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!”

STEM in Colorado

Colorado lawmakers are stepping in to help prepare students for the state’s booming tech sector

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at Northglenn High School who are studying biomedical science work on an assignment. The class is part of the school's STEM offerings.

More Colorado students could be building smartphone apps by the end of next school year.

In an effort to prepare students for the state’s booming technology job market, lawmakers are considering three bills that would beef up access to computer science classes and provide students with new credentials after they leave high school.

A Chalkbeat analysis last year found that only about two out of every seven students in Colorado have access to courses in STEM — short for science, technology, engineering and math.

The bipartisan bills could change that, increasing access to computer science courses for the state’s black, Latino and rural students, and — for the first time — begin to define what a quality STEM program is.

The first bill scheduled to be debated by the House Education Committee on Monday would require schools to include technology in lessons alongside traditional subjects, such as English and civics.

It would also require the education department to create lessons to help educators teach computer science as a standalone course, and set up a $500,000 grant program to help train them.

“Kids need to be up to speed on these things in order to function in the current marketplace,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, along with Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat. “The more they’re attuned to the technology of the times — all the better. It will help them in college and getting their job and careers.”

The technology sector is the fastest growing in Colorado. There are an estimated 13,517 open computing jobs in the state, according to Colorado Succeeds, an education reform advocacy group that represents the state’s business community.

Some states have already made the shift to include technology in their learning standards. In Arkansas, which made the change in 2015, officials say the new standards have already started to break down stereotypes about who can do computer science.

“What we’re trying to do is to make computer science a normal part of their academic lives,” said Anthony Owen, the state director for computer science education in Arkansas. “When we make it normal for everyone, it’s abnormal for no one.”

A second bill under consideration in Colorado would make mostly technical changes to the state’s new P-Tech schools, a model that mirrors a New York City school that partners with IBM to give students work experience and a path to an associate’s degree while in high school.

The model allows students to stay in high school for up to six years — which has caused schools that house P-Tech programs to worry about their graduation rates.

House Bill 1194 would change the way the state calculates graduation rates to avoid penalizing schools that have P-Tech students enrolled for an extra two years.

The third bill, House Bill 1201, would create a special kind of diploma that shows colleges and employers that its holder is proficient in STEM subjects. To get the diploma, students would have to take a variety of STEM classes, earn high marks on standardized math exams, and demonstrate their science skills through a special project they complete their senior year.

“I want to make sure, across Colorado, that we have clear expectations and that they’re equitable expectations,” said Rep. James Coleman, a Denver Democrat and sponsor of the bill. “All of our schools are doing a good job preparing our kids, but I want to be specific in terms of what our colleges and workforce is seeking in our graduates.”

The bill, however, stops short of defining what coursework students must complete. Local schools will decide that. That was important to Jess Buller, the principal of West Grand’s K-8 school who helped write the bill. He noted that different schools and districts offer different STEM courses.

“We want that STEM endorsement to be that sign of distinction, that a student completed a program and does not need the remedial work that might be required for other students,” Buller said. “The bill is specific enough, but flexible enough.”

Morgan Kempf, the STEM science specialist for Pueblo City Schools, said she is excited to offer such a credential.

In the absence of a special diploma, Pueblo Central High School, the city’s STEM school, has sought outside accreditation to give weight to its STEM courses. The school has also started handing out school letters, usually a tradition reserved for varsity athletes, to exceptional STEM students.

“It’s an extra stamp of approval that recognizes and appreciates what they’re doing and at the level of rigor they’re doing it at,” Kempf said. “That stamp of approval lets students and potential employers know they’re meeting expectations.”

No Strings Attached?

Gov. Cuomo is proposing free college tuition, but are his plan’s rules too strict?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

As a freshman at City College last fall, Saad Ahmed stopped by his advisor’s office for what he thought was a routine meeting — until he found out he had lost all his state financial aid for the semester.

He thought it was a mistake, but it wasn’t.

Although he should have received about $2,000 per semester under the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, he unknowingly took a history class he didn’t need to graduate. Since TAP only covers courses applicable to a student’s “program of study,” he was suddenly one credit shy of the required course load.

“It was obviously frustrating because I lost the money, but it wasn’t my fault,” he said.

Ahmed is not alone. TAP has strict requirements about which courses, and how many courses, students must take in order to keep their aid. The “Excelsior Scholarship” — Governor Andrew Cuomo’s new plan to provide free college tuition at state schools to families making less than $125,000 a year — does too. The new scholarship, as it is currently configured, carries over some of TAP’s regulations, and some of its rules would be even more stringent.

The governor’s office, and many supporters, argue that cases like Ahmed’s are rare. Officials said they will try to address any problems with state financial aid, and that Excelsior’s additional regulations are intended to encourage on-time graduation.

But advocates say that argument misses a larger, structural issue with the state’s financial aid system: The more rules there are, the more chances there are for students to get tripped up. That ranges from seemingly innocuous mistakes like forgetting to count college credits obtained in high school, to situations in which students have to drop classes in order to support family members.

“How many 18-years-olds do you know that know exactly what they want to be when they grow up and don’t stumble and fall a little bit?” asked Susan Mead, director of financial aid at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie. “Unless we have a parachute to catch them while they’re having difficulties, they’ll end up going out the exit door.”

***

New York offers one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but stringent rules have historically limited the pool of students who can benefit. Under the current TAP rules, students have to maintain 12 credits per semester and those credits must count toward a student’s program of study. Excelsior ups that requirement to an average of 15 credits per semester.

The idea of asking students to take only courses applicable to their study area is designed to discourage students from taking ones won’t help them get a degree. But the requirement is applied unevenly across colleges, said Victoria Hulit, a college success director at Let’s Get Ready, a program that helps low-income students finish college.

“In theory, it sounds great. We want our kids to get degrees. But the way that TAP regulates it, it gets a little bit tricky,” Hulit said. “We didn’t even realize [TAP] was a thing until kids started losing it.”

For instance, Hulit knows one student who decided he wanted to switch majors from forensic science to fire science. He took a semester of fire science courses, but hadn’t technically switched his major in time for those courses to count for TAP. He lost all of his aid for the semester, she said.

Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College, where Cuomo announced his support for a free college tuition proposal, said that some of these problems can be solved by better tracking of credits on the part of students and schools. Sometimes, students say there are no courses available, but either they don’t want to wake up for an 8 a.m. class or the class conflicts with work. (Her students, for instance, sometimes work the night shift at LaGuardia Airport, she said.)

Schools are under pressure to make sure students meet each of the requirements. An auditor from New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office confirmed that they frequently audit TAP rules at colleges and prevent schools from providing aid to students not considered full-time.

Hulit estimates she knows about 20 students who have lost TAP funding. Though that is only a small fraction of the students she’s worked with, she says more often counselors caught students right before they made a mistake. In many cases, she said, students simply lost funding because they did not meet TAP’s academic or credit accumulation requirements.

That’s where the Excelsior Scholarship is even more stringent than TAP. The scholarship requires students to average 15 credits per semester and finish in two academic years for an associate’s degree or four years for a bachelor’s.

“The way to make college a greater success — more success and completion — is more full-time faculty, more opportunity for a large number of class sections,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, chair of the higher education committee. “That is the way to improve the end result. Not putting a gun to their head.”

There are exceptions, according to officials from the governor’s office. Students could take 12 credits one semester and make up classes the next, but they will still have to average 15 credits per semester in most cases. The state would also make exceptions for extreme circumstances, such as caring for a sick husband or serving in the military, officials from the governor’s office said.

“From a ‘stepping out’ provision permitting students to pause their education to allowing students to take variable credits if necessary, the program includes built-in flexibility and any suggestion otherwise is patently false,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer.

Still, an average student would not get more time, officials said. Their scholarship would not extend beyond two or four years, depending on the type of degree, even though the vast majority of students need extra time.

Only 22 percent of first-time, full-time students pursuing bachelor’s degrees at CUNY graduate in four years, but that number jumps to 54 percent after six years. The numbers are even more striking for students in two-year degree programs. Only three percent of students earn an associate’s degree in two years, but by the four-year mark, about 20 percent have.

This could be particularly difficult for students who have to take remedial classes, which do not count toward a student’s degree. Only about 50 percent of New York City high school graduates have met CUNY’s standards for college-readiness in math and English.

If the governor wants to help more students graduate, he should focus on eliminating some of these restrictions, instead of adding more, said Kevin Stump, the Northeast Regional Director for Young Invincibles, a group that encourages young adult activism on a range of issues, including healthcare and higher education.

“If the governor is serious, and if the state is serious — about college affordability and making college free,” Stump said, “it shouldn’t have all these ridiculous rules.”