A student in Darby Masland's sixth grade class uses an iPad to look up the definition of illustrious for her classmates during unison reading. Unison reading is a core of the method that will inform a new Clinton Hill middle school.
In September, sixth graders at a new middle school in Clinton Hill will regularly stand at the front of the class to share a vocabulary word, or how to solve a math problem. And feedback from fellow students will be valued as much as feedback from their teachers.
In more than a dozen city schools, teachers are taking a literal backseat in their classroom as they adopt a student-driven teaching method called Learning Cultures. But Urban Assembly Unison School is the first to be built from bottom up around the method.
Unlike some of the schools that use Learning Cultures to help immigrant students learn English, Unison probably won't be serving a large population of English language learners. District 13, where the school will open, has relatively few ELLs.
But Learning Cultures is flexible enough to challenge and support any students, said Jennifer Ostrow, the co-founder and principal of the school. She said she heavily recruited ELLs from outside the district, but students who live in District 13, which has had a dearth of high-quality middle schools, got priority for admission. (The school is still accepting applicants, Ostrow said.)
"I am really excited to create what I think will be an excellent middle school and hope will be a valuable contribution to our community," Ostrow said.
Blendi Brahimaj, Wilis Hernandez and Reyson Rosario working together
On a recent day at High School of Language and Innovation earth science teacher Katie Walraven did very little.
Walraven's choice to take a back seat to her students was strategic: She was letting her students, who are almost all recent immigrants, do most of the teaching.
Her approach reflects one answer to a tricky question: How to teach high school students grade-appropriate content — while at the same time teaching them English. It's a question that teachers at newcomer high schools such as High School of Language and Innovation or International High School in Prospect Heights, the subject of "The New Kids," a new book by Brooke Hauser, confront daily.
For help addressing the tension, High School of Language and Innovation's founding principal, Julie Nariman, turned to Learning Cultures, a curriculum designed by New York University education professor Cynthia McCallister. The basic philosophy of Learning Cultures – which is used in a dozen other city schools – is that students learn best through social situations. "The social interaction is what allows the writing to happen, the reading to happen, the learning to happen,” McCallister said.
While Learning Cultures is not specifically designed for ELL populations, Nariman says it is the perfect fit for them because it allows students to pool their knowledge of English and content to help each other. Nariman is well-versed in the needs of ELL students, having previously been assistant principal of English as a Second Language at Long Island City High School, and having taught English as a Second Language in Korea.
“This really spoke to me," she said about Learning Cultures. "It's a system of teaching students to work interdependently in the classroom and to use independent work time effectively. The content is still all there but in order to get to that content we are first working on social practices.”