weeks by third-graders, but the kids liked it so much they used it for the rest of the year, he said. They also used Lumosity, thanks to a grant.

BrainWare Safari produces assessments for the kids, he said.

“A lot of kids improved,” Ditrio said. “It was really what I had for third, fourth, and fifth grade since we don’t have Common Core yet. We don’t have CMT’s (Connecticut Mastery Tests). To judge kind of how this year played out for third, fourth and fifth, mostly it was out of this BrainWare Safari that gave me some good data on how kids improved on a lot of these important skills.”

Research shows that if children take a math test after exercising, their scores are better, he said.

“I send my kids out for extra recess,” Ditrio said. “My teachers thought I was a little bit off my game starting this year off, because I was the kind of principal who always said you can’t go anywhere, you can’t have an assembly, you can’t take a trip unless you can tell me how it ties into CMT’s. You have to tie everything into that and we’re going to spend an hour on math every day. We’re going to spend God knows how long on reading every day. I didn’t talk about reading or math at all last year. I hate to say it, but I didn’t.”

The only thing that takes a little bit of extra time is the cognitive skill-building and the recess, he said.

“We actually think less is more,” Ditrio said. “If you’re talking to kids and they don’t understand what you’re talking about because they don’t have the cognitive capacity or they don’t have the level in the way that they’re feeling in it, you’re not going to get anywhere anyway. Time is not the answer. Like I said, I was the most time-on-task person you’re ever going to meet. But that just took us so far. So this is a way of giving up a little bit to get a lot more.”

During his presention, Ditrio said A survey question asked, “How would your staff rank the strength of each of these 3 effects on student achievement?” The three things were student home life, teacher quality and school quality.

No. 1 in the survey is teacher quality.

“That’s not how much they know, the social studies or the history, the language arts, it’s how well they know how to work with people and relate to kids,” Ditrio said.

Rivera reminded board members that when they authorized the purchase of a K-5 English Language curriculum, he said they weren’t just buying books; there would be an effort to help teachers understand how to reach children.

These techniques are spreading to Brookside, Marvin, Jefferson and Tracey elementary schools, Rivera said. Middle and high school teachers are going to be reading Jensen’s “Turnaround Tools for the Teenaged Brain.” Brien McMahon Principal Suzanne Koroshetz and West Rocks Middle School Principal Lynne Moore have been trained in the techniques and will be training teachers, he said.

Ditrio said that of 138 factors affecting student achievement, poverty ranks 32nd in importance.

“It’s important, but it’s not the excuse,” Ditrio told the Board of Education last week. “Just because kids are poor – there are a lot of things we can do to have them achieve, a lot of things that are much more important and much more of an effect on their life. Sure poverty effects your life, it effects education, it effects what happens, but it can be overcome.”

He said that the Kendall program, which included nutritional training, resulted in the best results ever in K-3 literacy, although the class sizes in first and second grades were the biggest ever.

“I had teachers coming in actually showing off the kids, kids that before they might have written off,” Ditrio said.

Ditrio Presentation BOE 07-01-14(1)

14 comments

piberman July 7, 2014 at 9:11 am

Poverty is an admittedly real handicap towards success in school. But being reared by single parents with limited education reportedly even more so. And that’s beyond our educators’ realm.

Admo July 7, 2014 at 10:01 am

Piberman sounds like another excuse. This is what they are talking about . Uneducated parents nutrition, home life etc.Read the book . It is amazing , it hits on all the factors. I think we have a answer to the achievement gap. Teachers have to buy in. It’s not just another fad. This is real scientific data. Kudos to Mr Ditrio for getting this message out.

LWitherspoon July 7, 2014 at 10:10 am

@Admo
.
Well said. Kudos to Mr. Ditrio for spreading the word.
.
I believe some portion of what is in the book is not new. Wasn’t it W who often spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”?

Lifelong Teacher July 7, 2014 at 10:11 am

Admo, you are absolutely right. This is a ‘no excuses’ approach to teaching and learning. The book is amazing and right on the mark. Blaming parents, economy, nutrition, lack of English is no longer acceptable in some of our schools.

Kendall and Jefferson, two huge schools with the highest poverty and ELL rates in the city, have had some outstanding results turning their schools around. For them, their teachers, and leaders, poverty is no excuse.. We don’t see much about it in the local media, but that’s another issue entirely.

Keep up the good work!

MarjorieM July 7, 2014 at 10:30 am

Ditrio is the first person I’ve heard who targets the big picture. Yes, it’s a one workshop wonder, but he has the intelligence and the clout in the district to get things done. Rivera, I think you have found your Chief of Curriculum.

Lifelong Teacher July 7, 2014 at 10:39 am

Marjorie, it isn’t a one workshop wonder. Both schools I mentioned have been implementing portions of Jensen’s approach for years. It is really changing the culture of a school and raising expectations for all children. No longer is it acceptable to say ‘…. they cannot learn because ____…. ( fill in the blank).

Have to agree that his Tony would make an outstanding curriculum director! but we cannot afford to lose him at the school level.

NPS Parent July 7, 2014 at 10:49 am

its not rocket science that elementary (and even middle school) do not get enough recess. it only benefits everyone (including teachers!) from more attn and focus from the students, to exercise of the body and brain, to learning the ropes of simple social interaction with each other. Bring back the 2 x 15 min recess as well as at lunch and you will get the scores+success stories. The young brain is not wired for hours after hours of instruction.

Just Wondering July 7, 2014 at 5:37 pm

Tony Ditrio might well be effective as a curriculum director, but I am wondering why the district is looking for one, since Tony Daddona was hired to be the Assistant Superintendent in charge of Curriculum and Instruction not so many years ago. Assuming that there is a reason for not having Mr. Daddona do this job, I just caution the BoE to be very careful in deciding who is truly best qualified this time around. Making this determination requires a thorough and thoughtful process. After thoroughly vetting all qualified candidates, if the board determines that Mr. Ditrio is the best qualified, then that is the person they should name. The story of Kendall is encouraging, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is a process to follow.

MarjorieM July 7, 2014 at 11:29 pm

I think Rivera is looking for his own people to fill positions he has created. Does it mean we are paying twice the amount for essentially the same job description? Yes. With that as a given, Ditrio has the clout of an LBJ. His administrators would do as he says. He’s a very wise choice forChair of Curriculum, on so many levels. Get the bad boy out of his union, out of his school and channel his leadership and intelligence in the right direction.

George July 8, 2014 at 4:14 am

Great to see a guy, that took so much heat, from so many, not long ago, on another town blog, yet he ignored the distractions and attacks and stayed on task and focused on the mission and is finally making headway. Nice work Mr. Ditro. For a time there, it seemed like we were never going to get passed chainsaw chopped budgets and inflated egos. And very encouraging to see Dr. Rivera reminding all of us, including the board, what our focus and mission is. Tip of the hat to both gentlemen, of progress.

Lifelong Teacher July 8, 2014 at 9:12 am

He’s a Norwalk man, dedicated to ours students and their progress. More than you can say for most employed by the city.

Back to the topic at hand, let’s hope that Jensen’s strategies for teaching poor children are adapted with fidelity. Economically disadvantaged, African American, and Hispanic students have been achieving at high levels in his and another school. It certainly can and is being done.

Tony Ditrio July 8, 2014 at 10:57 am

I was not aware of the article until this morning when one of my staff e-mailed me. I just want everyone to know that I am not nor will I be a candidate for any position other than Principal of Kendall. I really do appreciate the kind words though. We have too much that needs to be done to stray off the mission. It was difficult being the front man on some of the more controversial issues over the last few years. I am glad that we had a quiet budget season! The presentation was done to let the Board and the public know that many of us are really trying to make this District what it can and should be for ALL children. Dr. Rivera has been very supportive and we appreciate that from a Superintendent. We are at last talking about our students and not ourselves.

Lisa Thomson July 8, 2014 at 12:43 pm

While Mr. Ditrio and I have often found ourselves on opposite sides of some of the more controversial issues in NPS over the years, I have never questioned his commitment and dedication to Norwalk or the kids :-). Nice presentation.

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