"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."

Thoughts from the Farm

Upon returning to class on Thursday, UAGC students reflected on their experience on the farm with our friends through Manhattan Country School:

We all had chores - my group had to give cows grain. Each cow had a specific amount of grain based on their age/size. ‘Chippy’ was a teenager and he only ate a half-pound of grain. Then we’d give them water and use a pitchfork to scoop out hay and manure and put it in a cart that we dragged into a huge bin so they could use the manure as fertilizer for the soil. Then we put in new sawdust and brushed the cows.
— UAGC Students

"We all took turns - taking care of pigs - actually we just fed the pigs, we didn't need to take care of them"

"I'll remember milking the cow - and when that goat tried to jump on me"

"It's peaceful, much quieter than New York - especially the mornings, going out for a nice walk, sitting on the swing by the river."

"All New York students should have this opportunity."

Music and Poetry Synchronized

In February, UAGC's Poetry Club hosted an annual Music and Poetry Synchronized (MAPS) concert with the student musicians and performers of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School from Pioneer Valley, MA.

Under the direction of UAGC English teacher Felix Rivera, with Pioneer Valley teachers, UAGC and PVPA students engage in a yearlong dialogue of the arts, during which UAGC's poets send original pieces to their peers at PVPA, who arrange the poems into musical performance pieces. The concert, conducted twice each year, once at UAGC and once at PVPA, is the culminating call-and-response, show-casing the students' talents and efforts, and highlighting the power of art to bring students together across cultural and geographic differences. 

Students' work explore topics central to teenage life on the brink of adulthood -- determining self identity; experiences with love, betrayal, fear, pain and hope; challenges and joys of family; the scars of abuse; and the meaning of friendship. Additionally, several poets venture into point-of-view and fiery protest. PVPA students, 7th and 8th graders, respond with well-executed performances, including blues-driven rock, singer-songwriter folk, and soulful renditions.

Learning Through Loops: UAGC Harnesses Language

MIT Researcher Deb Roy reminds us that learning is intrinsically social; we learn from each other through feedback loops of increasing complexity. At UAGC, students participate in cooperative unison reading, learning to harness these loops together. Likewise, teachers have regular one-one conferences with students in which these learning loops are used to "gently bring" students into more complex language, thought, and ideas.

And what we found was this curious phenomena, that caregiver speech would systematically dip to a minimum, making language as simple as possible, and then slowly ascend back up in complexity. And the amazing thing was that bounce, that dip, lined up almost precisely with when each word was born — word after word, systematically. So it appears that all three primary caregivers — myself, my wife and our nanny — were systematically and, I would think, subconsciously restructuring our language to meet him at the birth of a word and bring him gently into more complex language. And the implications of this — there are many, but one I just want to point out, is that there must be amazing feedback loops. Of course, my son is learning from his linguistic environment, but the environment is learning from him. That environment, people, are in these tight feedback loops and creating a kind of scaffolding that has not been noticed until now.
— Deb Roy, The Birth of a Word

Support Students Pursuing Their College Dreams

Created by UAGC Junior Azra Muratovic

Do you remember the time you went to go visit a college?

The day you stepped off the bus and walked on college campus. Strolling through the college hallways and streets is a completely different feeling than looking at the school online. 

At our school, the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers (UAGC), a public high school in New York City, juniors have been devoting their time into researching colleges and have gained a passion for them but cannot determine if these schools would be the right fit for them.

At UAGC, our college counselor’s office is the only resource we have to explore and get an input on schools. 93% of our students live below the federal poverty level and many have parents who work multiple jobs in order to put money in places that are more of a necessity like rent and food. As well, over 90% of the students at Green Careers are first-generation college going students. Given that many students are first-generation, parents tend to lack knowledge about navigating and planning the application process. Johancarla, a member of UAGC's junior class is a first-generation American born student to immigrant parents who believe that education is their child's ticket out of poverty, is also hoping to be the first person in her family to go to college. Neither of her parents attended college, and her family has relied heavily upon the expertise of the school's staff to help them navigate the complicated application process.

The trip will take place in late April and we will be visiting New York State’s Capital Region. Over the course of two days, we plan to visit 4 different college campuses including public and private. These experiences will be crucial in finalizing our application plans, as visiting a college campus is often the best way to determine whether or not it is a good fit.

These students simply can’t afford a trip like this and it cannot happen without your help. We thank you in advance for your support in making our college decision.

Donate now or help spread the word!

Alumni help welcome New Students!

Student ambassadors introduce themselves

Student ambassadors introduce themselves

On Friday, September 16 UAGC welcomed its freshman class and incoming students from multiple grades with a morning orientation around our core values - Intention, Collaboration, and Responsibility.

After a welcome from Assistant Principal Luke Janka and some words from our Health Center (all students may receive free health services from our on-site clinic, as well as free vision and dental from our partners at Mt. Sinai), the games began.

Student ambassadors, as well as three of last year's alumni, facilitated community-building activities designed to expose students to UAGC values.

Intention & Collaboration

Student ambassador and UAGC junior Yujeiry Baez facilitates introductions

Student ambassador and UAGC junior Yujeiry Baez facilitates introductions

Each ambassador invited a randomly-selected group of new students to meet a challenge:

Design the tallest tower you can to hold a marshmallow.

Your tools? Straws, masking tape, and a pair of scissors.

Alumni Jailine Estrella, now a freshman at New York University, commented that she had participated in a similar challenge as part of the competitive NYU scholarship program that she won.

However, at UAGC, we don't shy away from a challenge. We took the competition one step farther and made absolute silence mandatory. That's right - you had to be able to collaborate without saying a word.

A moment of laughter breaks out in Yujeiry Baez's group as the straw structure bends under the jumbo marshmallow weight

A moment of laughter breaks out in Yujeiry Baez's group as the straw structure bends under the jumbo marshmallow weight

Alumni Fradaliza Valdez, current Queens College student, works with a silent group of new UAGC students

Alumni Fradaliza Valdez, current Queens College student, works with a silent group of new UAGC students

It's rare for a room of a hundred teenagers to be silent, but all that could be heard was the tearing of tape and the snipping of straws while wild gesticulations were seen across the room.

In the end, everyone aimed too high - each group's creation ended slumped over, unable to support the weight of the jumbo marshmallows Assistant Principal Daphne LaBua-Stenzel had selected.

However, students reflected two fundamental lessons about learning:

Collaboration can be tough, but it makes us stronger.

Alumni Jailine Estrella, center, current NYU freshman, attempts to spread ideas without speaking

Alumni Jailine Estrella, center, current NYU freshman, attempts to spread ideas without speaking

In the debrief time, students reflected on how they had been dying to talk, but freshman Carlos Hall commented that "There was a lot of body language," saying you had to be able to "read each other's minds. New junior Jeremy Santana commented that "eye contact" was key.

Real listening that leads to true collaboration requires such skills. Each day, in every class, students are encouraged and expected to collaborate - to do so effectively requires some grit.

Mistakes can be tough, but they make us stronger.

Alumni Paloma Paredes-Jaquez, current Hunter College student, laughs with a group of stumped students

Alumni Paloma Paredes-Jaquez, current Hunter College student, laughs with a group of stumped students

To paraphrase Thomas Edison, students didn't fail, they just found multiple ways that didn't work.

At UAGC, the process is worth as much - and usually more - than the final product. Freshman Carlos Hall commented that "I looked around, and knew that most of the foundations weren't sound, and I thought we could just build a short tower and win. But my group wanted to go taller and so I didn't argue."

Another student commented, "That's why you don't just go with the flow." A strong lesson on intentionality if there ever was one.

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Collaboration & Responsibility

A heated moment of debate over sustainability

A heated moment of debate over sustainability

The second activity involve solving a real-world, close-to-home problem. In the Brandeis cafeteria, there are three bins marked for specific types of rubbish - compostable, recyclable, and landfill trash.

Unfortunately, most students campus-wide pay no attention to the designations and throw whatever into any bin. In the end, the janitors can't sort out the compost or recyclables, so all the garbage ends up in the landfill.

Students - this time they could speak - were tasked with presenting a solution to this perplexing problem to school administration and ambassadors. However, they only had 15 minutes to brainstorm a solution and design a presentation for it.

One of the more creative presentations involved students standing in for the wastebins

One of the more creative presentations involved students standing in for the wastebins

Right away, groups began sketching out both ideas and, with the help of the ambassadors, the many genres in which they could present those ideas. In the UAGC Genre Practice writing program, students need to do exactly that sort of work - develop an intention and choose the best genre(s) that will communicate to your intended audience.

Some groups created skits, proposed commercials involving garbage filling the halls of Brandeis and eventually consuming all of the city, or designed technological solutions involving shocks and flashing lights for misplaced rubbish.

They then presented these ideas to the group, to much applause and commendation.

Perhaps it will lead to a new program of sustainability on our campus. At the very least, students learned to collaborate, together, to solve a real problem in their immediate environment. It's the sort of work in which UAGC students participate - day in, day out - from reading groups studying segregation and discrimination to building science students developing the best sustainable structures.

In the end, we were all excited.

There is a strong community at UAGC, and this year's new students are a vital part of it. We can't wait to see what they have to bring, and what they will gain, from our community. Here's to another great year!

New Parent Orientation is coming up on Wednesday, September 28 at 5:30pm.

Don't worry - we won't make you build straw towers, unless you want to!

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.

Learning the Rules of the Game

This September, when students enter classrooms across the country, they'll wonder - what are the rules here? Spoken or unspoken, articulated or assumed, what are the laws that govern how I interact with the teacher, with my peers, with the environment?

Because there are always rules to be followed.

And rules to be broken.

But why do we have rules? No, really, why?

Code of Hammurabi, 1754 BCE

Code of Hammurabi, 1754 BCE

Codes of conduct stretch as far back through history as we can see, at least as far back as 1754 BCE, as of course any global history student could tell you.

Hammurabai's Code is one of the earliest examples of rules recorded for a society to live by. While harsh by today's standards, they provided guidelines for how people could successfully interact and collaborate with one another.

6. If any one steal the property of a temple or of the court, he shall be put to death, and also the one who receives the stolen thing from him shall be put to death.
132. If the "finger is pointed" at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.
282. If a slave say to his master: "You are not my master," if they convict him his master shall cut off his ear.

Over time, societies have revised, rewritten, and reimagined what rules should govern, often in light of new and developing knowledge of how their world works. This allows civilizations to grow and develop, as the accomplishments of the individual grow through the collaboration of the group.

Beyond civil laws, humans form rules to govern almost every social interaction. From science to sports to sex, norms develop that govern how people collaborate.

Rules are regularly revised to reflect changes in how the game is played, and how the game can be played better based on new skills, techniques, and developments. For example, FIFA revised part of one rule after the development of hybrid material systems:

The way people interact changes based on new understanding, so those rules need to change too.

For decades, school rules often followed societal norms.

Children should be seen, but not heard.

White and colored students should be separate.

People who don't conform should be removed (suspended, institutionalized in a mental hospital, or sent to prison, the one often leading to the other).

Compliance to these norms was the standard for learning, and sadly too many of these norms continue to pervade classrooms, even while new understanding of how learning happens emerged.

The National Academy of Sciences summarizes it like this:

"The essence of matter, the origins of the universe, the nature of the human mind—these are the profound questions that have engaged thinkers through the centuries. Until quite recently, understanding the mind—and the thinking and learning that the mind makes possible—has remained an elusive quest, in part because of a lack of powerful research tools. Today, the world is in the midst of an extraordinary outpouring of scientific work on the mind and brain, on the processes of thinking and learning, on the neural processes that occur during thought and learning, and on the development of competence.

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate, a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today."

We have new knowledge, so we need new rules.

When we better understand how the mind learns best, we need to develop rules that encourage that learning to happen. At UAGC, we use the rules of the Learning Cultures formats to guide our interactions, formats based on decades of research on how the mind works and how learning happens.

In the 16th century, the poet John Donne wrote "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Contemporary science has proven this true, and past rules like "Be silent during class" have been found too often hindering learning than helping it.


Learning is a social process; knowledge isn't simply a transfer from one mind to another, from the teacher to the student. Knowledge comes from the interaction between minds.

Collaboration is essential for learning to occur.

In the formats, collaboration is encouraged between the student and the teacher, between the student and a resource, and, most importantly, between students themselves. One of the primary ways this occurs is in Cooperative Unison Reading, a format in which students and teachers participate in every class. And, like Messi following FIFA's laws, we follow the rules to experience success.

CUR provides a space with very clear guidelines through which students engage with each other in discourse - the sort of discourse that allows learning to happen. There are three rules to follow, and a rubric that outlines the role of students and teachers (players and refs) so that collaborative learning is as powerful as possible.

Breaching, making your thinking visible, is at the heart of CUR. One student recently compared it to a card game, but one where "you don't hold your cards up, close to your chest. The point is how can everyone in the group lay the most cards on the table." CUR is about getting everyone's cards on the table, including the author of the text. What is their intention - is it achieved? How can we engage with them. The more perspectives are engaged, the more knowledge is built. This is the foundation of everything we do, so we hold to the rules that allow the most perspectives to be heard.

So we have new rules, but do they make that big of a difference?


I mean, really, yes.

If we want to be able to achieve something together, which we now know is essential for learning, then we need to learn and follow rules and norms that get everyone in the game. All cards on the table. We need to figure out how to talk to each other because, when we don't, things get bad.

We live in a democracy, and democracy is dependent on people learning how to work together, to hear each other's positions, shift perspectives, compromise, and come to a common understanding. When that doesn't happen, things get bad.

Living, like learning, doesn't happen in isolation. In our increasingly inter-connected world, we can't just go it alone, whatever politicians or pundits say. We must figure out ways to work together to solve the issues that confront us - war, refugees, terrorism, climate change, discrimination, injustice of all kinds - or things really will get bad.

So at UAGC, we practice collaboration because there really isn't any other way to do it.

We have to work together, and now is as good a time as any to learn how.