'I'll Have What They're Having!': The Challenge of Replicating One School's Success

New Dorp's writing program is truly revolutionary. But bringing it to other schools will take a lot of hard work. 

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Grading papers at a café with my husband in my second year at a high-poverty urban charter school, I came upon a sentence in a student essay about Death of a Salesman that pointed out how two characters seemed alike but turned out to have a crucial difference. As an observation about the play, the point was only mildly interesting. But it was a two-part thought expressed in a two-part sentence, and for that reason it lit up my stack of papers like a supernova.

I wrote a lavish marginal note to the student (one of the most ambitious and intellectually curious young people I've ever met, now a senior at UCLA), read it aloud to my husband, and then posed to him a question that would haunt me for years to come: What had gone so terribly wrong in my students' educations to make a sentence like that so rare?

The school reform movement has precious few success stories about high-poverty high schools. There are a handful of superstar teachers whose students outperform their demographics, but we have not yet discovered a scalable model that reliably improves the core skills of low-income high school students achieving far below grade level.

In my experience, educators at these students' schools don't talk about this much. But it's there, in the halls and the classrooms and the school leadership meetings, wearing us down like a bad smell from the faculty room refrigerator.

So when I read about what is happening at Staten Island's New Dorp High School, it really does strike me as a revolution. A high-poverty high school that is measurably improving its students' writing and reading skills through a school-wide focus on expository writing? I'll have what they're having! But what is it? If high schools around the country are about to begin trying to replicate New Dorp's success, it's important that we're clear on what, exactly, was so revolutionary.

First of all, the revolution was not about teaching expository rather than creative writing. As Tyre and others responding to her article have said, it's elementary and middle schools that have most consistently moved away from teaching expository writing, not high schools. It's certainly true that most high school students don't do enough writing of any kind, and it's no mystery why: Your average teacher has about 125 students and needs at least 10 minutes to respond to a four-page analytical essay with any integrity. That's 20 hours, 49 minutes, and 50 seconds to grade a set of papers (but who's counting?). It's hard to find that kind of time than twice a quarter.

The good old days are a myth; there's very little reason to believe American students as a whole could ever write any better than they can now.

But we do find the time, and we find ways to make the most of shorter assignments and peer editing and "focused" (limited) feedback. Our students write and, in my experience at least, what they write is mostly expository. I do think kids should be doing more expository writing in the elementary and middle grades, but that's not what happened at New Dorp.

Nor was the revolution a return to the "good old days" before progressive pedagogy watered down our curriculum, as Judith Hochman clarifies in her response to Tyre's account of her writing curriculum's astonishing success. For one thing, those good old days are a myth; there's very little reason to believe that American students as a whole could ever write any better than they can now. (See "nostesia" for Jamie Vollmer's theory on the combination of nostalgia and amnesia that gives us this impression, and read Kalamazoo Gazette reporter Julie Mack's fine blog post on "The Good Old Days of Education" for the stats to back it up.).

The methods used to teach our parents and grandparents how to write worked for the same population of students that we currently serve quite effectively: students from middle and upper-income families who were already interested in and attuned to language, the people who now reminisce about diagramming sentences. The students who don't "catch" writing skills from expressing themselves in mini-memoirs didn't catch them from doing grammar exercises in Warriner's either.

Educators moved away from those methods in part due to cultural shifts emphasizing student empowerment through self-expression, but also because there was significant evidence that they did not actually work. Students who could diagram sentences well were not becoming better writers; they already were better writers.

So what was the New Dorp High revolution about? What made the difference?

First of all, it involved a single, sustained, school-wide focus. This is a much bigger deal than you might think if you do not work in schools. If you do, you will marvel at what principal Deirdre DeAngeles accomplished in picking one thing, getting everyone on board, and then sticking with it. Tyre writes,"By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject."

Reading that sentence as an English teacher who has been involved in more literacy-across-the-curriculum initiatives than I care to remember, I was filled with admiration and longing. How did they get all the teachers to do that? As many teachers at New Dorp would surely acknowledge, changing your teaching practice is profoundly uncomfortable. Most teachers will eventually get on board with what works, but their schools often change course before they even have a chance to find out what that is. New initiatives are introduced every year, and the old ones die quietly in file cabinets.

Somehow, New Dorp stuck with its idea, and teachers across the building threw their shoulders to the wheel. As staff developer Nell Scharff tells it, "Every quiz, every unit test, every homework assignment became a new data point. ...We combed through their writing. Again and again, we asked: 'How did the kids in our target group go wrong? What skills were missing?'"

These can be tremendously complex questions; student writing can go wrong in an immense number of intersecting ways. There are, of course, problems with grammar, logic, organization, style, and proofreading. Often there are code-switching errors, with kids writing in the vernacular they speak at home, or problems with genre conventions (especially thorny when students try to write literary criticism, the highly esoteric genre on which the classic "English paper" is modeled).

Worst of all is the category of problem that many English teachers just call "awk": awkward or convoluted syntax. This is what happens when kids simply haven't mastered enough linguistic structures to express anything but the simplest ideas. This is why basic narrative writing is easier for these kids: You only need one kind of sentence structure to tell your readers what happened first, next, and last.

Nothing we learned in education school or in our dozens of hours of mandatory professional development has given us the first idea about how to help kids with this problem, so we just throw the same feeble corrections at it again and again. We cross out the "although" at the beginning of the nonsensical sentence fragment "although George and Lenny are friends" (to quote a New Dorp student), and if we're feeling especially energetic, we explain in the margins how "although" makes the sentence a dependent clause. We might even mention it again in a "mini-lesson" to the whole class. Best-case scenario: The students who didn't know how to use "although" will be diligent enough to avoid using it again.

The teachers at New Dorp, with the help of Judith Hochman, found another way, and that way is, to me, the most exciting feature of their writing revolution. Hochman and her colleagues at the Windward School have demystified the language of exposition, argument, persuasion, and analysis -- in other words, the language of complex thought -- and broken it down into a series of syntactic and cognitive moves that students can learn and practice.

This is not something that your average teacher can be expected to figure out on his own. Looking at student work together as a form of data can be a good start. A teacher with a gift for thinking about language may intuit some of these teaching points and work them into her instruction and feedback, and a really visionary, borderline monomaniacal one might devise a whole system for teaching these structures methodically in his own classroom. But even that wouldn't be enough. The revolution has to be bigger than that, because there's a lot to learn, and none of it is going to be learned without a whole lot of practice.

That's why the breadth, follow-through, and focus of New Dorp's writing initiative was so crucial. The kind of learning that meaningfully improves student writing can't happen once a week with a tutor, or once a quarter when it's time to write the big paper, or even every time the word "although" happens to come up in a student's homework. It needs to happen methodically and repeatedly, in a variety of contexts, until students are able to make the moves automatically, the way sophisticated speakers and writers do all the time -- not pausing to remember a rule that someone once wrote in the margin of their paper, just talking and writing in the way that allows them to say what they have to say.

Teaching students how to use words like "although" not only improves their writing and their reading; it improves their thinking. The linguistic structures that Hochman and the faculty at New Dorp are teaching their students are also heuristics, cognitive moves that help students to think about the world -- the poems they read, the molecules they study, and yes, their personal experiences -- in new and more powerful ways. If you're going to pick one thing and stick with it, this form of writing instruction is not a bad place to start.

I wish that the writing revolution at New Dorp were just about switching genres, or at least that we already knew what worked decades ago and could just start doing it again. But we don't. We are trying to do something new. I am not the first to remark on this, but once more with feeling: We're trying to teach all our kids, even the poor ones, even the ones to whom school does not come easily. We're trying to dedicate our schools to teaching rather than sorting -- to dramatically improving the skills of the students who were, in those good old days, earmarked for voc-tech by the third grade. So we're figuring it out as we go. And New Dorp just took a big step forward.