When I was named principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School three years ago, I didn’t expect that my students would end up learning to write using a model borrowed from a charter school in Brooklyn.
As principal, I was charged with continuing the school’s long history of faith-based education in Harlem while revamping our academic program. Our team has always been committed to teaching students the skills they need as learning standards and career opportunities change. But as a small community, we have grown more and more isolated over time.
To fix that, we did something unorthodox. Rather than turning exclusively to other private schools for insight, we looked to charter and district schools in our city for models to help us improve classroom instruction.
We did this through our new relationship with Schools That Can, an organization that builds cross-sector networks of district, charter, and independent schools. As debates about whether district and charter schools can effectively collaborate continue across the city, our experience made it clear to me that it is possible for different types of schools to learn from each other.
Schools That Can gave us access to talented educators in our city who offered us the chance to observe the way they approach a wide range of challenges. I was particularly concerned about finding ways to improve my students’ writing. It was clear from our middle school students’ performance on last year’s New York State exam—the first aligned to the Common Core—that we needed to find a way to help them build stronger, evidenced-based responses to writing prompts.
In November, I visited Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn to learn more about the school’s approach to teaching writing at the middle school level. The school is different from ours in many ways: we’re a small, private Catholic school, and HCCS is slightly larger public charter school where all students learn Greek. But I had heard about their robust writing program and wanted to learn more, particularly because the majority of students at both of our schools come from low-income backgrounds.
As I walked through teachers’ classrooms at HCCS, I saw walls filled with student writing. While displaying student work isn’t uncommon, I was struck by the comments that accompanied the writing.
Students and teachers used handwritten notes to sustain an ongoing dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of work. I was particularly impressed by the level of feedback students were able to give each other, including suggestions about improving sentence structure and using stronger adjectives to bring the piece to life.
After observing student work in the hallways, I looked through students’ portfolios and saw that students were using their peers’ feedback to improve their subsequent work. I read the essays students had written over the course of the year and saw, for example, that a student who received feedback on one essay encouraging the use of more vivid language developed a stronger, more dynamic writing style in her next essays.
It was refreshing and motivating to see a clear, painstaking approach to teaching writing in which students and teachers both took ownership of the writing process.
Following the path laid out by HCCS, we introduced a schoolwide writing rubric and checklist tool at St. Mark. Teachers shared the checklist with their students, showed them multiple models of exemplary work, and walked them through the process of critiquing writing samples. Students are now expected to reference the checklist whenever they write, as well as when they critique their classmates’ writing.
We’ve only been using these tools for a few months, so it’s too soon to know their full effect. But throughout the school, I see students digging deeper into texts to find details to support their arguments, and critiquing each other’s writing in more nuanced and sophisticated ways—all skills called for by the Common Core standards. Teachers who were initially unsure how to adapt their classes to the standards are gaining confidence, in part because they have the checklist to ground their feedback to students.
As a school leader, knowing a school needs to improve is an important step, but actually making a plan to change it is where the real challenge arises. It can be tempting to turn inward for solutions, but no one teacher, coach, or administrator has all the answers. For my school, looking beyond our classroom walls gave us the chance to learn what we needed from a school that is very different from our own.
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