Blendi Brahimaj, Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario working together

On a recent day at High School of Language and Innovation earth science teacher Katie Walraven did very little.

Walraven’s choice to take a back seat to her students was strategic: She was letting her students, who are almost all recent immigrants, do most of the teaching.

Her approach reflects one answer to a tricky question: How to teach high school students grade-appropriate content — while at the same time teaching them English. It’s a question that teachers at newcomer high schools such as High School of Language and Innovation or International High School in Prospect Heights, the subject of “The New Kids,” a new book by Brooke Hauser, confront daily.

For help addressing the tension, High School of Language and Innovation’s founding principal, Julie Nariman, turned to Learning Cultures, a curriculum designed by New York University education professor Cynthia McCallister. The basic philosophy of Learning Cultures – which is used in a dozen other city schools – is that students learn best through social situations. “The social interaction is what allows the writing to happen, the reading to happen, the learning to happen,” McCallister said.

While Learning Cultures is not specifically designed for ELL populations, Nariman says it is the perfect fit for them because it allows students to pool their knowledge of English and content to help each other. Nariman is well-versed in the needs of ELL students, having previously been assistant principal of English as a Second Language at Long Island City High School, and having taught English as a Second Language in Korea.

“This really spoke to me,” she said about Learning Cultures. “It’s a system of teaching students to work interdependently in the classroom and to use independent work time effectively. The content is still all there but in order to get to that content we are first working on social practices.” 

Walraven’s classroom – one of four that the brand-new school currently occupies in the basement of the Christopher Columbus Educational Complex – is filled with light dribbling in from high windows and with wafting smells of gravy and fries from the nearby cafeteria. During Thursday’s earth science class, Walraven’s students split into five groups to learn about earth-sun-moon cycles. Nariman and McCallister, who was visiting the school, sat in with some groups.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Principal Julie Nariman

In one group, leader Blendi Brahimaj, from Albania, tapped his pen on an open page in his earth science textbook, counted to three and led teammates Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario, both from the Dominican Republic, in the synchronized reading of a passage about Daylight Savings Time.

Reading aloud together is a key component of Learning Cultures, which calls it Unison Reading and says studies have proven the strategy effective. In Unison Reading, a small group of students reads a passage of text aloud together, stopping each time one of them feels confused or lost. Because the process is dictated by students’ own self-declared needs, according to McCallister, it can be more powerful than a teacher dictating information to a group of students, all of whom are in different stages of their English acquisition and all of whom are confused about different things.

After a few fumbles to regulate their reading speed, Brahimaj stopped the group: “What does that mean? ‘Ahead’?”

Hernandez offered an answer, explaining, “‘Ahead’ is like first, like if you’re ahead of me, you’re first.”

It sounded a lot like “in front of” to the other boys so Hernandez kept at it, pounding his textbook with his hand and contorting his mouth while thinking of another explanation.

“Like if I don’t know something and you know it, you’re ahead of me,”  Hernandez said. Satisfied with his answer, Brahimaj counted to three and the boys continued: “…ahead of standard time… ”

With no teacher over their shoulder, the boys still managed to keep each other on task, raise their questions and concerns and help each other comprehend the text.

Pelham High School for Language and Innovation Students using technology to help bridge the communication gap

In another group, Nariman looked on as Eury Cerda, who was born in America, got frustrated with teammate Aida Sarr, a native French speaker who immigrated from Senegal this school year, when she didn’t immediately understand his instructions to open her textbook.

Nariman nudged the group towards finding a solution to these issues so that they were all on the same page. Ultimately she brought them a laptop so they could take advantage of Google Translate. Cerda agreed to type a passage of the textbook into Google Translate, share it with Sarr and then lead the group in reading the English version of the text. At first, the group members were reluctant to risk losing time to study for an upcoming quiz, but by the end of the lesson they were working together. After each segment, Cerda turned to Sarr, asked if she understood and then cued more reading. By the end of the period, not only did they make their way through the passage, but they agreed to be friends.

“I said sorry and she asked if I wanted to be friends and I said yes,” Cerda reported on his way out the door.

Nariman recognizes that typing an entire textbook into Google Translate isn’t a sustainable strategy, but it is exemplary of the types of shared problem solving techniques her students employ to ensure that they and their classmates are understanding the language and content of their reading.

While Nariman coached Cerda’s group, McCallister worked with Walraven and a pair of girls as the girls struggled through a diagram of the earth’s rotation and revolution. McCallister and Walraven did not give them any answers, rather they helped them ask each other questions and watched on as the girls articulated the answers for each other. They prompted the girls with statements like, “Ask her if she understands” and “Ask her to explain it to you.”

After McCallister and Taina Guerrier, from Haiti, spent several minutes swirling around the room, rotating and revolving around each other, Guerrier grasped the concept enough to explain it to her partner: “She is the earth, I am the sun. She is moving. I am not moving. That is the day. When she moves, that is the dark.”

Her partner understood, the student had successfully become the teacher. Guerrier was glowing.