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.

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.

Fourth, New Dorp teachers taught writing as a way to not only demonstrate ideas, but also as a way to discover them. For instance, Tyre writes about a chemistry teacher who asked students to describe the properties of hydrogen and oxygen using subordinating clauses that began with "although," "unless," and "if. "

Monica, the student Tyre features throughout the article, discovered conceptual relationships through these brief writing prompts. Tyre reports that Monica previously felt she could read the words on a page, but she wasn't sure what she was supposed to notice. " 'Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,' she says. 'The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.' "

Tyre points to Monica's mastering the parts of speech as the key, but I would add that this kind of spontaneous, low-pressure writing exercise also permitted Monica to connect concepts in ways that hadn't occurred to her before she began writing about them. That is to say, the chemistry teacher wasn't just teaching about subordinating clauses. The teacher was also teaching that you can discover as you write: it's okay to not know what you think before you put ideas on the page. When students explore key concepts in a course through these in brief, even impromptu, exercises, we refer to it as "writing to learn."

Fifth, New Dorp teachers do not seem to focus on explicit parts of speech as much as making rhetorical choices visible. A rhetorical choice is a decision that's available to a writer, and it can be thought of at different levels of a text: the word, the sentence, the paragraph, and or the text as a whole. It's not just that the teachers quizzed students on coordinating conjunctions or the way to start sentences with "although" or "despite"; instead, they taught what those moves could do for writers and their readers.

There is power in being able to identify these moves, but there's also power in being able to explain what effect the move has on readers -- and to understand those moves based on purpose, context, and audience. For instance, the argument made in a commercial advertisement is different than one that might appear in a political ad. An argument made in a letter to the editor is different than one found in a sonnet, and so on.

When students begin to consider the wide range of options writers have available when they compose a piece, they begin to understand why the writers end up making the choices they do. As a result, students become more strategic and independent readers and writers. They're better able to generate ideas for themselves, and they're better able to shape and revise those ideas for a particular audience. They begin to consider the needs of their readers and think more deeply about why a piece might matter to themselves and to others.

The students at New Dorp had the opportunity to do all of this. They had multiple chances to see how other writers made those moves, and to try those moves out themselves. The point here is that New Dorp's teachers did not merely quiz students on grammar but helped them consider the purpose and context of what they were writing and make rhetorical choices based on that.

Finally, New Dorp's story is not over, and the school will continue to learn more about its students and its pedagogy. Tyre writes that New Dorp's "success suggests that perhaps certain instructional fundamentals - fundamentals that schools have devalued and forgotten - need to be rediscovered, updated, and reintroduced. And if that can be done correctly, traditional instruction delivered by the teachers already in the classrooms may turn out to be the most powerful lever we have for improving school performance after all."

I would submit that New Dorp's success is rooted in the principles I've outlined above, which seem to me to be about processes that empower. The school has shown that it values its teachers, and that it sees writing as a way people circulate ideas across disciplines. It is approaching writing as a way to discover ideas and conceptual relationships. And it has created a culture of inquiry and choice, for students as well as for teachers, which means that the learning will never be quite over. That's an important lesson for others and a hopeful path for the New Dorp community.