First Person

South Bronx Hannukah

“Wait — what? I thought you were Buddhist, Ms. Q,” says Simone, a talented ninth-grade member of the theater program and speech team I coach at my South Bronx school.

“Nope,” I say. “I do a lot of yoga, but that doesn’t automatically make a person a Buddhist. Technically, I’m Jewish.”

Jewish. It’s still weird for me to say this.

“Wow, I had no idea,” says Simone. Then she gestures to the open paperback on the desk in front of her. “What a weird coincidence,” she says.

I’m sitting in a vacated classroom after school with Simone and her sister Sahirah, who are turning Lois Lowry’s classic young adult Holocaust novel “Number the Stars” into a 10-minute theater piece.

The whole situation is remarkable for a few reasons.

Number one, the sisters have taken the initiative to find their own piece of literature to adapt for competitive performance. As part of our speech team’s new student leadership model, responsibility for “cutting” — editing full-length works of fiction, theater and film into short, thematically coherent pieces in which one or two performers can play up to 10 or even 20 different characters — has shifted away from the adult coaches and landed squarely on the kids’ shoulders. Some kids have resisted this transition. Cutting pieces can be really, really hard. But these two girls have launched right in.

Number two, the girls have chosen to take on a story that, as African-American actors, they mostly likely wouldn’t get a chance to perform outside of the highly imaginative world of forensics (an umbrella term that encompasses competitive speech and debate.) Sure, there’s a recent encouraging trend toward so-called “non-traditional casting” in Hollywood and on Broadway, but in the real-world entertainment industry, it’s still unrealistic that two black performers would get to play white girls growing up in 1940’s Copenhagen. For decades, forensics was dominated by mostly white students from mostly private schools, and kids and coaches typically chose roles that aligned with performers’ cultural backgrounds. But as more schools serving diverse populations create forensics teams, there’s been an explosion of intercultural casting possibilities, giving a new generation of performers a chance to step into the shoes of people who are radically different from themselves.

Simone and Sahirah don’t seem the slightest bit fazed by the idea of playing roles that include a Catholic girl and her Jewish friend, the girls’ family members, German soldiers, Jewish refugees, and members of the Danish resistance. It’s clear that despite the cultural and chronological distance separating the performers from their characters, they feel a strong connection. When I ask them why they chose the piece, Simone says, “Why not? It’s a good story.” Point taken.

The third reason I find it fascinating to be working with these girls on this particular story on this particular day is a personal one, and actually represents much more of a coincidence than the girls know. Not only does our work session coincide with the first night of Hanukkah; it also happens to land on the first Jewish holiday in my life that I’ve ever chosen to celebrate in a meaningful way.

I grew up with a Jewish mom and a Methodist dad, both of them compassionate, vibrant, deeply ethical people — and neither of them religious. We always celebrated Christmas for the festive rituals of decorating the tree, baking cookies and giving gifts, but the Christian element of the holiday was absent.

I understood that having a Jewish mom made me “technically” Jewish, but talk of Judaism was as scarce in my childhood as it was in my mom’s. When World War II broke out, my maternal grandmother was forced to abandon a thriving theatrical career in Europe and flee to New York. She and my grandfather eventually settled in Connecticut, bought a Christmas tree, and melded into the WASP landscape. My mom only found out she was Jewish at the age of 16 when she innocently repeated a joke she’d heard from a school friend at the dinner table, not realizing it was anti-Semitic.

Through my teens and early adulthood, I never thought twice about my Jewish heritage. My family life was nurturing and filled with wonder. I didn’t find myself actively missing exposure to religious traditions. But with the birth of our daughter two years ago, my husband and I made a choice to bring her into contact with all elements of her mixed cultural background — the holiday traditions her paternal grandparents carried with them from Sweden, the rich Irish heritage from my Dad’s side, the Christmas wonderland my mother brings to life every year — and yes, my mom’s family’s Jewish roots as well.

Last year we bought a menorah and our downstairs neighbor lit the candles and sang the blessings for us once or twice. This year I’ve decided to make our celebration more resonant, to learn to sing the blessings myself, and to teach them to my daughter.

As I settle into the classroom with Simone and Sahirah now, the walls bright orange in the last of the daylight, I feel a little flush of excitement about lighting candles later on with my little girl. But I’m also nagged at by an uncomfortable sense of disconnect. How can I embrace the ritual meaningfully when I have such a limited knowledge of Judaism? And how can I make the leap toward teaching my daughter to understand her Jewish heritage when my own connection to it feels so tenuous?

The girls take out the first draft of the script they’ve started piecing together and I find myself shaking my head at the uncanny intersections of art and life. Here we are, a white woman from Connecticut and two black teens from the South Bronx in a classroom together, each of us stepping into the space between the imaginary and the real in order to learn what it means — either for a few brief moments or for a lifetime — to become Jewish.

Over the course of the next two hours, the realities of the South Bronx recede and the three of us lose ourselves in the story of two young girls from different cultures, one struggling to save the life of the other, in a war-torn country half a world away.

At one point, as we’re looking for a way to bring the new script to a close, we decide to read the last chapter of the novel together silently to ourselves. For about 15 minutes, there is total stillness. A feeling of suspension fills the classroom.

I have read other books about the Holocaust. Some have moved me deeply. But I’ve never felt that the stories fully belonged to me.

Sitting with these young performers now, imagining them taking on the characters’ realities as their own, I feel a strong internal shift. For the first time I can remember, the disembodied, fragmented stories from my family’s past begin to solidify, revealing themselves in tangible details in my mind.

I can vividly imagine the dislocating pain my grandmother must have felt at being ripped away from her artistic career and never again achieving theatrical success. I feel the shame and bewilderment my mom must have experienced learning the truth about her background in such a jarring way. I see the faces of my great-uncle’s children who were killed in a concentration camp and then rarely spoken of again. I wonder if someone in my extended family might know the full story of what happened to them, and I realize that I don’t know whom to call.

When the girls and I finish reading and look up at each other, I have to work hard to remember where I am.

Simone breaks the silence. “This is not the same book that I read in sixth grade,” she says quietly, wiping at her eyes. “I swear, the only reason I read this book then was because I was supposed to, because that’s what good students do. I took a test on it and then I forgot the whole thing. Now I’m sitting here and I feel like these characters are me. Like I’ve become them or they’ve become me, or … I don’t know. You know?”

I look at her and say, “Yes.”

This piece also appears at the Huffington Post. The students featured in this article agreed to let Quarfordt share their stories; the views expressed here are her own and not those of her school’s administration.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.