Ann Near, right, looks over her school's progress report with teachers on teaching social activism.
Ann Neary, right, looks over her school’s progress report with teachers at a conference on education and social activism.

When it came time to teach her ninth graders to write a research paper, Ann Neary, a teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School, decided that rather than write about a topic distant from their lives, students would try to decipher the school’s city-issued progress report.

The idea formed in November, when the city announced that Dewitt Clinton was so low-performing it might be closed. The school had just received an F on its November progress report, Neary told teachers at a conference about education and social activism hosted by the Museum of the City of New York over the weekend.

The city ultimately opted not to close Dewitt Clinton, though the Panel on Education Policy voted last week to shrink the school and move two new schools into the building. But back in November, when it still looked like the school might close, students got to work.

“We were really rallying around this issue in the school,” Neary said. “So I adopted it as a way to teach research.” An assistant principal had just asked all Dewitt Clinton ninth-grade writing teachers to assign a Common Core-aligned research paper, Neary said, and urged them to focus on non-fiction texts that included graphs for students to analyze.

“It wasn’t an assignment I thought would be interesting to my students,” she said. “I thought the F would be more meaningful to them.”

She used the same grading rubric, but rather than focusing on the nutritional content of foods, as the assignment originally suggested, the 78 students in Neary’s three classes looked into how the school got its failing grade and what each element of the complex progress report meant.

Neary began her presentation at the conference the same way she began one of the early lessons in the research paper unit: She divided participants into small groups and handed out sections of the eight-page progress report, which the city uses to evaluate and compare schools.

Several teachers pointed to parts of the report that they weren’t sure how to interpret.

“This is hard text to break down. Even teachers have to work to understand it,” said Anna Staab, who teaches eighth grade at the Leadership and Community Service Academy. She said she was particularly struck by Neary’s description of information students were able to pull out of the text that their teacher had missed.

“If kids can decipher this text, the skills will be transferrable,” Staab said. She has also worked with students to research a topic connected to their school, in her case, the Integrated Co-Teaching model of special education. “We’ve done research on the history of ICT,” Staab said. “If kids come into ICT and don’t know what it is, sometimes they see a stigma attached to it.”

After the conference participants reflected on their efforts to make sense of the progress report, Neary described walking her students through five essential research steps.

Neary says all of her students wanted Dewitt Clinton to stay open, though they were only three months into their first year at the school. The step they found most difficult, she found, was understanding “claim and counter-claim.”

“They wanted their claim to be that you shouldn’t close our school, and they didn’t want to have anything that would speak against that,” she said. At first, they resisted the idea that showing that they understood opposing arguments — an integral part of the Common Core, and one that Department of Education Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky emphasized in a guest lesson at Bronx Academy of Letters last year — could strengthen their credibility.

Neary said two students chose to write a paper supporting the claim that Dewitt Clinton should in fact be closed as a personal challenge.

Students less comfortable with writing began the process by generating their claims as though they were posting a message on Twitter. “Let’s use your skills at tweeting by synthesizing your claim statement in 15 words or less,” Neary wrote on the assignment.

To help complete another research step, “thinking about diverse stakeholders,” Neary required students to attend an “early engagement” hearing at the school and take notes on the range of people for whom the issue seemed to matter.

The next three steps, “looking for evidence,” “highlighting support,” and “keeping logs,” made up the bulk of the project.

Neary said students’ first instinct was to look on Wikipedia for information about their school. Once they began to find information on the Department of Education’s website and in newspaper articles about progress reports and the school closure process, they got to work making sense of what they read. Students highlighted information that supported their claims and logged their findings, before ultimately packaging their research into a three-page paper.

One student focused on the B-rating the school received in “college readiness,” the only category in which it didn’t receive an F. She researched other schools that received a B rating and compared those schools to her own.

“That girl dug and dug and dug and dug,” Neary said. “And each day she’d get more excited, because she was getting more information.”