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

A Chalkbeat roundtable: The promise and perils of charter networks like Success Academy

When we published an essay about the promise and perils of charter schools by our CEO and editor in chief Elizabeth Green last month, we heard from a lot of readers.

Elizabeth’s piece outlined her conclusions after more than a decade of reporting about charter school networks, and more specifically the Success Academy network in New York City. She wrote that charter school networks offer both great advantages — in their ability to provide rare coherence in what is taught across classrooms — and significant danger. Charter networks, she wrote, have changed public education by “extracting it from democracy as we know it.”

Some of our readers saw their own thinking reflected in her conclusions. Others had a very different take.

What was clear was that Elizabeth had kicked off a conversation that many Chalkbeat readers are ready to have, and that, as always, robust and respectful debate is good for everyone’s thinking.

So we reached out to people who engage with big questions about how schools are structured every single day, in their work or personal lives. Today, we’re sharing what they had to say. But we think this is far from the end of the conversation. If you want to add your voice, let us know.



Charter networks’ needs and goals may not be the community’s

By Tim Ware, former executive director of the Achievement Schools managed by the Tennessee Department of Education and founder of Ware Consulting Group

As the founder and former executive director of a high performing public charter middle school in Memphis, Tennessee, I am a firm believer in the promise of well-run charter schools. I also understand the limits of these schools.

A key aspect of public charter legislation is autonomy. This means that public charters decide how to staff their schools, which curriculum to use, how to allocate resources for student support, and how their daily and summer schedules work. However, this legislated autonomy creates issues that thoughtful policymakers need to address.

For instance, in Memphis, a high-performing public charter network began operating a chronically underperforming middle school as a part of a turnaround intervention effort. Despite significant improvements in learning and school culture, as well as the support of the community, the school grappled with dwindling enrollment and suffocating building maintenance costs. Fewer dollars were available to invest in high quality teaching and learning, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities. Ultimately, the charter operator made the difficult decision to cease operating the school.

This example illustrates the limits of public charter schools. The same autonomy that allowed them to create an approach that drove improvement for children also allowed them to decide that they could no longer operate the school. This means that, as long as autonomy exists for public charter schools (and it should), we cannot eliminate traditional districts.

The solution for historically underserved communities will be found by creating strong ecosystems of education. These ecosystems should consist of a healthy mix of traditional schools, optional schools (schools with competitive entry requirements), magnet schools, public charter schools, and private schools. By ensuring that multiple types of schools flourish and are accessible to all, parents will be able to make informed choices and select a school which best meets the needs of their most precious belonging — their child.

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Focusing on charter networks is a mistake. Districts have the same potential

By Josh Thomases, dean of innovation, policy, and research at Bank Street College of Education

Elizabeth Green’s article on Eva Moskowitz misses one important detail – districts have successfully scaled change for students. In this era of attacks on government, it is worth looking closer.

The hundreds of new small high schools opened in New York City between 2000 and 2012 transformed thousands of lives. The research firm MDRC documented that impact, showing a 9.4 percent increased graduation rate and an 8 percent increase in college attendance. Notably, this increase was driven by success with groups that school systems often fail: poorer students, black students, and students with disabilities.

This extraordinary effort happened with district educators and unions, public resources and processes.

I saw this reform inside and out. I helped create a small school in the 1990s and was part of community protests against some of the initial school closures under Chancellor Joel Klein. And, in 2004, I became responsible for the development and support of new schools within the education department.

The new schools work was an example of democracy in action – with all its imperfections. There were legendary protests against the Department of Education and arguments over race, equity and power. And through all of that, the process transformed schools.

Why the success?

  1. The point was to improve teaching and learning. Everything was looked at through this lens.
  2. Educators were the agents of change. The new schools process challenged principals, teachers, community members and parents to reimagine school.
  3. External partners multiplied the power of the changes. These included school development organizations (such as New Visions and CUNY) and local partners ranging from the Brooklyn Cyclones and South Bronx Churches. For the first six years of the reform, the unions were a partner, too.
  4. The district shifted authority towards the principal and school based staff in key areas: hiring, scheduling, budgets, and curriculum.

This is not a story of perfect success; as a district, we made mistakes and they were debated publicly. But the results show that districts can take bold action to change what is happening in schools.

Charters in New York have also demonstrated they can make an important contribution to a district. The task ahead is not to forego government, but to activate its strengths.

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Charter networks are a laboratory for consistent and high-quality instruction

By Seneca Rosenberg, chief academic officer at Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee

My first year in the classroom, I desperately wanted to be the teacher my fourth graders deserved. A diligent student, I carefully examined California’s standards, the curriculum my district had adopted, new research, and popular trade books. I quickly saw that the approaches they outlined — for how to teach reading, for example — were often in direct conflict.

Veteran teachers advised: have your students fill out the mandated worksheets to avoid scrutiny, then close your door and teach as you want. This would have been good advice if only I had known what to do behind that door to help my students to learn.

Now, as chief academic officer of Valor Collegiate Academies, a small charter school network in Nashville, I reflect daily on how our autonomy and network structure provide crucial, and often unremarked upon, resources for developing coherent systems of teaching and learning.

Like other charter networks, Valor has the flexibility to set our educational vision and then organize our own curriculum, assessments, hiring policies, student and teacher schedules, and culture to realize it. Many of our teachers and school leaders report that our shared systems, while demanding, buffer them from some of the stress that comes with making sense of dissonant policies and practices they more regularly encountered in traditional public schools.

Even more importantly, our infrastructure provides our teachers and leaders with a common framework around which expertise can be developed, shared, and improved.

For example, at Valor, our teaching teams meet frequently to study and plan from our students’ work. We have shared protocols for data analysis and teacher coaching. Each piece has been intentionally developed as part of a system. As a result, teachers have opportunities to learn that far exceed anything I had access to as a teacher — and our students benefit.

I share some of Elizabeth Green’s ambivalence about the potential impact of the rise of charters nationally, though she inflates the extent to which charters “extract” public education from democratic control — at least in states in which authorizing laws are well crafted. I am also skeptical of Moskowitz’s suggestion that perhaps “a public school system consisting principally of charter schools would be an improvement.”

But charter networks’ unique conditions do provide a useful laboratory. Critics who dismiss our high-performing charter networks’ many successes risk missing what we are learning from this critical innovation — coherent instructional systems — and how that might contribute to new possibilities for American education.

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In my city, no schools have it figured out

By Bernita Bradley, parent advocate and blogger at Detroit School Talk (and a Chalkbeat Reader Advisory Board Member)

Take all kids out of charter schools, they say. Close them down and require those students to attend their closest public school, no matter how far, how full the classrooms, and how low-performing. Hop on a bus more than 25 minutes to attend the closest high school near you and sit at the back of the class on the floor. After all, public schools were perfect before charter schools came along, and in order for them to be perfect again, we need everyone on board.

Don’t talk bad about public schools, they say. Don’t draw attention to the fact that we are still figuring out how to improve public schools and need your help. The city of Detroit must unite, be of one mind, and let all charter school leaders know that we are only supporting traditional public schools.

These arguments won’t work. I fight for quality public schools and fought for us to not lose more of them. However, if you strip parents of choice, you prove that you are not committed to providing children with what they need.

To be clear, I am an advocate for both sides. Parents don’t care about this war — we just want good schools that will educate all children equally. Can we have that conversation?

Let’s tell the truth about how, here in Detroit, both sides cherry-pick students and “counsel out” parents. Public schools just suspend students indefinitely until parents leave to find a charter school. Let’s tell the truth about how teaching to the test has affected both charter and public school teachers’ ability to make sure student academic growth is more robust.

Both sides could do better. My children have attended both kinds of schools. I’ve bused my kids 15 miles away. I’ve sent my kids to the top charter and public schools in the city. And no one — including charter schools — has this figured out.

I can’t think of a person would say they are totally happy with their child’s educational experience here in Detroit. We have come to the point where, while we’ve made friends in both charters and public schools, this is a journey full of struggles and broken promises that we would not wish on any parent.

Believe me, if we had our way there would be no need to choose. The school on the corner would be full and alive with students, parents, and teachers who have one common goal, to educate all kids.

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The rise of networks hurts the charter movement

By Steve Zimmerman, Coalition of Community Charter Schools

In the ongoing saga of Eva Moskowitz and her war against the the educational status quo, two key issues are overlooked. The first is that the rise of Success Academy has come at significant cost to the charter school movement and the democratic values that were at its genesis.

The rigidly top-down managerial approach of the Success network is the antithesis of the original idea of chartering: to free schools from district-imposed conformity so they have autonomy to innovate. There is no autonomy or innovation in a franchise. Franchisees follow the script.

The second issue is that Success Academy schools, for all intents and purposes, turn teachers into technicians. They are trained in a rigid model of classroom management with a relentless focus on student outcomes. As Elizabeth Green and others point out, the effectiveness of this system, at least in terms of test scores, is well documented and ostensibly justifies the orthodoxy of “no excuses” education reform.

Relentlessness, however, comes at a cost. Just as legendary as its record-high test scores is Success Academy’s teacher attrition. Success Academy appears to welcome an increasing number of bright young people to learn and execute the scripts, and then watch as they move on to their real careers after they burn out in three years. The consequences of this trend are chilling to imagine.

If we believe the purpose of public education to be the development of exceptional test takers, then Eva Moskowitz has clearly pointed the way to the promised land. If, however, we believe the purpose is the betterment of society and the development of the whole child, there are better models to emulate.

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Coherence is important, but charter networks aren’t necessary to achieve it

Andy Snyder, social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City

Who should decide what students learn in school? Families or individual teachers? District and charter school leaders, elected officials, or panels of professors?

Elizabeth Green’s recent essay focuses our attention on this huge question. She points out that many other countries provide “a clear sense of what students need to learn, the basic materials necessary to help them learn it (such as a curriculum).” And she argues that some charter school networks, enabled by their anti-democratic powers, are developing coherent and meaningful ideas of what to prioritize and how to teach it well.

When I began student teaching, I was shown stacks of textbooks and boxes of transparencies, quizzes, tests, homework — corporate-branded, filled with facts, empty of meaning. I switched to another mentor and recreated the trial of John Brown. Later I left one innovative public school where administrators were attempting to bend my courses into more traditional shapes for another where the interview includes, “Describe a dream course that you would love to teach” and where we teach those courses every day.

But I’ve seen in Germany the effects of a thoughtful curriculum — classes connect between disciplines and spiral powerfully between grades, and teachers adapt rather than invent.  Improvised individual efforts often produce a worse result than a strong system. That’s why I commute in New York by subway, not bicycle.

The systemic approach can break down too. Today we curse the defunding of our transit agency, and we saw what happened to the Common Core. How can charter schools develop truly excellent curriculum when their priority seems to be preparing students to win against bad bubble tests?

Students, no matter what kind of school they attend, deserve lessons crafted by well-trained practitioners who draw from the best ideas of the profession.

In the best future I can imagine, each school or district adapts curriculum from one of several coherent curriculum packages developed over years with millions of dollars and genius and honest sweat. Teachers trained in that tradition lead students in cultivating the deep questions and necessary knowledge, and students graduate with a sense of how it all adds up and what they can bring with them into the world.

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First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.