In a thick Russian accent, Sasha Growick imitated the voice of Rifka, the main character in “Letters from Rifka.” The book, which Growick is incorporating into a unit on immigration, tells the story of a young Jewish girl’s journey from Russia to the United States in the 1900s. Her 23 students sit cross-legged on a blue rug with colorful dots, completely enthralled by the story.
Every day during the last weeks of the school year, Growick spent about 40 to 50 minutes reading aloud and getting students to discuss the reading. The teacher has worked at Success Academy Bronx 2 for the last three years, where her students routinely post the highest test scores in the entire charter network. Growick’s record recently earned her finalist status for the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice, awarded annually by the nonprofit TNTP.
GothamSchools sat in on her daily read-aloud lesson last month as students discussed Rifka’s reaction to her new country. As when we have chronicled other classes in the past, we’ve included both a description of what we saw, and in block quotes, a description of what the teacher said she was thinking.
9:28 a.m. Growick is finishing up the end of a chapter about Rifka arriving at Ellis Island and experiencing life in America for the first time. Rifka finds her younger brother wasting toilet paper and scolds him and says they will be sent back to Russia. Rifka tells another character in the book, Nurse Bowen, what happened and Nurse Bowen laughs at her.
Growick pauses and asks her students why she thinks Nurse Bowen is laughing at Rifka. She snaps her fingers and each student immediately turns to another and begin discussing the question. Growick bounces from group to group for about 45 seconds and then quickly comes back to the front of the classroom and raises her hand. The students stop talking.
“So a lot of you were highlighting the difference in perspective,” Growick says. “Where Rifka thought this was a terrible crime because of her experience with it in Russia, now that she’s come to America, she’s experiencing a very different reaction to something that would have been this horrible crime in Russia … let’s see what Nurse Bowen has to say to her.”
These are called “turn and talks,” when Growick asks students questions and then gets them to discuss answers with a partner. She said she likes to use this strategy because it allows students to understand what she is thinking about the book and also gives them an opportunity to talk about what they think is happening.
9:37 a.m. Growick finishes the chapter and asks students, “Even though Rifka is stuck in Ellis Island, she’s finding comfort in many different things. What is Rifka finding comfort in?” Again, Growick snaps her fingers and the students turn to each other to discuss for about 30 seconds. Then Growick starts counting down.
“10, 9, 8, 7…”
The students immediately move into three different groups, each sitting in a circle.
9:41 a.m. Growick has listened in to a few different conversations and addresses the class again to say she doesn’t think the students are quite on the right track. She says she hears many students talking about how Ilya, Rifka’s brother, has brought her comfort, but there is something else that Rifka is doing that brings her comfort.
“At the end of chapter we learn … she’s starting to write her own poetry,” Growick says. “And since the entire school has been writing poetry lately and we’re going to have a poetry slam on Wednesday … I want us to discuss this idea of how writing poetry can comfort you or make you feel better. Why is it that writing poetry is making Rifka feel better about her situation? Discuss.”
Each group has a group leader who leads the conversation.
“They make sure they’re following kind of like a script that we established with them starting in the first grade,” Growick said. “They’re very seasoned at it at this point.” The group leader repeats the question, calls on students to answer and then make sure the conversation continues without coming to a stop. The group leader is also responsible for making sure students who are speaking are “actually answering the question and taking the conversation in a productive course,” Growick said.
Growick said she usually chooses group leaders based on how well they are understanding and answering the questions during the turn and talks.
Growick said she sometimes whispers help or guiding questions to group leaders to help them refocus or redirect the conversation or gives them reminders about the structure that they have to keep in place.
9:43 a.m. In one group, the student who has been designated the group leader, repeats the question to the other students in the group. He calls on a classmate and she asks if he can come back to her. He calls on another student and that students asks if the group leader can please restate the question. The group leader looks at Growick, who is standing nearby, and she says, “That’s fair. Please do so.” He repeats the question and the student responds, “It helps, because, like … what was the boy’s name again? Ilya? Because Ilya … it makes her feel better, to have somebody to have company with.”
Growick asks the group leader if the other student answered the question. The group leader shakes his head.
Growick says,”I think your group needs some more think time. Let’s really think about why poetry can be comforting. Think about when you write poetry … how it makes you feel.”
9:45 a.m. One student says writing poetry helps Rifka because she’s trying to “combine all her sadness into one big ball and express it out to the world.”
“That’s an interesting concept and an interesting metaphor,” Growick says. “Why would focusing on your sadness … make you feel better?”
The student replies, “If you keep it inside of you, you’ll feel bad about it.”
“I thought that the group leader was doing a good job of making sure people were answering the questions,” Growick said about this particular group’s conversation. “It wasn’t as cohesive as I would have liked it to be. I feel like there were two or three students who kept talking, and then some of the other students began to evaluate what they were saying. But I didn’t feel like it was super rich. But I do think they were able to answer and discuss the questions on a more than basic level.”
Growick shares the student’s response about why Rifka finds writing poetry comforting with the whole class and then asks a follow-up question, which the student discuss again.
“I thought that was something that they could have unpacked a little bit more and I wanted to see what the other students thought,” Growick said. “So that’s why I ended up sharing it out to the entire group.”
Growick does this a couple more times so that students end up discussing what type of poetry Rifka will write and whether it will be influenced by Pushkin, one of the Russian poets she has been reading.
9:51 a.m. Growick wraps up the conversation. “A lot of people think Rifka’s poetry will end up sounding like Pushkin’s poetry because that’s what she’s been reading this entire journey. As great readers and writers, we are often influenced in our writing by what we read,” she says. “As we finish these last two chapters … try to make a connection between Rifka’s poetry and Pushkin’s.”
Then she asks students to return to the carpet and starts counting down from 10.
Compared to the beginning of the year, Growick said she has seen a major change in the students’ use of vocabulary and ability to speak in complete sentences. “I’ve also seen a major change in the children’s ability to hold themselves accountable,” she said. “They want to speak, they want to be called on, they know the group leader could call on them at any time, So they’re kind of holding themselves accountable to make sure they’re actually actively listening to their friends.”