Anatomy of a lesson

In a third-grade class, students use a script to lead discussions

A third-grade teacher at Success Academy, reads to her students.

In a thick Russian accent, Sasha Growick imitated the voice of Rifka, the main character in “Letters from Rifka.” The book, which Growick is incorporating into a unit on immigration, tells the story of a young Jewish girl’s journey from Russia to the United States in the 1900s. Her 23 students sit cross-legged on a blue rug with colorful dots, completely enthralled by the story.

Every day during the last weeks of the school year, Growick spent about 40 to 50 minutes reading aloud and getting students to discuss the reading. The  teacher has worked at Success Academy Bronx 2 for the last three years, where her students routinely post the highest test scores in the entire charter network. Growick’s record recently earned her finalist status for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, awarded annually by the nonprofit TNTP.

GothamSchools sat in on her daily read-aloud lesson last month as students discussed Rifka’s reaction to her new country. 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 said she was thinking.

9:28 a.m. Growick is finishing up the end of a chapter about Rifka arriving at Ellis Island and experiencing life in America for the first time. Rifka finds her younger brother wasting toilet paper and scolds him and says they will be sent back to Russia. Rifka tells another character in the book, Nurse Bowen, what happened and Nurse Bowen laughs at her.

Growick pauses and asks her students why she thinks Nurse Bowen is laughing at Rifka. She snaps her fingers and each student immediately turns to another and begin discussing the question. Growick bounces from group to group for about 45 seconds and then quickly comes back to the front of the classroom and raises her hand. The students stop talking.

“So a lot of you were highlighting the difference in perspective,” Growick says. “Where Rifka thought this was a terrible crime because of her experience with it in Russia, now that she’s come to America, she’s experiencing a very different reaction to something that would have been this horrible crime in Russia … let’s see what Nurse Bowen has to say to her.”

These are called “turn and talks,” when Growick asks students questions and then gets them to discuss answers with a partner. She said she likes to use this strategy because it allows students to understand what she is thinking about the book and also gives them an opportunity to talk about what they think is happening.

9:37 a.m. Growick finishes the chapter and asks students, “Even though Rifka is stuck in Ellis Island, she’s finding comfort in many different things. What is Rifka finding comfort in?” Again, Growick snaps her fingers and the students turn to each other to discuss for about 30 seconds. Then Growick starts counting down.

“10, 9, 8, 7…”

The students immediately move into three different groups, each sitting in a circle.

9:41 a.m. Growick has listened in to a few different conversations and addresses the class again to say she doesn’t think the students are quite on the right track. She says she hears many students talking about how Ilya, Rifka’s brother, has brought her comfort, but there is something else that Rifka is doing that brings her comfort.

“At the end of chapter we learn … she’s starting to write her own poetry,” Growick says. “And since the entire school has been writing poetry lately and we’re going to have a poetry slam on Wednesday … I want us to discuss this idea of how writing poetry can comfort you or make you feel better. Why is it that writing poetry is making Rifka feel better about her situation? Discuss.”

Each group has a group leader who leads the conversation.

“They make sure they’re following kind of like a script that we established with them starting in the first grade,” Growick said. “They’re very seasoned at it at this point.” The group leader repeats the question, calls on students to answer and then make sure the conversation continues without coming to a stop. The group leader is also responsible for making sure students who are speaking are “actually answering the question and taking the conversation in a productive course,” Growick said.

Growick said she usually chooses group leaders based on how well they are understanding and answering the questions during the turn and talks.

Growick said she sometimes whispers help or guiding questions to group leaders to help them refocus or redirect the conversation or gives them reminders about the structure that they have to keep in place.

9:43 a.m. In one group, the student who has been designated the group leader, repeats the question to the other students in the group. He calls on a classmate and she asks if he can come back to her. He calls on another student and that students asks if the group leader can please restate the question. The group leader looks at Growick, who is standing nearby, and she says, “That’s fair. Please do so.” He repeats the question and the student responds, “It helps, because, like … what was the boy’s name again? Ilya? Because Ilya … it makes her feel better, to have somebody to have company with.”

Growick asks the group leader if the other student answered the question. The group leader shakes his head.

Growick says,”I think your group needs some more think time. Let’s really think about why poetry can be comforting. Think about when you write poetry … how it makes you feel.”

9:45 a.m. One student says writing poetry helps Rifka because she’s trying to “combine all her sadness into one big ball and express it out to the world.”

“That’s an interesting concept and an interesting metaphor,” Growick says. “Why would focusing on your sadness … make you feel better?”

The student replies, “If you keep it inside of you, you’ll feel bad about it.”

“I thought that the group leader was doing a good job of making sure people were answering the questions,” Growick said about this particular group’s conversation. “It wasn’t as cohesive as I would have liked it to be. I feel like there were two or three students who kept talking, and then some of the other students began to evaluate what they were saying. But I didn’t feel like it was super rich. But I do think they were able to answer and discuss the questions on a more than basic level.”

Growick shares the student’s response about why Rifka finds writing poetry comforting with the whole class and then asks a follow-up question, which the student discuss again.

“I thought that was something that they could have unpacked a little bit more and I wanted to see what the other students thought,” Growick said. “So that’s why I ended up sharing it out to the entire group.”

Growick does this a couple more times so that students end up discussing what type of poetry Rifka will write and whether it will be influenced by Pushkin, one of the Russian poets she has been reading.

9:51 a.m. Growick wraps up the conversation. “A lot of people think Rifka’s poetry will end up sounding like Pushkin’s poetry because that’s what she’s been reading this entire journey. As great readers and writers, we are often influenced in our writing by what we read,” she says. “As we finish these last two chapters … try to make a connection between Rifka’s poetry and Pushkin’s.”

Then she asks students to return to the carpet and starts counting down from 10.

Compared to the beginning of the year, Growick said she has seen a major change in the students’ use of vocabulary and ability to speak in complete sentences. “I’ve also seen a major change in the children’s ability to hold themselves accountable,” she said. “They want to speak, they want to be called on, they know the group leader could call on them at any time, So they’re kind of holding themselves accountable to make sure they’re actually actively listening to their friends.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”