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!”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.