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. 

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.”

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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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“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.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”