for the sake of argument

At a few city schools, an old course speaks to new standards

PHOTO: Emma Sokoloff-Rubin
Brittany Tucker, a junior, stakes her claim in a class at Urban Academy.

Avram Barlowe posed a provocative question during a class in December. “Are people taking this seriously?” he asked his Urban Academy students. “Scrubbing toilets is the same as giving away organs?”

Barlowe’s question wasn’t a non sequitur. His co-teacher, Adam Grumbach, had just argued that people should be allowed to sell their organs because other kinds of uncomfortable or dangerous work, like cleaning or digging the Second Avenue subway, are legal. Barlowe was looking to get students riled up so they’d join the debate.

It worked. Soon, the students were beginning the process of developing arguments and using evidence to back them up — two skills emphasized by the Common Core standards now in place in New York. Though Urban Academy students are exempt from most state exams, the popular transfer school in Manhattan has been teaching those skills for nearly two decades through a class called “Looking for an Argument?”

The course is now taught in at least four city schools, and its emphasis on reading nonfiction texts and writing argumentative essays could make it a useful tool for teachers looking to align their classrooms with the new standards.

At the same time, the course’s emphasis on personal opinion stands in contrast to Common Core architect David Coleman’s singular focus on students’ ability to analyze the “author’s choices.” Looking for an Argument only works if students say what they believe.

Maintaining momentum

The course operates as a series of “cycles,” beginning with students watching teachers debate for about eight minutes. Then they jump in with their own questions and opinions.

Over the next week or two, they read news articles about the topic, take notes, debate more, and write an argumentative essay. Then they repeat the cycle with a new theme, such as the death penalty or the relationship between luxury items and happiness.

The course’s structure asks teachers to make a bet: that it’s worth having students move on to the next cycle, rather than revise their essays, in order to build momentum and help students see the connections between each stage of the cycle.

“Writing is about organizing and explaining the way you think,” Barlowe said. In his eyes, if teachers devote too much class time to perfecting students’ essays before moving on to the next topic, they risk losing the link between thinking, speaking, and writing that he sees as the course’s core.

At Urban Academy, this approach makes for fresh, provocative, and, at times, unwieldy initial arguments and essays.

During the organ debate, after Barlowe tried to discredit the comparison Grumbach drew between doing a dangerous job and giving up an organ, Khadim Seck, a sophomore who hadn’t spoken yet, raised his hand. “People will do anything for money,” he said, returning to a point Grumbach made earlier in the debate about the futility of regulation. “It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s allowed, people will do it either way.”

After the initial argument, students spend the rest of each cycle developing an informed argument and providing evidence to support it. During most cycles, students also critique each others’ highlighting or note-taking strategies, critique their own essays, and receive feedback from their teachers. 

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Social studies teacher Aaron Broudo annotates a student’s essay as part of a lesson on counter-arguments.

Adapting the course

As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, Urban Academy has more leeway to experiment with instruction than most schools, because its students prepare portfolios instead of taking most Regents exams. But Barlowe believes Looking for an Argument can be a powerful tool regardless of whether teachers are preparing students for tests or portfolio projects.

The course does take time to master. Barlowe said it took several years to develop the ability to sense when to linger on a topic or skill and the flexibility to know when to move on. That’s why, in 2002, he and his colleagues began running trainings through the consortium open to any educators interested in teaching the course.

According to Ann Cook, executive director of the consortium and a founder of Urban Academy, the consortium has run at least 50 workshops focused on Looking for an Argument, and hundreds of teachers have observed the course at Urban.

Barlowe said he’d like to see the Department of Education invest in more training, particularly as teachers across the city scramble to adapt their teaching to the Common Core.

“If the Department was truly committed to doing some of this stuff, we could do staff development over the summer,” he said. Additional funding could also allow Barlowe and his colleagues to spend more time more time observing the class at other schools and helping teachers adapt the class to their students’ needs.

Claire Cox, an English teacher who taught the course at Brooklyn’s Gotham Professional Arts Academy during the school’s first year in 2007, said she and her colleagues adapted the curriculum to provide more class time for writing, revising, and instruction on specific writing skills her students needed.

“We used the same structure and stretched it out,” she said. “You can prioritize what you want.”

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Joshwell Caban, a junior at Fanny Lou Hamer, discusses his essay with Principal Nancy Mann.

“How people actually think”

At Fanny Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, students also take a stretched-out version of the course. Co-teachers Aaron Broudo and Mike Centrone have built in more time for students to write and revise their essays in class. But they haven’t given up Looking for an Argument’s emphasis on students’ opinions, which they said has been essential to keeping students engaged in the class and especially in the writing process.

Broudo pointed to Joshwell Caban, a junior, for whom the structure of Looking for an Argument worked particularly well. Caban speaks Spanish at home and rarely said more than two sentences at a time when the class began.

“I wasn’t used to it, to arguing with someone else about one topic,” Caban said. But over the course of the first few cycles of arguments, he got caught up in the arguments and began talking and writing more.

Midway through the semester, when Broudo and Cestone replaced their usual opening arguments with panels of four students who argued with each other before the rest of the class joined in, Caban begged to be on the first one.

Caban’s writing, though much improved, is far from perfect. He’s still figuring out how best to connect his evidence to the arguments he’s trying to make. But he argued passionately against the death penalty during the panel, and though his claims weren’t airtight, he cited the costs of execution and other countries’ stances on the death penalty and explained how that information supported his point of view.

Principal Nancy Mann, who watched most of the debate, wasn’t surprised to see a quiet student start speaking and writing during Looking for an Argument.

“Human beings have ideas, express them, rewrite them, have new ideas,” she said. “That’s how people actually think.”

 

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.