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Doing things the write way
Flushing HS imports method that spelled success at Staten Island’s New Dorp HS
Jonathan Fickies Jonathan Fickies On a recent morning at Flushing HS, Demetra Fasolakis’ 10th- and 11th-grade English students — all English language learners with rudimentary English — are discussing the relationship between the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke and a military officer, Franz Kappus, who wrote him letters asking for advice. They read aloud and annotate a paragraph explaining the connection between the men.
Then it’s back to basics.
Students answer questions about the text using a worksheet that prompts them to complete sentences using key conjunctions.
“Franz Kappus wrote a letter to Rainer Rilke because he wanted to be a poet,” writes one student.
The classwork reflects a writing program that city educators are wagering can produce notable literacy gains among the many high-needs students at Flushing and 13 other struggling high schools in the city’s School Renewal Program.
The program is grounded in three fundamental characteristics: It emphasizes direct, explicit teaching of foundational skills for expository writing; it begins with basic, sentence-level strategies before building to more complex tasks; and it’s designed to be used in every subject and content area, from English and history to math and even physical education.
Staten Island roots
Known as Writing Is Thinking with Strategic Inquiry (WITsi), it grew out of writing and inquiry strategies that educators at New Dorp HS on Staten Island have been using for the last decade. The “Hochman method,” as New Dorp educators refer to it — after Judith Hochman, the educator who developed it — has transformed the way students and teachers at New Dorp approach writing instruction. Now, teachers at Flushing hope it can do the same for their school.
Ten years ago, when the graduation rate at New Dorp hovered around 55 percent, educators at the school developed inquiry teams to study student work. The common denominator in most cases was deficits in students’ writing ability.
“Students were coming to us without strong writing skills and without critical thinking skills,” remembers Shawn Ramos, an English teacher and the school’s chapter leader.
Teachers at the school experimented with a variety of familiar interventions: reduced class sizes, longer periods, weekend tutoring sessions. “We felt like all we were doing was putting our fingers in holes in a dam,” says principal Deirdre DeAngelis. “We needed something that was more systemic.”
When DeAngelis arranged for 47 of New Dorp’s teachers to attend a professional development session with Judith Hochman in 2008, they pronounced it “life-changing.” New Dorp had found its systemic intervention. The school’s graduation rate has risen 20 points since then.
Freshmen at New Dorp don’t write essays. Instead, they learn basic, almost elementary ways to structure their sentences using key conjunctions such as “because,” “but” and “so.” The skills are taught explicitly in English and social studies and then supported by work in other departments — a physical education assessment, for example, might ask students to complete sentences such as “Agility increases flexibility because… . Agility increases flexibility, but… . Agility increases flexibility, so… .”
“If you’re not immersed in something, you don’t really learn it,” says Ramos. “It can’t be isolated for 43 minutes a day; it’s a thread that continues from class to class and discipline to discipline.”
Because the vocabulary of the Hochman method is so ubiquitous throughout the school, students naturally begin to incorporate it into their writing, thinking and speaking. In a discussion about prison overcrowding in a criminology class, for example, a sophomore named Elizabeth said, “I agree with Adam because building more prisons would solve the immediate problem, but if nothing else is done overcrowding will still be an issue, so we need to look for other solutions.”
A modular approach
Gradually, students advance from sentence-level strategies to text annotation, note-taking, paragraph outlines and, finally, essays.
“Because it’s modular, students who are struggling can stay with more basic pieces, and students who are past that can add more complicated things,” says Ramos.
At Flushing HS, where the program is still in its infancy, the approach is not without its skeptics.
“I’m a math teacher, not an English teacher. What am I going to do with a writing strategy?” algebra teacher Yelena Pinkhasova says she remembers thinking at the beginning of the school year.
But lead teacher Kathryn Ottaviani, who is spearheading the effort to institute the program, is optimistic, particularly about the unique opportunity to approach inquiry work from an interdisciplinary perspective.
“When you look at kids’ writing, everyone looks at the English teacher and asks, ‘Why aren’t you fixing that?’ But the Hochman skills are universal, and that’s creating a climate of common planning,” she says.
That common planning time has allowed teachers from different disciplines at Flushing to examine their shared students’ work together for the first time.
In their respective classes, the teachers asked students to expand a simple sentence kernel into a more complex sentence. Then the teachers convened to scrutinize the students’ work.
“What I really like about this task is that I can tell exactly which step a student struggled with,” said one teacher.
Ottaviani, who has seen five principals come and go in the past five years, says the school’s veteran teachers are committed to making the program successful.
“It’s a shift in thinking for teachers,” she says. “But a big change doesn’t happen unless teachers are on board.”
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