Along with the rest of my history department, I had the great pleasure to spend my Tuesday at East Side Community High School in Manhattan as a guest evaluator of their students’ semester-ending roundtable presentations.
While my students at Bronx Lab and students at many other New York high schools spent the day taking a three-hour Living Environment Regents exam — which emphasizes memorization of a breadth of factual content — students at East Side, thanks to a state waiver exempting them from most Regents exams, spent the day in deep thought and reflection, applying and showing off what they had learned this semester.
We learned much to take back to our school, but what I saw also has much larger implications for the current local and national educational discourse.
I participated in two 90-minute-long sessions, one for an 11th-grade English class, and the other for a 12th-grade AP English class. While there were a range of skill levels and fluency in English amongst the students I interacted with, all six were impressive in their presentations and reflectiveness. Each student chose one piece of writing to share, along with a cover letter which summarized their learning. The seniors also held a debate in which they each had to argue, using the lens of a school of literary theory, which character from a text they read most challenged the status quo. In my group, students used the lens of feminist theory to articulate which character most undermined and transcended the patriarchy in their societies.
I cannot possibly explain how enjoyable and impressive it was to listen to the students. Particularly in the senior class, the standards for students were higher than any school I have ever encountered. Students were not only doing high-level college literary analysis, but they displayed an amount of reflection, self-awareness, and thoughtfulness that most adults do not have. Others in my department observed roundtables in seventh- and ninth-grade history, and everyone came away impressed with what they saw.
There were a number of conclusions I was hoping my department would take away from watching these presentations, and thankfully, many of them came out over lunch together afterwards. While in the long run, I would love nothing more than for my department, if not our school, to implement a similar program, in the immediate future, we saw the value of having students formally reflect on their learning. We saw how much more impressive students’ understanding and complexity of thought is when they have the opportunity to go in-depth over a smaller amount of skills and content, rather than emphasizing a limited understanding of a breadth of content. And we saw that students are capable of much, much more than what is tested on the state’s exams.
In a time when much of the public discourse on public education focuses on accountability, teachers’ resistance to so-called accountability measures is often mistaken for laziness or a fear of change. People who decry teachers as lazy or afraid of change are misguided. In his welcome letter to his guests, East Side’s principal, Mark Federman, wrote:
We, meaning the students, staff and school as a whole, will put it all out there for each other, our families, our friends, our colleagues and our community to see: the good, the bad, and everything else. This is not an easy thing to do. Our students’ work and our own work is not always as pretty as we want it to be. And no matter how hard they have worked and we have worked, we are never quite satisfied. However, we offer it to the public because it is to the public that we and our students are ultimately accountable.
The work I saw on Tuesday from East Side students was real, meaningful, and worthy of public accountability. The work Bronx Lab students did that day was arbitrary, meaningless for students’ lives, and not worthy of their time or capabilities. I am more than happy to have myself and any teacher in this country held accountable for the kind of work I saw at East Side, for it was truly work that asked students to meet high standards, not just to get a high score on a multiple-choice test.