UAGC Hosts National Conference on School Innovation

Partnership Grows with the Innovative Schools Network

This November, the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers hosted the Innovative Schools Network as part of their “It’s Up to You” conference held at NYU. Our school was a featured innovative school, alongside fellow Urban Assembly schools, including the New York Harbor School and Unison School.

As part of the conference, educators and reformers from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Hawaii visited classrooms and spoke with panels of teachers and students about the amazing work students are doing to foster the UAGC core values of responsibility, collaboration, and intentionality through the Learning Cultures® curriculum model. Teachers presented on the innovative ways UAGC approaches literacy, behavior, curriculum, professional development, and distributed leadership.

Senior Fradaliza Valdez, far right, explaining responsibility-based self control

Senior Fradaliza Valdez, far right, explaining responsibility-based self control

Over lunch, students spoke about their experience in the school and how they feel they have changed through being a part of the community. Senior Anaisa Tejeda contrasted who she was when she came to the school with the person she has become. “I was an instigator,” Anaisa said, “I didn’t start fights, but I used my relationships with other people to get them to fight. That’s changed completely. As part of the Keepers of the Culture®, I’ve learned to use my leadership to help others find success. It’s like night and day.”

Sophomore Azra Muratovic commented on how much the freshmen class changed in just one year. “When we came in, students didn’t know how to act,” Azra remembered, “but when they started to work with older students in the mixed-grade classes, and see how older students worked, they changed their behavior to fit the culture around them.”

“The classroom ladder of intervention [reminders from peers, moving a seat, behavior reflection] helps us as well,” senior Frada Valdez chimed in, “it helps us learn how to take responsibility in the classroom for our own behavior.” Azra continued, “we began to take responsibility not just for behavior, but for our own learning - Keepers helps support the kids that struggle with it.” When asked if that led to students feeling intimidated, senior Paloma Paredes-Jaquez explained, “we read a lot of psychology and theory about how the mind works and how healthy social relationships develop,” and by approaching students this way, “kids understand that we’re there for them, just trying to help. The attitude is that everyone can help keep the culture, and everyone also needs that support sometimes.” One visitor from Chicago commented that, “as a guidance counselor, I was impressed by the way you have learned to question and then listen,” remarking that these were powerful skills that will be very useful later in life. “I’m thinking of majoring in psychology now, because of this,” Paloma added, smiling.

The power of the writing program was highlighted by senior Isaac Tejeda, “I‘ve learned how to express the things that I want to express, not just what the teacher tells me to write about. I started high school at a different school, where they told me exactly what and how to write. When I came here, I had to figure out what I wanted to say, and how I could say it in a way that others would understand. The writing share has made me a stronger writer because I get to see the way my expression, my writing, affects people.”

UAGC students, from left, Azra Muratovic, Jailine Estrella, Anaisa Tejeda, Paloma Paredes Jaquez, Isaac Tejeda, and Frada Valdez, presenting to conference attendees

UAGC students, from left, Azra Muratovic, Jailine Estrella, Anaisa Tejeda, Paloma Paredes Jaquez, Isaac Tejeda, and Frada Valdez, presenting to conference attendees

These ideas were echoed at one of the NYU evening sessions by Ahmad Mickens, a boxer and trainer at Revolution Training in Stamford, CT. Reflecting on the youth programs at his gym, which incorporate aspects of Learning Cultures, Ahmad reiterated the importance of youth taking responsibility of their own intentions and believing in their capacity to change. “Giving ownership is one of the biggest things,” Ahmad said, “If it’s not a choice they’re making, they don’t get much out of it.” In sports, as in school, it’s important to remember that, through cooperation, “there’s always a victory to have.” He spoke alongside Ezekiel Dixon-Román, who deeply explored the effects of data on innovation, and the dangers of divorcing data from the social context in which it was created, critiquing the dependence on data as perpetuating inequalities present in society and contrasting the No-Child-Left-Behind data with a relational model of assessment and learning.

In a panel at NYU, participants discussed what they had observed with scholars from NYU, Columbia, Yale, Bank Street, and as far away as Lund University, Sweden, with a focus on the social and academic innovations of Learning Cultures at Green Careers.

Professor Cynthia McCallister presenting on the need for a Copernican Revolution in education

Professor Cynthia McCallister presenting on the need for a Copernican Revolution in education

Edmund Gordon, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Yale and Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia, talked about how education must take into account the difference between “knowing and knowledgeability,” citing the Gordon Commission’s findings on the importance of education and assessment in “increasing the capacity, the disposition, to think. Pedagogy,” Gordon continued, “should be a balance between freedom and control, since real freedom comes from the ability to bring one’s own mental abilities under control.” The importance of social relationships, embedded in Learning Cultures, allows students to privilege the relations between things over simply knowing about things. “Relational adjudication, dealing with the contradictions of what we know, is how education must balance between harnessing our agency and freeing us from the constraints of it,” Gordon concluded, highlighting the importance of pedagogies, such as that at Green Careers, which enable this to happen.

The importance of relationality in education was emphasized again in a panel of innovative educational leaders. David Kirkland, NYU professor and Executive Director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of School, emphasized the importance of making space for culturally-relevant writing, echoing UAGC’s Isaac Tejeda’s comments about how students of color too often are stifled by prescriptive methodologies that discount the complexities of race, gender, and education - and the resulting necessity of “cultivating the voices of students and scholars of color.” Joshua Aronson, NYU professor and research scientist at the Metro Center for Urban Education, discussed the revolutionary elements in education, citing Learning Cultures as one of these for its relational components. By providing relational opportunities that “elevate” students, pedagogies must participate in “four-dimensional work,” engaging and shaping the environment and the relational connections within it. Rounding out the discussion was Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education and former NYCDOE Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor, discussing the importance of teachers being “researchers of their students,” who engage with and study their interactions through descriptive review, which attendees noticed in the work of the department teams at UAGC. His emphasis on “children known well” is inherent in the regular social interactions which Learning Cultures provides. Additionally, Polakow-Suransky critiqued the grouping students into systems, or tracks, that segregate, arguing that “pure choice data reveals the failings of such systems,” and again echoing comments made by UAGC students on the importance of collaboration and integration.

At the final session, Christina Erneling, influential author and Professor of Psychology at Lund University, contrasted the broken Behaviorist Model with the emerging Sociocultural Model of learning, saying “ideas for the future are implemented in Learning Cultures.” She criticized the behaviorist model, in which the student is “a bucket” or “a computer that we program to spit back information at us,” and which can fix these “totally passive” students by “just adjusting the program.” While such a model “works quite often,” and is “easier for the teacher, because it requires less engagement,” she argued that this is “not the future, nor can it be.” Piaget, she says, throws out this “American model”of passivity because human beings are essentially active and social. However, while Piaget threw out the teacher altogether, which has had alarming consequences in Swedish education, Erneling pointed to Vygotsky’s contention that “we must learn in a social context, and you need other people to point you in the right direction.” Removing students from these opportunities, through suspension or safe rooms, rather than giving them chances to learn within the social context, “is the most harmful and devastating punishment for a human being.” In the sociocultural model, adults help students establish social norms, and through these norms students learn to navigate social pressure positively and effectively, which UAGC’s Keepers of the Culture exemplifies.

“Yet what of learning?” Erneling asked, reiterating the comments of Edmund Gordon, “are facts the most important thing to learn in school? I don’t think so. The most important thing to learn is how to learn itself.” It is metacognition that is important, a process intrinsic in Learning Cultures’ breaching, where students must make their thinking visible to others, and develop the ability to “become aware of your own learning process and thereby be able to control it.” She emphasized that this work of metacognition, the breaching present in Learning Cultures, “should be used in different subjects; it’s not about reading, it’s about cognitive processes.” Presenting alongside, UAGC Principal Kerry Decker and Laura Allen, Founder and President of Vision Education & Media/RoboFun, New York, discussed the implications of this shift in focus on-the-ground in both school and non-school settings.

Principal Kerry Decker presenting the underlying theories which undergird Learning Cultures practice

Principal Kerry Decker presenting the underlying theories which undergird Learning Cultures practice

The conference was an incredible opportunity for outsiders to see and respond to the work UAGC students are doing day in, day out. The overwhelmingly positive response of educators and scholars in the field encouraged students and staff alike that this hard work is helping to create a world where equity, and freedom, can be a reality. Moving forward, the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers will continue to partner with the Innovative Schools Network and Learning Cultures to become a school where educators around the world can come and encounter innovations that build on principles of equity and freedom, fostering collaboration, responsibility, and intentionality.