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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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.