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'Roundtable' discussions put students and teachers on the spot

While students across the city hunkered over bubble sheets and short answer questions during last month’s Regents exam period, seniors at East Side Community High School were deep in conversation.

In one corner of Ben Wides’s American Foreign Policy classroom, two students huddled with a university professor talking about the role of altruism in foreign policy. Three desks over, another group discussed the role of public opinion in policy decisions, and across the room, a student told a student teacher why he found the Mexican-American War so interesting.

The conversations were part of “roundtable” discussions that are a crucial early step in East Side’s assessment program. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, the school exempts students from most of the exams the state requires for high school graduation. The students instead demonstrate competency by completing extensive research projects and presenting their findings to teachers and outside evaluators.

Wides’s students will write and defend original historical research papers at the end of the year in a process that he likened to a graduate thesis defense. Last month’s roundtables gave students an opportunity to practice discussing class material and defending their interpretations, he said, and they also gave him one more way to gauge mid–year what material still hadn’t sunk in.

“The idea is really being able to use information, to dig deep into text and things that you’ve learned, and then being able to use that information to make arguments, to back them up, and to be part of an adult, mature dialogue,” Wides said.

Currently, just 24 city high schools belong to the performance standards consortium, out of more than 500 in total. But performance assessments seem poised to arrive at more schools soon, particularly as pushback against standardized testing mounts and the new Common Core standards require that students be able to stake out positions and support them with evidence.

The city could also use performance assessments in addition to other exams to satisfy the “local assessments” portion of required teacher evaluations. Some policymakers, including City Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn, are pushing for more schools to adopt non-test-based assessment systems.

East Side Principal Mark Federman said he thinks meeting the standards set by Regents exams do not ensure that students will succeed in college and beyond.

“Throughout the semester, [East Side Students] know they’re going to talk in public, they’re going to be accountable to strangers,” he said. Students who start at East Side in sixth grade have presented their work to outsiders more than 50 times by graduation.

In Wides’s classroom, students discussed foreign policy with a CUNY professor, two East Side teachers, three student teachers, a consultant on peer mediation, a graduate student, a paraprofessional, and a teacher from another school whose classes were suspended for Regents week.

Speaking with a classmate and the professor, one student argued that altruism is a nice idea, but it is unrealistic to expect governments to make foreign policy decisions based on anything but their own best interests. Even decisions that look altruistic might not be, she said: The government decides whether to enter a war “based on what they think is best, but they cover it up with a story that would be acceptable to the public.”

The other student pushed back, arguing that altruism should play a role in shaping foreign policy. Wides asked for a hypothetical example of what an altruistic foreign policy decision would look like. “If the U.S. had entered World War II earlier, because so many people were suffering, then that would have been an example of altruism,” the student suggested.

Not every conversation reflected the same level of engagement. In a talk about public opinion on foreign policy, one student struggled to explain the relationship between the two.

“He wasn’t right there saying, what the public thinks matters because they elect the leadership in a democracy. He got there, but he got there through a lot of prompting,” Wides said. “That was a little painful for me, but that was also good feedback. It was valuable for me to hear that a relatively strong student wasn’t making that connection as facilely as I would have liked.”

He said he would revisit the topic in the second semester but would not count the challenge against the student. Unlike regular classwork and end-of-year historical research papers, roundtables are not meant to test students’ knowledge of specific facts.

“This does not substitute to me as an assessment,” he said. “What students are assessed on in the class is the work that’s in their portfolio…I’m not using the roundtable to figure out what kids know.”

Wides said the roundtables also keep teachers on their toes, because in addition to observing his students, “guests are in here observing me.” Teachers acting as guests in each other’s roundtables offer feedback and take notes on what they might do in their own classrooms. They also see how their colleagues are grading student work, preventing teachers from adopting wildly disparate grading scales.

In preparation for the roundtables, each student wrote a cover letter, which guests read alongside student portfolios just before engaging in conversation. In the cover letters, students made historical arguments and drew connections using examples from class material. They also offered personal reflections on their experiences in the class, which became part of their conversations.

“You wrote a lot of criticism, a lot of self criticism, which I thought was really wonderful to be that candid about saying, well, I wasn’t really organized,” Matthew Guilden, a former East Side dean who now consults on discipline and peer mediation with the school, told a student. “How are you going to fix that? Because you’re going to go to college next year.”

East Side senior Gabriella Castillo said after the class that roundtables push her to organize her thoughts and review what she learned during the whole first semester.

“I think if it’s a test, I’ll probably just make flash cards, memorize a few dates, and then it’s over,” she said. “But when you really get to discuss something, discuss all these topics that you’ve learned about and researched and stuff, this knowledge is going to come with you forever. Even right now, I’m still thinking about some questions that they asked me.”

Wides said the roundtable help him explain to students why they are learning certain topics.

“In a lot of schools, the answer is you’re learning this because it’s going to be on the Regents,” he said. He described a “Countdown to the Test” poster displayed prominently at Norman Thomas High School, where East Side was relocated for several months this year due to structural issues with the building.

“Here, I can say, you need to learn this because someone’s going to ask you about that at the roundtable,” he said. “But what that really means is that some adult is going to come in and take an interest in your ability to answer a real question, take a moral stand, or have a really thoughtful idea about cause and effect in history.”

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