First Person

How a very unlikely school visit improved my students’ writing

When I was named principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School three years ago, I didn’t expect that my students would end up learning to write using a model borrowed from a charter school in Brooklyn.

As principal, I was charged with continuing the school’s long history of faith-based education in Harlem while revamping our academic program. Our team has always been committed to teaching students the skills they need as learning standards and career opportunities change. But as a small community, we have grown more and more isolated over time.

To fix that, we did something unorthodox. Rather than turning exclusively to other private schools for insight, we looked to charter and district schools in our city for models to help us improve classroom instruction.

We did this through our new relationship with Schools That Can, an organization that builds cross-sector networks of district, charter, and independent schools. As debates about whether district and charter schools can effectively collaborate continue across the city, our experience made it clear to me that it is possible for different types of schools to learn from each other.

Schools That Can gave us access to talented educators in our city who offered us the chance to observe the way they approach a wide range of challenges. I was particularly concerned about finding ways to improve my students’ writing. It was clear from our middle school students’ performance on last year’s New York State exam—the first aligned to the Common Core—that we needed to find a way to help them build stronger, evidenced-based responses to writing prompts.

In November, I visited Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn to learn more about the school’s approach to teaching writing at the middle school level. The school is different from ours in many ways: we’re a small, private Catholic school, and HCCS is slightly larger public charter school where all students learn Greek. But I had heard about their robust writing program and wanted to learn more, particularly because the majority of students at both of our schools come from low-income backgrounds.

As I walked through teachers’ classrooms at HCCS, I saw walls filled with student writing. While displaying student work isn’t uncommon, I was struck by the comments that accompanied the writing.

Students and teachers used handwritten notes to sustain an ongoing dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of work. I was particularly impressed by the level of feedback students were able to give each other, including suggestions about improving sentence structure and using stronger adjectives to bring the piece to life.

After observing student work in the hallways, I looked through students’ portfolios and saw that students were using their peers’ feedback to improve their subsequent work. I read the essays students had written over the course of the year and saw, for example, that a student who received feedback on one essay encouraging the use of more vivid language  developed a stronger, more dynamic writing style in her next essays.

It was refreshing and motivating to see a clear, painstaking approach to teaching writing in which students and teachers both took ownership of the writing process.

Following the path laid out by HCCS, we introduced a schoolwide writing rubric and checklist tool at St. Mark. Teachers shared the checklist with their students, showed them multiple models of exemplary work, and walked them through the process of critiquing writing samples. Students are now expected to reference the checklist whenever they write, as well as when they critique their classmates’ writing.

We’ve only been using these tools for a few months, so it’s too soon to know their full effect. But throughout the school, I see students digging deeper into texts to find details to support their arguments, and critiquing each other’s writing in more nuanced and sophisticated ways—all skills called for by the Common Core standards. Teachers who were initially unsure how to adapt their classes to the standards are gaining confidence, in part because they have the checklist to ground their feedback to students.

As a school leader, knowing a school needs to improve is an important step, but actually making a plan to change it is where the real challenge arises. It can be tempting to turn inward for solutions, but no one teacher, coach, or administrator has all the answers. For my school, looking beyond our classroom walls gave us the chance to learn what we needed from a school that is very different from our own.

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First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

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.