"School" Isn't Enough

Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.
— John Dewey

As we come back to school this year, students, parents, and teachers at UAGC know that "school" - as it has been for the past 100 years - isn't enough. It isn't enough to learn how to sit still in a classroom, write down what the teacher says at you, and every once in awhile turn-and-talk to a partner until you write something that you maybe learned on an exit ticket in order to get out of the classroom.

It isn't enough to just do what you're told to do - complete a worksheet, learn about Napoleon, complete a practice problem - unless you actually care about what you're doing.

It’s so deeply cynical to ask the question, how is it that what kids are doing in their real world lives pays off in classrooms. Because classrooms were intended originally to pay off in the real world.
— - Is School Enough?

At UAGC, students are given as much choice as possible in what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and how they want to learn it, even though the state and the city still say that "school" (as measured by Regents exams) should still be enough.

We pay attention to the interest and motivation of every person - Elliott Washer asks "Are you getting real choices in your school about what you want to learn? Are you getting time to practice what you want to get better at?"

At UAGC, if a student like Sierra, who cares about India, wants to pursue that curiosity, she has the freedom and space in all her classes to explore that curiosity - to ask her own questions about culture, math, geography, sustainability, and to create real genres that allow her to really answer that curiosity.

In all our classes, students are given power to decide what direction they want to go. It's one reason our school shot from a 30% to an 80% graduation rate in just a couple of years.

There’s no better time to learn something than when you intend to learn it.
— Is School Enough?

Let's challenge the status quo of "school" - students, find your passion and UAGC teachers won't get in your way. Instead, your teachers will help you figure out how to pursue that passion. We've committed time (lots of work time in class), structures (Unison Reading and Conferences to discuss and investigate your passions) and resources (find anything you need for learning on Amazon and we'll get it for you ASAP!).

Check out this show, or check out the incredible learning students are doing at Green Careers!

Selected Quotes

"Say, hey, I want to do whatever [my] interest is . . . leverage a community or even start your own and organize that community to get where you want to go. Those people who can do that are going to have an enormous leg up!"

"The number one biggest problem with school is not facing up to the problem of relevance, how to find a real and relevant problem that students can get engaged in, and then, in a way, once you do that, you can just take the shackles off and let them run, because they're going to do all kinds of amazing things and they're going to start feeling their way through this knowledge machine that's all around them."

"That doesn't mean more homework, that means the school has to respond to the learning that is taking place at home and in the community"

"We've got a standards-driven educational system, sort of treats every kid exactly the same, at a time in fact when we should be encouraging kids to develop individual expertise, we instead want to hold everyone accountable to knowing exactly the same things . . . we've locked down school content and cut if off from their learning and school suffers for that, as much as the outside world suffers from disrupting the kind of connection that the learning ecology should represent."

"It's critical that we tell young people that what they care about is just as important as what we want them to care about."

The Power of Breaching

UAGC Students Learn to Ask Questions

The NYTimes recently re-featured an article about the importance, and power of question asking. It's a practice UAGC students engage in each day, what we call "breaching." or making thinking visible. It's a challenging learning experience, because students are asking the important questions that may not have a definite answer, or require deep thought to answer. Learning is definitely not for the lazy!

Teachers guide students through the process of asking "given what I already know, what doI still need to understand?" They push students to ask the "why?" and "what if?" questions that cannot be easily answered; teachers know they're not there to provide easy answers, but to support students in asking the right questions for themselves.

UAGC Students Prepared for Competitive Careers

The article highlights the importance of question-asking, especially as it relates to competitive careers. As Jailine Estrella, UAGC alum and current NYU student reflected, "At UAGC I learned to ask questions and express what I was curious about or needed to know, which is what all of my college courses require of me!"

So how can companies encourage people to ask more questions? There are simple ways to train people to become more comfortable and proficient at it. For example, question formulation exercises can be used as a substitute for conventional brainstorming sessions. The idea is to put a problem or challenge in front of a group of people and instead of asking for ideas, instruct participants to generate as many relevant questions as they can. Kristi Schaffner, an executive at Microsoft, regularly conducts such exercises there and says they sharpen analytical skills.

UAGC students have an advantage - they have learned through years of practice how to question and, with experience, learn to seek the answer for themselves.

UAGC - Through Learning Cultures - Is a School of the Future

The PBS series NOVA recently documented trends in education.

They asked "What will the school of the future be like?"

It was a great episode, full of cool ideas from science about what learning looks like. They demonstrated how advancements in neuroscience should impact how school operates.

Unfortunately, many of the schools featured are nowhere near as progressive as Learning Cultures at UAGC.

Let's look at five big ideas about education, and the way that we make these ideas live on NYC's Upper West Side:

1. Collaboration Is Key

 Sophomores Dijon Pleasant and Winnie Zhu debate an author's intention

Sophomores Dijon Pleasant and Winnie Zhu debate an author's intention

In one of the first featured school on the program, educators applauded collaboration. "Collaboration is key," they said, even as they told students that they should "turn and talk" to their neighbor for an amount of time determined by the teacher. Is that the best we can do?

At UAGC, collaboration is the means by which we learn, reflecting insight gained from neuroscience. Through Unison Reading, the majority of a student's day at school consists of collaborative interactions with their peers, coached by a teacher trained in fostering dialogue and positive interaction. Unlike teacher-directed moments of student interaction, we teach students how to follow a set of rules to play the game of debate, dialogue, and discovery. The conversations that emerge, as well as the learning that occurs, attests to the power of collaboration in the school environment.

2. The Cognitive Revolution Is Real!

Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and Sal Khan discuss the impact that research has had on how we should "do school." From outdated methods of scientific behaviorism to the new ways of teaching that reflect how the brain actually operates, these researchers articulate the shift that MUST be made in how we approach teaching and learning. Dweck discussed that student's brains must shift from a "fixed" to a "growth" mindset. Our principal, Maddie Ciliotta-Young discusses the difference every year at our social norms talk, where students agree on what it means to be a part of our community.

"I'm bad at math," Maddie says, "is an example of a FIXED mindset." It's a belief that you are who you are, and you can't change. Instead, UAGC students are encouraged to cultivate a GROWTH mindset, "I can get BETTER at math." That sort of determination feeds into what Angela Duckworth calls "grit" and develops an essential attribute for success.

Dweck has studied how mindset impacts the success of students, for good or bad. At UAGC, we work to instill a growth mindset in all our students, through mastery-based learning that builds on strengths and targets weaknesses as areas for growth. Students use resources like Sal Khan's Khan Academy to build that mindset for themselves.

3. Teachers Must Be Facilitators, Not Dictators

NOVA highlighted a great San Francisco program called AltSchool as a paradigm by which teachers help each student meet their own learning needs. It's a great idea, but in their school it seems that most of the metacognitive work (thinking about thinking) is not done by students, but by computers. While that may seem efficient, it removes the effort of thought from students and hands it to a computer program. 

Screen Shot 2016-09-15 at 10.42.44 PM.png

At UAGC, teachers facilitate the metacognitive processes of students. Students learn to ask themselves, "If I need to know this, what should I be learning?" instead of relying on a teacher, a textbook company, or a computer program to tell them what or how to learn.

When a student in AltSchool has a moment of discovery, "Oh, that's why," the applause is given to the teacher, and to the computer program, that coached him to figure it out. At our school, the applause is for the student who does the real work of learning, as hard, as challenging, and as rewarding as that may be.

4. Pilots Don't Need to Fit Their Planes, Planes Must Fit Their Pilots

One lesson on personalized education is drawn from the US Air Force in the 1950s. After many crashes from the new jets they were piloting, developers learned there was "no such thing as an average-sized pilot."

The Air Force had been designing planes to fit the needs of one type of person, and anyone outside of that mold (i.e. most people!) were crashing and - quite literally - burning! So instead of planning for their planes to fit the few "average" people, they started customizing their planes with adjustable seats, steering wheels, gears, etc.

Education was similarly designed around a factory model - get it to fit the "average" person. At UAGC, we know that none of our students are "average." Each student has their own unique gifts and talents. Each need their own customizable tools, and who better to customize than the students themselves (with the support of their teachers)!

Our curriculum is designed to ensure that every student flies in a plane fit for them. They pursue their own interests in pursuit of rigorous learning standards. Every student receives individualized one-to-one coaching as part of the Learning Cultures framework. Real personalization only occurs when you learn how to personalize for yourself. When was the last time you had a teacher adjust your seat for you in a car or in a plane? Our students are coached to personalize their learning for their own unique needs to achieve their goals.

5. High School Is All About YOU

We were taken aback by mostly white, male teachers saying to students "We're going to create a relevant curriculum" for you - whether you're a black daughter, an hispanic son, an Iraqi brother, a Bengali sister, or even a white male student.

"Culturally-responsive instruction" is a buzz word that emerges in education circles today and too often justifies one oppressive culture telling an oppressed culture "this is how _______ applies to you," to quote the NOVA documentary.

Instead, how about asking students themselves, "How DOES this apply to you?" In our writing program, students find their own intentions, and transform them into a genre that is meaningful. One student featured in the documentary rapped about "the struggle, coming from the ghetto," but was doing so only in a school-sponsored studio.

Instead, UAGC encourages students like Isaac Tejeda (pictured) to pursue the messages that mean the most to them. Like other artists, these creations question the status quo and may even span genres (see JayZ's video op-ed in the NYTimes). They don't always fit neatly in the mold of "school project." However, they're genuine. They're "legit." They fill the needs expressed by another student in the NOVA documentary to "have my voice."

At UAGC, our curriculum is built around student voice and the many possible ways that each student can access the high expectations of the NYS curricular measures. NOVA talked a lot about Project-Based Learning, but in each segment, we kept asking, "Who is designing the projects here?" Shouldn't it be the students following their own intentions?

Finally, learning should be a JOY, not a torture.

UAGC reflects the views of at least one NOVA educator, who said, "If you think - I'm curious about that, I want to learn more about that, then it sticks a lot better with you."

When a curriculum really begins around a student's intention, then students will engage and learn "a lot better." So many of the transformative aspects highlighted in the "school of the future" are alive and well at UAGC.

We start school as late as we're able (8:45am) to give students more time to sleep. We NEVER separate ELLs into separate classes where they're forced to sit in a corner, like Murtada Mahmood was forced to do as a recent immigrant to the United States.

Instead, we believe that integration - not segregation - is the best way for students to learn. That extends from our inclusive ELL and SPED programs to our mixed grade classes for maximum exposure to diverse perspectives.

We're excited to be a part of a movement that works toward inclusive education - realizing the belief that all students have something to learn from those who are different from themselves.

We echo the belief of Professor Immordino-Yang that students "need the freedom and the support - and the resources - to be able to deep dive into topics that interest them so that they learn what it feels like to really explore and understand something."

At UAGC, we aim to provide that freedom, that support, and those resources, for deep diving to occur. Because, "if we don't prepare people with self-knowledge and agency, we'll never be able to meet the needs of our modern economy,"

Our students today will be interpreting knowledge their teachers never dreamed of, and utilizing technology that has not been discovered yet. That's why we answer the call to "focus on the process, not just the product" and allow students to take control of their own metacognition.

So - what does the school of the future look like? We think it looks a lot like what's happening at UAGC. Whether you're a student, parent, teacher, community member, or just someone looking for some hope for our future, we'd love for you to be a part of the amazing work our students do every day.

As one NOVA specialist commented, "Kids . . . have the tools to be contributing members of the broader community." We know our kids do, and we hope you will see the beauty of their contributions now and in years to come.

Freedom of Movement - Power to the Students

At UAGC, we believe in the power of freedom - freedom of self-determination for all of our students.

In our classrooms, this freedom extends throughout the curriculum AND the physical space in the room. Students move through the Learning Cultures® formats, regularly practicing that self-determination.

But what happens when freedom becomes too much? Too overwhelming? Because, in addition to the power of freedom for good, it also has power for bad; cell phones are a powerful learning tool, a pocket encyclopedia, but they very quickly can become a distraction. When those distractions - cell phones, friends, discipline - come up, what happens?

Many students - and teachers - respond with "fight-or-flight" in the classroom. They shut down and restrict their own freedom themselves. They hunch over, tighten, or otherwise do something that constricts, or combusts, their learning. Schools too often try and solve this dilemma by restricting freedom. Unfortunately, then, we never have the opportunity to figure out how to cope.

Instead, we give students the freedom to learn that coping for themselves:

. . . to do our best work, we need to move around. People mistakenly think that being in one position for a long period will improve concentration, but the body needs to move and take regular breaks to focus, said Alan Hedge, an ergonomics professor at Cornell University.
We’ve all heard that sitting for long periods is bad for you, but standing for a long time isn’t good either, Professor Hedge said. You need to mix it up. He has done research showing that workers should sit for roughly 20 minutes, stand for about eight minutes and move around for two minutes.
This formula does not have to be exact. And once in a while, when you are in the magical state known as “flow,” where you are completely absorbed in your task and lose track of time, it doesn’t apply.
But as a rule, getting up and moving around is beneficial. 

Eventually, we want to be in that state of flow. We only go there when we have the freedom to move there ourselves.

UAGC Students Waste Time on the Internet


That's crazy! That's not really learning.

But wait . . . maybe it is?

When the NYC DOE changed the cell phone policy, allowing phones to enter the school building, UAGC made a choice.

Rather than ban cell phones in the classroom, as some schools have done, UAGC believed the ability to control your own cell phone use, rather than be controlled by it, is an important learning experience for all students.

Additionally, cell phones give many students personalized access to the internet that they might not otherwise have (if we consider the disparity of school funding).

A recent NYTimes article would seem to back up our decision. In it, Kenneth Goldsmith at the University of Pennsylvania discusses the role of the internet in a changing educational landscape:

What will an educated person be in the future?
We still read great books, and there is a place for great universities. But an educated person in the future will be a curious person who collects better artifacts. The ability to call up and use facts is the new education. How to tap them, how to use them.

This ability to access is foundational to the learning that happens at UAGC. We have, literally at our fingertips, a world of information. The classroom now needs to be a place where curious people can learn to collect those "better artifacts." Real innovation looks different. Goldsmith goes on:

I’ve got a 10-year-old and 17-year-old. They’re thinking differently from me. They stay connected all the time, and they’re smart, they play baseball, they read, they spend time online. They’re not robots. Basic human qualities haven’t changed. I can find Plato in online life. When I read Samuel Pepys’s diary I see Facebook posts. We just find new ways to express things.

Our one-of-a-kind writing program allows students to engage in just that sort of work. By giving all students access to the internet, to exploring, to inventing, it may look like they're wasting time: Not really.

UAGC Upends Traditional Student-Teacher Relationships

Facebook is catching on to the importance of rethinking school.

The tech giant is piloting software that puts students in charge of their lesson plans

Rather than have teachers hand out class assignments, the Facebook-Summit learning management system puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace. The idea is to encourage students to develop skills, like resourcefulness and time management, that might help them succeed in college.

Currently, this type of learning system is more often found in charter or private schools, like the Summit network Facebook is partnering with, than in the open-enrollment public school students most in need of these skills.

At UAGC, we have experienced similarly tremendous gains in reading level by doing just this sort of work through Learning Cultures. In our classrooms, students develop their own intentions around the curriculum, recognizing their responsibility to the standards and tests they are expected to meet, and collaborating with each other alongside their teachers to achieve. Much like the innovations Facebook is seeking,

the system inverts the traditional teacher-led classroom hierarchy, requiring schools to provide intensive one-on-one mentoring and coaching to help each student adapt.

Every student, in every class, has regularly scheduled one-on-one conferences with their teachers. A student with a more pronounced need, whether in a specific subject or because of a disability, receive even more support in the collaborative classroom process. It means the classroom looks, and feels, very different than the high-school classrooms of the past or those you see on TV.

Beyond just changing the curriculum, we work to change the traditional culture of learning that has underserved so many students. We are part of a movement calling for "a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools."

Partner with us and see how you can be a part of the work we are doing, and read more about the exciting work of our students.



Students Who Innovate, Not Imitate

As a school that develops students for new, 21st century green careers, our students need to be creative, innovative thinkers who not only think outside the box, but decide how to create an entirely new and different kind of box. But how do you teach this type of thinking? 

In "What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages," Alison Gopnik discusses the powerful kind of learning students are able to participate in at UAGC:

". . . studies show that explicit instruction, the sort of teaching that goes with school and “parenting,” can be limiting. When children think they are being taught, they are much more likely to simply reproduce what the adult does, instead of creating something new.

My lab tried a different version of the experiment with the complicated toy. This time, though, the experimenter acted like a teacher. She said, “I’m going to show you how my toy works,” instead of “I wonder how this toy works.” The children imitated exactly what she did, and didn’t come up with their own solutions.

The kind of teaching that comes with schools . . . pushes children toward imitation and away from innovation.

The children seem to work out, quite rationally, that if a teacher shows them one particular way to do something, that must be the right technique, and there’s no point in trying something new. But as a result, the kind of teaching that comes with schools and “parenting” pushes children toward imitation and away from innovation.

There is a deep irony here. Parents and policy makers care about teaching because they recognize that learning is increasingly important in an information age. But the new information economy, as opposed to the older industrial one, demands more innovation and less imitation, more creativity and less conformity.

In fact, children’s naturally evolved learning techniques are better suited to that sort of challenge than the teaching methods of the past two centuries . . . We don’t have to make children learn, we just have to let them learn."

At UAGC, we agree.