News & Politics

Student-Driven Teaching Leads the Way at a New Brooklyn School

In a new middle school, a teaching method called Living Cultures will privilege social learning, and interactions between students, over traditional teaching methods.

Photo Credit: Dmitriy Shironosov via Shutterstock.com

In September, sixth graders at a new middle school in Clinton Hill will regularly stand at the front of the class to share a vocabulary word, or how to solve a math problem. And feedback from fellow students will be valued as much as feedback from their teachers.

In more than a dozen city schools, teachers are taking a literal backseat in their classroom as they adopt a student-driven teaching method called Learning Cultures. But Urban Assembly Unison School is the first to be built from bottom up around the method.

Unlike some of the schools that use Learning Cultures to help immigrant students learn English, Unison probably won’t be serving a large population of English language learners. District 13, where the school will open, has relatively few ELLs.

But Learning Cultures is flexible enough to challenge and support any students, said Jennifer Ostrow, the co-founder and principal of the school. She said she heavily recruited ELLs from outside the district, but students who live in District 13, which has had a dearth of high-quality middle schools, got priority for admission. (The school is still accepting applicants, Ostrow said.)

“I am really excited to create what I think will be an excellent middle school and hope will be a valuable contribution to our community,” Ostrow said. 

Learning Cultures is grounded in the idea that students learn most from social practices. So at the Unison School, classroom time will be structured around interactions between students — such as unison reading, in which students spend 20 minutes reading in sync, stopping when one stumbles. Students will set specific goals for themselves, often informed by state standards. And teachers will meet with one or two students every class period for 20 minute one-on-one sessions.

Ostrow began to help develop the school as director of new school development for Urban Assembly, a network that operates about 20 city schools. If all had gone as planned, she would have moved onto another project by now.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how great the school was going to be, and how exciting it could be and eventually decided to just jump back in with both feet and to be the school’s proposed principal of myself,” Ostrow said. Before her work in the network’s central office, she was assistant principal at another Urban Assembly school, the Harbor School.

The Learning Cultures method caught the attention of Urban Assembly and district schools across the city after P.S. 126, which piloted the program, saw leaps in its standardized test scores. The Department of Education has also taken note: Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky gave the opening address at a Learning Cultures symposium last month, making a rare joint appearance with UFT president Michael Mulgrew.

The department is watching the model’s results closely, according to Josh Thomases, a top deputy in charge of instruction.

Cynthia McCallister, a New York University professor who engineered the method and related curriculum in the 1990s, said the mounting emphasis on standardized testing has driven Learning Cultures’ popularity. The method calls for teachers to discuss standards explicitly and to help students use the standards to articulate their personal learning goals. That means students at Learning Cultures schools are likely to be more aware of language of standards than they might be at other schools — something McCallister said teachers and principals find increasingly attractive as the Common Core takes hold and resets expectations for student learning.

“In a lot of ways the extra pressure or emphasis on standardized tests has created a context where, with a lot of people, there’s more willingness to consider this kind of model,” McCallister said.

But it wasn’t just test competency that attracted Ostrow to the method, although she said that was part of her motivation. When she toured P.S. 126 she was struck by the consistency in instruction from class to class. And she liked that students could talk to her about what they were doing, and why they were doing it.

One advantage Ostrow has over principals who have implemented the program in established schools is that she doesn’t have to win teachers over. Teachers and principals at schools that have adopted Learning Cultures in the past say it can be hard to convince teachers that inverting the traditional student-teacher dynamic is a good thing.

Darby Masland is a sixth grade teacher at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, which began to implement Learning Cultures in its middle school this year. Masland is now one of Learning Culture’s biggest proponents, and is helping to train Ostrow’s teachers this summer. But initially, the method “freaked [her] out,” she said.

“You’re asking yourself, ‘How are the students staying quiet? Why aren’t they throwing desks at each other when you turn your back?’” she said.

But the team of six teachers Ostrow selected from more than 400 applicants are all excited about the method, Ostrow said.

The are prepared to not only take on a new classroom dynamic, but to adapt to new expectations from their principal. Instead of submitting lesson plans to Ostrow, as they would in another school, Unison teachers will hand in rubrics, filled out by their colleagues and themselves, that show how often they met with students and what they talked about.

The rubrics induce the most tension of any component of Learning Cultures, said Kerry Decker, who has implemented Learning Cultures at two schools, first as principal of P.S. 126 in New York, and then at a school in Wisconsin.

“When you say to a teacher, ‘Look, you’re not satisfactory, you need improvement, based on my observation of these rubrics,’ they really feel — it’s a shift in mindset to them, so at first it’s a real shock,” Decker said.

But Decker says most of her teachers have come to see how valuable of a professional management tool the rubrics can be.

Ostrow, who will also teach at Unison, said she looks forward to the feedback from students and teachers. And she wants to set an example of lifelong learning for the sixth graders.

“We want students to understand intelligence is incremental, and error is an opportunity for learning,” she said.
 

Grace Tatter is an intern at GothamSchools.org.
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