One of my proudest professional achievements is the work that I did at High School for Green Careers, located in what used to be the massive, and chronically-failing Brandies High School. In Fall 2013, Green was the 4th lowest performing high school in NYC. Its graduation rate was 39%, lingering at the low-water mark that had caused the NYC DOE to close Brandies High School in 2009 in order to open new, smaller schools in the hopes of boosting achievement.
Green Careers was one such hope, but in 2013, several years after it opened, the school had not made headway in breaking the pattern of failure for the population of students who had previously attended Brandies and now attended Green.
I was asked to consult at the school to implement Learning Cultures as a school turnaround strategy in the fall of 2013. If you've never attempted a 'turn-around' effort, it's like stepping into a hurricane. When you step into a classroom in which the majority of students have failed a grade or two and feel a sense of hopelessness about future success, there is a sea of tumultuous emotion that most teachers, especially young, inexperienced teachers, but even old, seasoned, calloused ones like me can only barely control.
At Green Careers, in the early days of my work there coaching teachers in how to work with the students and helping them implement Learning Cultures methods, when I would stand in front of a class of students, I would routinely be shouted down, cursed out, laughed at, and talked over. The I-me-mere-person-teacher could do almost nothing in those situations. It was only the fact that I had developed a system that I could rely upon and use in those impossible situations, that provided a lifeline to me and other teachers that finally, over time, allowed us to pull ourselves out of the abyss.
The system I used at Green Careers and other schools is called Responsibility-based Self-Control, a method of discipline and school culture that is implemented school wide, which is based on a school-wide Social Contract (see the course called Keepers of the Culture). It helps teachers help students take initiative to hold one another accountable to upholding collective rights to learn and mutual responsibilities to the community of learners. Everyone in the school participates in the system, and it is consistently implemented in every classroom.
The methods hinged on a practice called the Intervention. Interventions are one-on-one meetings with students in which rights and responsibilities are outlined, and the student is helped to identify which behaviors get in the way of meeting their responsibilities. Goals are made, and the student makes a promise, by signing a 'Promise Card.' At Green Careers, the sheer number of Interventions were taxing the overall system, so I began to conduct student-led Interventions. At my first meeting with students, I explained to them that they should feel honored because they were selected by their peers to be Keepers of the Culture. Responsibility-based Self-Control was re-christened.
Once we'd established a culture of 'Respon-civility,' where students took responsibility for making sure that classrooms were safe and civil spaces, we could begin to address academic skills. Students could now participate in 'emotionships' with peers and access the mental lives of others as a means of intellectual development and personal well being. I had piloted the program in other schools where behaviors were incredibly challenging and rates of student failure were high.
In really dysfunctional schools and classrooms, disruptive and oppositional outbursts of students commandeer the school day, riding roughshod over learning opportunities of all students in the school. In some classrooms, disruptive behaviors are the norm, and the centrifugal force is so strong that the majority of students are drawn into the fray.
In a Learning Cultures school, in order to impose civility in these situations, adults need to take initiative to implement the Keepers system and hold students accountable to doing their part.
Most disruptive students have been waging against their teachers and the tyranny of authority. The system of Keepers of the Culture changes the terms of engagement in the classroom. There is no longer a war between teacher and student. The classroom is now a new democracy in which students are taught how to exercise their rights to learn and shown how to hold one another accountable. But students whose rights to learn have been habitually thwarted by disruptive students know the potential danger of being their victims. Teachers need to enforce the systems of Keepers of the Culture as if students lives depended upon it. And students need to know their safety will be guaranteed if they take steps to enforce the Social Contract.
It took several months for the system of Keepers to finally secure adequately positive behavior norms to the extent where I felt I could enter a room without hearing a swear or noticing students didn't need to check the non-verbal behaviors of adults to determine that they were going to follow through by responding to challenging behaviors of disruptive students. I recall one day when I was visiting, I followed the principal into a classroom where she had been called to attend to a behavior incident. I noticed when I walked into a room with the principal, a number of the kids gazed to check in with her, as if to make sure she was going to go toe-to-toe with a new student who had just been transferred into the school and who was causing incredible disruption.
Once behaviors were more civil, students could have the kind of conversations that the Learning Cultures formats try to cultivate in order to support higher-level thinking and social interaction. Each of the formats is carefully formulated to create self-determination in students. They balance autonomy, relatedness and competence feedback in just the right measure to keep kids motivated and focused on their goals and supporting one another.
The school-wide implementation systems I have devised specify regular progress-monitoring in reading, writing and math through curriculum-based measures, the results of which are shared with students. Scores on all of these metrics began to rise once the behavior and academic systems of Learning Cultures were functioning. Once students began to focus, apply effort, interact, and have a sense of self-competence, they began to see improvement in their performance.
To make a long, but happy story very short, days became months, and months turned into a few short years. And here we are. The Class of 2016 graduated with a 60% average. And some of their classmates will take Regents exams this summer and better that rate.
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In a new e-book, by Cynthia McCallister, is a brief guide to the Cooperative Unison Reading approach. It provides an innovative angle on reading instruction by looking at the reading process as a cooperative human process and applying theories from science that explain cooperation.
McCallister also looks at the reading process as a form of action, as opposed to the accumulation of discrete skills that are accumulated through linearly transmitted instruction.
The book is packed with practical applications of the method to real classroom situations, and comes alive with media assets such as audio and slideshows.
Even if you don't buy the book, you can access a free chapter that provides a training guide to the Cooperative Unison Reading method, led by an expert teacher in the method, Tara Silva.
The book is a companion to the online course, Cooperative Unison Reading/Mindful Reading, found on www.LearningCultures.net.
Visit the book's url and get yourself a copy today!
Summer 2016. A new instructional procedure, developed by Cynthia McCallister, called Integrative Math©, combines elements of Cooperative Unison Reading®: and modes of representation Jerome Bruner presented in his book, Toward A Theory of Instruction (1974). Students use the rules of Unison to read story problems. Then, using manipulatives, crayons, markers, and stories, they integrate enactive, iconic, and symbolic modes of representation, strengthening their mathematical thinking.