Anatomy of a lesson

In class on tragedy, a teacher casts herself as supporting actor

Joanna Dolgin's "Tragedy" class at East Side Community School focused on Shakespeare's Othello in December.

Joanna Dolgin uttered only a few words during her first period “Tragedy” class one Monday last month, and she thought even those might have been too many.

Dolgin’s junior and senior English students at East Side Community High School were holding a formal discussion of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Tragedy is one of four English electives offered this semester at East Side, a small secondary school whose students, mostly Manhattan residents, are not required to take the full slate of Regents exams typically required for graduation. Instead, students complete projects, make presentations, and participate in discussions to show that they have mastered course material.

Dolgin’s Tragedy class is one of 52 high school courses citywide that the Department of Education has certified as being good preparation for college.

GothamSchools spent a morning in the class, observing as students discussed a central question about Othello’s plot. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included both a description of what we saw — and, in block quotes, a description of what the teacher was thinking.

9 a.m. “Who or what is to blame for Desdemona’s death?” The debate prompt was written on the board when students entering Dolgin’s makeshift classroom on the seventh floor of the Norman Thomas High School building, where East Side Community moved in October after its building was found to be structurally unsound.

As students took their seats, Dolgin handed out paper tickets. Each student got two tickets, representing the number of times Dolgin hoped they would contribute to the class discussion. Then, after asking for volunteers to begin, she listed off several names of students who would speak, in that order, without being called on again.

The conversation began with one serious disadvantage: the size and shape of the room in the temporary space, a half-classroom in which about 20 students sat with their backs against the walls.

“Ideally we would have an actual circle. I can’t in this shaped room with this number of kids,” Dolgin said. “There’s just not space to maneuver.”

9:10 a.m. By a few minutes into the period, students were deep into conversation, debating with each other about whether blame should lie with Iago, who engineers a scheme to make Desdemona’s husband, Othello, believe she is being unfaithful; Othello, who falls for Iago’s machinations and ultimately smothers Desdemona; or Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s servant, who is drawn into the plot and does not alert Desdemona.

Iago is considered the play’s villain, but a number of Dolgin’s students said Emilia became culpable when she put her husband’s wishes before her friend’s needs.

9:14 a.m. A student argued that pinning the murder on Emelia was unfair. “Iago was the one who was manipulating Othello and everything,” she said. “Iago was like the murder-whisperer for Othello.”

“The murder-whisperer! I like that!” Dolgin exclaimed before reeling off a list of the next three students who would speak.

Dolgin said she is always pleased when students disagree with each other, as long as they can draw evidence from the text they are discussing to support their position.

“I love this format for discussion. We call it accountable talk,” Dolgin said. “It has several components that I think reflect the type of learning we want students to do. The first is that they are discussing questions that matter. There is certainly no right answer.”

9:16 a.m. After two more students — both girls — took aim at Emilia for misplacing her loyalty, Dolgin pushed back slightly. “You guys are hating on Emelia!” she interrupted the second student before letting her go on. The student cited a line from the play that she said shows that Emelia cares only about making Iago happy.

“Really nice use of evidence,” Dolgin said.

As part of its rollout of new learning standards known as the Common Core, the Department of Education has asked city teachers to make sure they “require students to ground reading, writing, and discussion in evidence from text” this year. Dolgin said she has required that practice since long before the new standards were adopted.

“This discussion really reflects the Common Core standards — and what I want students to be able to do,” she said. “There’s been no change.”

9:20 a.m. One student took the unorthodox opinion that all characters are equally to blame — and she presented the idea in an equally unorthodox way. “The whole story was based on lies,” she said. “Nobody had, basically, the balls to tell the truth.”

Amid snickers, Dolgin asked, “Can you say that in a more academic way?” When the student faltered for a moment, Dolgin suggested, “Maybe ‘the courage’?” Then she pressed on, “Why does telling the truth require courage?”

Another advantage of “accountable talk” conversations, Dolgin said, is that students who are comfortable with academic language can speak on equal footing with classmates who are still learning how to present their ideas in ways that are appropriate for the classroom.

“There are also multiple entry points so all kids, no matter their skill level, can contribute,” Dolgin said.

9:22 a.m. A discussion of whether the theme of “love conquers all” can be detected in Othello — “In this case, love conquered reason and love conquered intelligence. Beautiful!” Dolgin said in response to one comment —  led one student to bring up Oedipus Rex, the first tragic play the class read this year. But the student seemed to have forgotten that Oedipus is by Sophocles, not Shakespeare. Instead of simply correcting the error, Dolgin built on the comment.

“There are definitely connections you can make,” she said. “I’m hoping light bulbs are going off in your head! Oh, this is like when Oedipus wouldn’t listen — Othello’s kind of like that, right? I think there are real connections between them and that’s something we’re going to explore.”

9:23 a.m. When a new student entered the room in the middle of a discussion, sat down in the back, and put his head on his desk, Dolgin roused him with a wave from across the room. But the class did not miss a beat. Without pausing, the student who had been speaking continued to cast blame on Emelia.

Before transitioning to the next speaker, Dolgin said, “I would love if somebody is willing to defend Emelia at some point.”

Responding to Dolgin’s request, a student contended that Emilia’s choice to put her husband’s wishes above her friend’s made sense for the play’s time and place. “Women didn’t have that much power,” the student said.

9:25 a.m. The discussion zoomed in on the handkerchief that Iago presents to Othello as evidence that Desdemona has betrayed him. Some students argued that the handkerchief drives Othello mad with rage, but another pointed out that his anger predates Iago’s discovery of the handkerchief.

“I feel like the handkerchief was just an excuse for Othello,” the student said, prompting Dolgin to write on the board for the first time since class began: “Handkerchief as excuse or cause of the problems?”

Dolgin said out loud, “How you answer that really I think really helps answer this question about who’s to blame for Desdemona’s death.”

Dolgin said she generally tries to stay on the sidelines during formal student discussions but sometimes cannot help but assert herself. Today, she said, “I just felt like there were a few things that I wanted to make sure everybody heard.”

But that’s not always a good thing, she said. “Some of this is my anxiety. When I let them have the floor, they have it,” she said. “But sometimes … when I get excited about the idea, I sort of say something. But I don’t think they needed me to jump in at all, frankly.”

9:32 a.m. For several minutes, Dolgin had been asking for “two-ticket” students — those who hadn’t yet contributed to the conversation — to join the queue of speakers. But not all heeded the request, so Dolgin called on a girl who had been silent all period. (Ultimately, all but two students spoke.)

After Dolgin asked her why she thought Othello believed Iago instead of Desdemona, the student answered, “Well, bros before hos.” The response elicited another request from Dolgin to rephrase “in a more academic way,” which the student did easily. “It’s natural for a guy to believe their best friend over their girlfriend,” she said.

9:38 a.m. A different student pointed out a tension in the conversation. “I think it’s kind of crazy how we’re saying … how Othello chose Iago over asking Desdemona, but then people see it the same when Emelia couldn’t pick her best friend over Iago,” she said. “It’s kind of like we’re being hypocrites about that.”

Other students piped up to challenge and defend the observation. One said, “I feel that Othello and Desdemona are just victims of Iago and Emelia’s relationship.”

Dolgin said that she stayed out of the conversation because it was going so well. That’s not always the case, she said.

“When these don’t go well, I stop [the conversation] earlier and say, ‘What do we notice is happening? What suggestions do we have to improve it?” Dolgin said. She said might redirect the conversation “if they’re not using evidence, or if there are only two kids talking, or something like that.”

9:42 a.m. The student who arrived latest spoke for the first time, asserting an opinion that hadn’t been aired before: “I’m blaming Desdemona for her own death,” he said.

“Oh snap! This is new!” another student exclaimed.

“That’s why we keep him around,” Dolgin said, adding to the student, “Thanks for rabble-rousing.” Dolgin asked for a line from the play to justify the accusation, and the student delivered, explaining in more detail when Dolgin asked him to paraphrase in his own words.

9:46 a.m. While one student argued that it is not fair to blame Desdemona for her own demise, Dolgin wordlessly pressed herself against the wall to slide behind a row of chairs to reach a student who had nodded off. Dolgin shook the girl’s shoulder and said quietly, “Stay with me,” as the conversation continued.

9:49 a.m. With only a few minutes left in the period, Dolgin told her students, “We are going to end here” — to a chorus of protestations. “Sorry!” she said.

Dolgin said the discussion had gone about as well as she could have hoped.

“The students ran the show. They listened and responded to one another with very little guidance from me. To me, that’s amazing!” she said. “The kids took their learning and opinions seriously and were eager to make their positions clearly understood. It’s not about answering a teacher’s prompt or getting at a ‘right’ answer.”

9:50 a.m. But before students left, Dolgin had some parting words. “I want to point out a couple of things that I noticed and get some feedback from you,” she said. “I really appreciate how many people participated; that was awesome. I appreciated your use of evidence. And I appreciated how well you responded to one another. Any other feedback on how this went?”

When a single “Very well” broke the silence, Dolgin groaned.

Being in temporary space has been a challenge, Dolgin said, because in adapting its schedule to fit with the others schools’ in the building, East Side Community had to shorten class periods from 55 minutes to 45. That means the normal tradeoffs about time are more acute.

“The conversation was going so I kept it going — it was so exciting to hear their opinions and I didnt feel like it was repetitive,” Dolgin said. “But I would have liked to do a more legitimate debrief of how it went and what they noticed. Instead I just sort of did it, because I was anxious about time.”

9:51 a.m. Dolgin then moved on to re-explain the homework assignment: for students to write a paragraph explaining “who disagreed with you, what were they are arguing, and why are you still right.”

Dolgin said, “Good news! You all disagreed with each other, so it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with!”

The goal of the assignment is to get students to dig even deeper into the text to support their arguments, Dolgin said.

“You have to show that you understand why someone would disagree with you, and how do you — you dont know have to say that they’re wrong — but how do you maintain that your point of view still makes sense?” she said. “I think all heard differences that they have to incorporate” into their essays.

“I think the type of analysis that they’re doing around Othello is exactly the type of analysis I want them to be doing, and Othello is so rich.”

The bell rang, and students streamed out of the tightly packed room, which later would turn into a math classroom. Dolgin offered some parting words of advice, to laughter: “Don’t lose any handkerchiefs! Don’t fall victim to other people’s relationships!”

beyond high school

Tennessee leads nation in FAFSA filings for third straight year

PHOTO: TN.gov
Bill Haslam has been Tennessee's governor since 2011.

Equipping more Tennesseans with the tools to succeed after high school has been a hallmark of Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration. And the efforts seem to be paying off as the governor heads into his final 18 months in office.

Haslam announced on Thursday that the state has set another new record for the number of high school seniors filing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as FAFSA.

With 73.5 percent completing the form for the upcoming academic year — an increase of 3.2 percent from last year — Tennessee led the nation in FAFSA filings for the third straight year, according to the governor’s office.

The increase isn’t surprising, given that students had a longer period to fill out the form last year. In order to make the process more user-friendly, the FAFSA window opened on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1.

But the increase remains significant. The FAFSA filing rate is one indicator that more students are pursuing educational opportunities beyond a high school diploma.

Getting students ready for college and career has been a major focus under Haslam, a businessman and former Knoxville mayor who became governor in 2011. He launched his Drive to 55 initiative in 2013 with the goal that at least 55 percent of Tennesseans will have postsecondary degrees or other high-skill job certifications by 2025.

“The continued surge in FAFSA filing rates shows the Drive to 55 is changing the college-going culture in Tennessee,” Haslam said in a news release. “First-time freshman enrollment in Tennessee has grown 13 percent in the past two years and more students than ever are going to college. As a state, we have invested in making college accessible and open to everyone and students are hearing the message.”

According to calculations from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, Tennessee led all states by a large margin this year. The closest states or districts were Washington D.C., 64.8 percent; Delaware, 61.6 percent; New Jersey, 61 percent; and Massachusetts, 60.4 percent.

The commission calculated the filing rates using data provided through June 30 from the U.S. Department of Education.

Filing the FAFSA is a requirement to qualify for both state and federal financial aid and is part of the application process for most colleges and universities across the nation.

To get more students to complete the form, state and local FAFSA drives have been organized in recent years to connect Tennessee students with resources, guidance and encouragement.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has championed bipartisan efforts to simplify the FAFSA process. The Tennessee Republican and former governor introduced legislation in 2015 that would reduce the FAFSA paperwork from a hefty 108 questions down to two pertaining to family size and household income.

You can read more information about the FAFSA in Tennessee here.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.