After hearing the national experts lay out data on the disproportionately poor academic performance of America's low-income children, teachers at NYSUT's "Every Child Counts" symposium had a chance to fight back - with group classroom exercises that pool strengths of all students.
Rather than address disparities among public school students, Ahmes Askia, project director for the secondary project for the National Urban Alliance, devoted a 90-minute session to showing ways to get those students to work together. By the time they were done, about 40 teachers divided into groups that drew graphics together, worked on stories and even performed a song they quickly penned together.
One exercise which Askia said is used in kindergarten through high school asks students to quickly make a "taxonomy" of a word, that is a list of words from A to Z associated with a word or topic, be it "weather" for primary graders or "calculus" for high school students. In this way, she noted, students with smaller vocabularies can contribute and learn from those with larger vocabularies. After having three groups of teachers read their lists, Askia estimated that of the 78 words read, probably 60 were repeated, potentially yielding 18 new words for the "class."
"We know the statistics on kids who come to school with fewer words than others. What we at NUA do is use students' strengths," noted Askia, who trains teachers across the country. "They might not know all the words but they can help. And you know how one word leads to another. I've had kids coming back later saying, 'I have another,' and I say that was last week! It sticks with them."
After trying the taxonomy - making a list of words associated with "learning" - several teachers told Askia they saw the benefits in their diverse classrooms. Sheila Davis of the United Federation of Teachers Teachers Center in New York City said she thought doing so would appeal to children's competitive instincts, including children in "repeater" classes who are not often rewarded for what they know.
"And if it's done in a group kids feel safer," added Wendy Dale of White Plains High School.
Another potentially performance gap-resilient exercise engages students in using a graphic with four bubbles to fill in. Titled "Strength of the Urban Learner," the game asls them to think of descriptive words to describe their positive qualities. Again, the groups of teachers produced series of words that were similar but not identical. She also had them incorporate a cultural story - one that involved a student's family or background - into a popular song, while also plugging in key word and a drawing.
She said that learning in active ways, chanting or dancing, can help less confident, perhaps less-educated children, feel comfortable expressing themselves creatively in a group.
Some teachers agreed with the approach while noting that the current educational system discourages active learning by the time students are in middle school. "By seventh grade, kids are supposed to sit in their seats and listen," said Donna Christmas, a retired seventh-grade teacher from South Colonie schools who is an instructor with NYSUT's Education and Learning Trust. "But I was goofier than any of my kids. Until they saw me acting that way and saw it's OK to sing or dance of do any of those things."
While emphasizing the shared role of family, school and community in a young person's development, Askia also referred to those students she called "school-dependent," who gain their sense of stability and support at school more than at home. For these children in particular, feedback from teachers is crucial.
She urged the teachers to find ways of connecting with their students, who tend to be increasingly overlooked as they fall behind. She spoke of a school where an administrator had the names of every child taped to the wall of the gym and asked teachers to put a dot next to the name of each student he or she knew.
"One kid had died and no one even knew it," she said. "Some kids had no dots at all. No teacher in the school knew them by name.'
On another occasion she encountered a high school student seated alone in the cafeteria and learned that the student rarely spoke with anyone throughout the day. She went to the principal to suggest a dialogue with that student.
The teachers discussed how they could connect closely with their students, particularly when they might see several hundred of them each week. Ideas included working with children to write notes home to their parents. Also, a teacher suggested using a tool to make sure that every child is called on periodically.
"Even if you have a lot of students and you don't know them all very well if you can just say 'That's Timmy and give him a pat on the shoulder that will go far," said Askia.