Are We Learning the Right Lessons From New Dorp High School?

An Atlantic article studies a once-failing high school and draws conclusions about its turnaround. But there are other ways to interpret that story.

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Monica DiBella, a New Dorp student profiled in a new Atlantic article, saw her writing skills improve dramatically after her school changed its writing program. (Kyoko Hamada)

In the new issue of The Atlantic, Peg Tyre shares New Dorp High School's compelling story. It's a story in which a group of students consistently underperformed against teachers' hopes and expectations. It's a story in which a leader, Deiredre DeAngelis, identified problems and tried to find possible solutions. It's a story, like any good story, that doesn't answer questions as much as it raises them. To me, the main question is, "What lessons from New Dorp might other schools take away and adapt for their own context and needs?"

Tyre suggests that one of the takeaways might be a return to what she describes as "traditional instruction" in the teaching of writing. I think Tyre tells the story well but ultimately misses much of what helped to change the culture of New Dorp and improve its students' writing.

I want to pay particular attention to what I see as principles New Dorp seemed to engage in (or are developing), because it's those principles that others can learn from and can make their own. In short, I believe New Dorp is seeing the fruits of what inquiry and choice - for teachers and for students - can do for school culture and school performance.

Of course, Tyre did the work of observing and interviewing, researching school statistics and following New Dorp students and teachers and leaders - which is to say that what I notice is from a distance and through my own filters.

Those filters include being a National Writing Project (NWP) teacher and a co-director of one of its 200 sites across the country, as well as someone who has spent the last two years working with teachers from a host of states, from California to New York, on an initiative to integrate the Common Core State Standards that will soon be rolling out throughout the country. My background also includes being a co-author on three books on the teaching of narrative, argument, and informational texts. That is to say, New Dorp's story hits home for me in a number of ways.

First, New Dorp considered its school as a place where teachers learn too. Tyre points to a number of moments when teachers looked closely at student work, tried to understand why students were making (or not making) the choices they did in their written work, shared with one another multiple hypotheses for what was happening in the student work, and then tried to find ways to teach students to think about their choices differently.

This kind of systematic and collaborative work among teachers is often referred to as "teacher research," "teacher inquiry," or "practitioner inquiry." By giving its teachers the opportunity and time to systematically inquire into their own practice, New Dorp cultivated a culture where people learn from and with one another.

Second, New Dorp brought in outsiders -- not to tell their own faculty what to do, but rather to provide a perspective to help them think though their own needs. My colleagues and I call this kind of professional development role being a "thinking partner." This is different than paying some high-dollar or high-profile expert to "solve" problems in the school. A thinking partner is not brought in to fill some sort of deficit but to build on the expertise and willingness already in the school community.

It seems New Dorp had two thinking partners at different times. The first, Nell Scharff of Baruch College, kept asking teachers what they noticed in their students' work and what the teachers thought it meant. In other words, Scharff helped the teachers ponder what their students were actually doing and why. The second thinking partner, Judith Hochman, modeled her writing pedagogy and coached teachers through the process she'd developed. Scharff and Hochman were not "hit-and-run" consultants; instead, they worked with the faculty over time.

Third, New Dorp applied these lessons across its classrooms, approaching writing not as a stand-alone subject but as an important tool for getting work done in all disciplines. In education circles, this is often referred to as "writing-across-the-curriculum" or "writing-in-the-disciplines." By focusing on this kind of pedagogy, teachers in each content area help students understand what it means to communicate in that discipline. For example, a biology teacher mentors students in the ways biologists communicate, a history teacher shows them how historians frame their ideas -- and so on across the disciplines, from art to math to music to language arts.

With this kind of interdisciplinary approach, students gain a lot of repeated practice in making rhetorical choices based on the purpose, audience, and context of a piece. That is, writers learn to adjust their writing, not only to particular subject matters but to different genres of communication. Writing, in this view, is a social practice, meaning that it's a way that people within a community discover and circulate ideas. This recognition became a part of the New Dorp culture, and in turn, changed the way students and teachers understood themselves, each other, and their relationships and joint work.

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Jim Fredricksen is the co-director of the Boise State Writing Project. He is the co-author of several books on teaching high school writing including, most recently, So, What’s the Story?: Narrative Writing to Understand Ourselves, Others, and the World.

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