Learning the Right Lessons

(AKA: Big Ideas 2-4)

I think Jim Fredricksen, author of “Are We Learning The Right Lessons From New Dorp High School?” is definitely on the right track. The lesson we should be learning from New Dorp High’s success is not that all schools can use formulaic writing to improve students’ abilities to think and write critically. It is not that teachers have failed. It is not that “American students can’t write.”

No, the lesson that we should take from New Dorp’s success is that schools, teachers, and students who are valued and supported become successful.

Fredricksen points out more than five lessons that should be learned from New Dorp. The following are the ones that I think are the most powerful:

* Teachers became teacher researchers.

The culture of the entire school changed. “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” (Fredricksen).All teachers were expected to collect data about their students and to use that data to improve their teaching. One assumes they were given time to do this, support in how to do it, etc. This is a big step towards improving students’ writing. I think they would have seen improvements in writing no matter what writing technique they eventually chose, because they kept working towards improvement. If what they had been doing didn’t work, I’m sure they would have changed techniques.

* Multiple “thinking partners” came in and stayed over the course of the year.

New Dorp was lucky enough to be able to have two free collaborators help them with their process. These people helped the teachers and administrators “provide a perspective to help them think though their own needs.” These people didn’t come in and tell them what to do. They weren’t paid. They came in and gave suggestions, which the administration and teachers were able to take and apply as needed. Both of these people worked with the faculty over time, meaning that the school had time for the new ideas to sink in, be implemented, be tweaked, and to really work.

* Writing wasn’t a stand-alone class; students wrote across the disciplines.

Even though there was a little resistance from teachers, eventually writing because something done in every class. This is so important, as writing is not simply limited to the English language arts. In the “real world,” people write every day. Business executives write reports, scientists write research grants, we all write emails, blog posts, etc. But in school, we so often limit writing to  one class. Thus, students don’t see the value of writing, don’t understand how to write in multiple genres, for multiple purposes, for multiple audiences. But at New Dorp High School, the faculty integrated writing across the curriculum. This means that students were practicing writing a ton more, which gave them more opportunities to learn new skills, make mistakes, and correct their errors.

 

These three lessons are important to learn from the New Dorp success. But, unfortunately, what’s happened is that many simply see the “easy” formula of teaching a few words/phrases/ideas. If other schools attempt to replicate New Dorp High School’s success without all the pieces in place, they will be upset at the results. Hopefully, schools, administrators, and politicians can look at the bigger picture when using New Dorp as an example.

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