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."

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.

Ronelle's Spoken Word: Writing Portfolio Reflection

My Reflection

They say everyone is gifted

My gift is writing

And I've grown from a seed to a bud to blooming to a flower

At first I wrote kiddy rhymes

Roses are red and violets are blue

But I've grown and I've written about the reasons why you are you

Why love isn't more than a word

And why depression is more than a mental illness

And why those little boys are always getting curved

I went from writing to why fuckboys should open there eyes

To the secret friend who told me many lies

To writing to my dear diary about my life secrets

To writing about how insecure I am about how I weigh and my features

The mentors I have

Have gotten me prepared to my draft in the war of writing

But there is no blood or fighting

Only words of truth and wisdom and feedback

And instantly I clap back

I hated feedback but Kate has taught me to love it

It has given me an insight on things I've never thought of before

And writing will now forever be my cure

To pain to hurt to heartbreak to me falling

To me getting back up to me hearing my calling

Not from god

But from the words written on a page

And my goals for next semester

Is to work on talking about the jester

The one in my head that likes to play jokes

The one that takes everything seriously until I hit them high notes

Talking bout baby won't you be mine

And instantly he laughs

Talking bout baby won't you shut up

So I wanna give people an insight

On what loving the cruel will do

I will clock back when u say fix it I will run it back when you say repeat it I will turn it around when you tell me I'm wrong but I will NOT change it when you tell me to

I have been drafting for many months and I have been revising my work of art

And I think here at UAGC in room 227 is where I will start

Ethan's Writing Portfolio Reflection: A New UAGC Writer

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Ethan is a boy at a new high school, trying to figure out how things work. Taking place in room 227, Ethan has been trying to learn from his mistakes with the Writing Process.

He has grown as a writer because he learned how to use purpose and audience over the first semester. Like in his first writing piece ‘Meet and Greet: Jesus Reuda,’ he didn’t understand how to use purpose and audience. In fact, he thought that you just write what you feel like writing and hand it in when it has an intro, body paragraphs and a conclusion. He didn’t follow the writing steps well because he didn’t understand it at first. He has a few writing pieces in his notebook that will get a bad grade because of this.

Ethan began to understand purpose and audience when he wrote his third piece, ‘Thanksgiving Letter,” because of all of the Shares he had seen, and the conferences he had around purpose and audience. He was able to tell his family what he was thankful for, and it made him feel brave because he was able to announce it in front of a whole group of people.

His goals for next semester are to become more engaged and attentive, use more time for useful things and check the rubric after he’s finished with a writing piece. He is hopeful for at least a C in this class (but would love a B) because he believes his participation in Mini-lessons and Shares helped him stand out in class.

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.

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.

True Teaching Expertise at UAGC

What is teaching? It's a question that perplexes many students when they first arrive at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers.

And it's an important question to answer, because it begs a deeper question: What is learning?

In the summer edition of American Educator, Bryan Mascio discusses "True Teaching Expertise: The Weaving Together of Theory and Practice." He likens teachers to doctors, especially the way in which doctors and teachers alike must incorporate research from multiple fields into their practice.

"When a student gets something wrong, our first job is not to give him the correct answer; it is to understand why he thought his answer was correct. This is not to say that the student doesn't need to eventually get the right answer; it means that teaching him is far more complex than just relaying information . . . an incorrect answer represents current understanding, and that's the starting point"

At UAGC, our teachers emphasize the "breach," the place where thinking becomes visible. Breaching is powerful because it gets the student and those around them - whether peers or teachers - on the same page. It allows for everyone to have that ah-ha moment, about the text, about the thinking, and about the learning.

Unfortunately, too many students have had too many teachers who thought their first job was to give the correct answer. We know that learning doesn't happen that way. So why would we teach that way?

Instead, we work to build metacognition - the ability to think about thinking - and allow all students to access the most powerful resource at their disposal: their own minds.

Growing People

On Tuesday, July 26, Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose came to UAGC to discover more about our approach to social-emotional learning. As part of the Department of Education's efforts to provide more support to schools as they move away from suspensions, Ms. Rose was meeting with principals at "schools that are known for this" and was interested in seeing how an entire school takes on the responsibility of growing and developing students, rather than pushing that responsibility off on guidance counselors or deans.

At Green Careers, we have built a reputation of equity for all students. Rather than pushing students who are struggling out of the classroom - say, to a dean's office or a special class - we ensure that each student has the support they need to be successful with their peers in an integrated classroom.

All too often, according to Rose, these sorts of supports depend on the vision of a single principal. At UAGC, these supports are part of the Learning Cultures model developed by NYU professor Cynthia McCallister, so systems of support exist that are implemented by all members of the school community. While former principal Kerry Decker worked to establish many of these supports, it is the work of the entire community - students, teachers, and parents - who implement them and sustain them, even as leaders change.

Principal Madeleine Ciliotta-Young, herself a former UAGC teacher, discussed the power of all members of the school community taking responsibility for each other's learning. "When it was just the teachers trying to support the students, we couldn't keep up," she said. "What we did, through Keepers of the Culture, was open opportunities for students to support each other in using Responsibility-Based Self Control so they could achieve success together."

Eric Ramirez

Eric Ramirez

Rose was able to meet with some of the Keepers of the Culture (KoC), both leaders and students who have received support.

Eric Ramirez commented, "I never used to notice my behaviors - working with KoC I noticed the same behaviors got in my way over and over and over again. I made a promise to change each of those behaviors, and then slowly worked to change them with KoC's help. I could just start crossing off what I wasn't doing no more and see that I was changing."

Bianca Inesta, a Keeper, followed that "when you take away the behaviors it,"

"It really motives students" Yujeiry Baez, a fellow Keeper, chimed in.

Eric added, "Yeah, I kept making the same promise over and over, not to fight, and then one day I walked away from a confrontation and I realized if I can change this one, I can change that one."

From left: Assistant Principal Luke Janka, Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, Principal Madeleine Ciliotta-Youn, and new Assistant Principal Daphne LaBua-Stenzel

From left: Assistant Principal Luke Janka, Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, Principal Madeleine Ciliotta-Youn, and new Assistant Principal Daphne LaBua-Stenzel

"Yeah, it motivates them" Bianca continued, "It feels good, seeing people change. But they change at their own pace."

"The point is to try to help kids before they get in trouble. When they meet with KoC they think they're in trouble, but they're not - yet!" Eric commented with a twinkle in his eye. "Now that I'm a Keeper, I work to convince them that we're here to help each other."

The visit concluded with a stop in our school's learning garden, where students are prepping produce to sell at the school's farmers market (Wednesday 12 to 2). Students and staff were excited to discuss the great work being done at UAGC, and were glad Ms. Rose was able to visit and continue to build connections between schools as we strive to allow for all students to grow into the people they want to become.