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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

Going Deep

September 24, 2013 | by Tim Daly

When I think about sophisticated literary analysis, I don’t usually look to children’s books. But Jennifer Corroy does—and her teenage students, who are stepping up to ambitious International Baccalaureate work in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, quickly make the leap from cartoons to criticism.

You want to know how this works, right? I did too. Jennifer talks about this technique, and more, in a new paper we’re releasing today called Going Deep: Empowering Students to Take Risks, Make Mistakes and Master Difficult Material. It’s the second edition in an annual series of essays from our Fishman Prize winners. For anyone wondering how to bridge the gaps between current instructional practice and Common Core-ready rigor in the classroom, it’s a must-read.

Our annual paper is just one of my favorite things about the Fishman Prize. We started the prize last year to honor, celebrate and, above all, listen to teachers who are getting truly exceptional results in high-poverty public schools. The essay series caps off a six-week residency, which this year included trips to New York and Washington, D.C., meetings with education movers and shakers and opportunities to reflect on how their individual classrooms relate to the wider world of policy. What’s unique is that the winners themselves play a huge role in setting the agenda, exploring the questions that most interest them.

This year’s essay theme emerged during reflective conversations among the four 2013 winners about their challenges and successes with students. This group of teachers couldn’t be more different—they work with every age group, teaching a variety of subjects in diverse geographic environments, with students at widely diverging levels of readiness. Yet as they shared details about their classroom practice, a common theme came to the surface: encouraging students to embrace mistakes and take the lead in their learning.

Rigor gets bandied about pretty often, but its meaning is often obscure. It’s not just making school harder; it’s the process of increasing student effort to engage with rich and rewarding concepts. It is the search for understanding, not answer-getting. The rigorous classrooms our winners lead are laboratories of ideas, where wrong answers provide learning opportunities, not discouragement. Our winners talk about the transformative power of “yet.” As in: I’m not bad at math; rather, I’m not good at math yet.

In addition, this sort of teaching requires an enormous amount of planning and subject mastery, along with an appetite for risk. In rigorous classrooms, teachers must relinquish some control to their students, while ensuring that inquiry is productive, in bounds and when appropriate, focuses on a single right answer.

We find in these essays that the best long-term investment in outcomes is the right process. As Javier Velazquez writes, it’s a steep learning curve to move from leading students through carefully planned lessons to facilitating an inquiry-based approach—from following a script to improvised question chains. But putting control in the students’ hands creates the challenging, accountable learning environment that not only helps them master the material today, but teaches them how to handle unfamiliar material tomorrow. We see similar strategies in Keith Robinson’s 9th grade algebra class, where students are encouraged to exemplify a growth mindset that says math is hard work, but worthy work; and in Josalyn Tresvant’s elementary-aged special-education classroom, where students set individual and group goals and track their progress throughout the year.

Our 2013 Fishman Prize residency may be over, but with the publication of Going Deep, the conversation is just getting started. Send us your thoughts on the essays, and we’ll share a selection of them with the winners for their insights in this space. You can also follow us on Facebook for more ways to connect.

The 2014 prize season is coming up. Applications open in November—anyone can nominate a teacher, and any teacher working in a high-poverty public school can apply. We can’t wait to see what our winners will be talking about next year.

Tim Daly

Former President