How do we create a culture of learning at UAGC?
Freshman Dijon Pleasant joined the community at UAGC in the fall of 2015. His initial response, "This is wack" to the culture of learning did not bode well. He wandered the halls, skipped class, and resisted working with his peers. One question daunted his teachers and his peers: how can Dijon unleash the powerful learner he was inside?
While our website outlines many strategies we've used to encourage student intentionality, responsibility, and collaboration, one of the most critical ways we create our culture is by immersing ourselves in our students' own response to intervention (RTI).
RTI is a system of supporting students developed to meet the demands of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; "though there is no single, thoroughly researched and widely practiced “model” of the RTI process, it is generally defined as a three-tier (or three-step) model of school supports that uses research-based academic and/or behavioral interventions."
These tiers seek to identify and offer support to students where it is most needed. Alongside these levels of support, we also seek to build on RTI through elements of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). However, where RTI and PBIS tend to focus on the actions of teachers to direct student behavior, UAGC places the emphasis on student agency in this process. Likewise, based on the principles of Learning Cultures, we reject the all-too-common tendency of PBIS to use external rewards. We know, from researchers like Michael Tomasello, that humans have an intrinsic need to collaborate in a group, and we seek to build on and harness that basic need within the classroom.
At UAGC, elements of typical tier two interventions are embedded in the Learning Cultures classroom formats, so that students have access to rich environments and resources. Teams of teachers and students then use data from the classroom to learn from and support instruction through our version of tier two interventions (see diagram below).
Many students need tier two interventions from time to time, and those supports are there when needed. Tier three takes those supports one step farther, mandating the increased frequency of support for the students who need it most.
While many schools locate supports from all tiers outside of the classroom, we believe that these interventions must interact dynamically with the actual work of students in the environment where they must be successful. Deriving from principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, our tier two and three interventions support student classroom achievement by working to shift the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which debilitate student learning. Tier two and three interventions, then, have a clear focus on supporting students to become fully-engaged members of the classroom community.
Tier 1: High-Quality Classroom Instruction, Screening, and Group Interventions
At UAGC, we believe that all students have the right to receive high-quality, scientifically based instruction provided by qualified teachers. All teachers use the Learning Cultures formats, which are grounded in current theories of how students learn. The formats in the classroom revolve around the central tenet of Responsibility-Based Self Control, through which students learn to harness that intrinsic motivation to cooperate. Teachers, students, and administrators support one another in implementing these high-impact formats, such as Unison Reading, Learning Conferences, Writing Conferences, Shares, and Responsibility Teams. Longer class periods and a rotating block schedule allow increased access for students to get into the flow of learning. Because low literacy has been identified as one of the basic elements that contributes to low achievement, all students benefit from two literacy periods, focusing on both cooperative reading and writing through Genre Practice. Likewise, all students are screened on a periodic basis, through the Degrees of Reading Power exam as well as through social-emotional assessments, to establish an academic and behavioral baseline and identify struggling learners who need additional support. During that time, all student progress (not just those at-risk, because peer learning is cooperative) is closely monitored using a validated screening system such as curriculum-based measurement. Through their coaches, all students also have individualized meetings throughout the semester to evaluate their progress on these measurements and set academic goals, providing a place for reflection to develop a growth mindset.
Tier 2: Targeted Interventions
Rather than scaffold tier two outside of the classroom or limit supports to the needs of a few, we believe all students, at one point or another, benefit from targeted interventions and deserve equal access. All students are different; students who need additional support in science may be leaders in social studies, and vice versa. Therefore, we incorporate increasingly intensive instruction matched to individual student needs on the basis of levels of performance and rates of progress. Students identified as being “at risk” through universal screenings and/or results on state- or districtwide tests receive supplemental instruction during the school day in the regular classroom (additional conferences, increased literacy experiences). At UAGC, every teacher assists throughout the week in other classrooms, depending on student need, to provide that support. Likewise, on-call and guidance provide behavioral supports in classrooms to promote student self-regulation in the actual environment. Students who are identified as needing additional support across all classes meet bi-weekly with their coaches; increasing the frequency of these interactions.
One of the unique tier two programs at UAGC is Keepers of the Culture (KoC). In it, students themselves meet with their struggling peers to strategize ways to be successful in the classroom. Like cognitive behavioral therapists, they are trained to examine the behaviors and mindsets that interfere with classroom functioning, brainstorm ways to overcome these, and then commit with the struggling peer to a promise for changing those behaviors and influencing those mindsets.
KoC was one way Dijon was supported after arriving at UAGC. Between October and February, Dijon had four meetings with the KoC, revising his promise card as he reflected on the ways he improved his behavior. Each meeting became more powerful than the last, as he began to shape a narrative of change and form a growth mindset about his own learning.
Tier 3: Securing Interventions through Comprehensive Evaluation
Remember, interventions are really scaffolds that are meant to support a student until they are prepared to stand on their own. Sometimes, these scaffolds are only needed for a few weeks, as they help the student make needed changes. However, as New Yorkers, we often see buildings with scaffolding up for years, because the building deserves a lot of support. Our tier three interventions serve as that long-term scaffolding, and secures the student's rights to increased frequency of interventions. During this time, students continue to receive the individualized, intensive interventions at tiers one and two that amplify social integration, rather than simply target skills' deficits (the deficit model is a problem embedded in typical RTI).
Our belief is that through these additional supports - that approach students not as a problem to be fixed, but as a social resource to be strengthened - will, with time, give students the strength and resources to stand on their own.
A Real Response to Intervention
Today, Dijon and students like him are a dynamic part of the collaboration happening in classrooms. When the director of School Quality Review for the DOE, Daisy Concepcion, visited our school, she asked that Dijon be a part of the group of students she interviewed. When discussing the culture of learning at UAGC, she asked, "This all sounds nice, but what if I just came to the school and sat in the back. What if I just refused to participate in all this stuff?"
"Miss," answered Dijon, grabbing her arm, "They won't let you! Teachers will work to pull you in, talking with you and encouraging you. That didn't work for me when I first got here, so Keepers of the Culture met with me. They wouldn't let me refuse to participate!" He went on to describe how, through his work with Keepers of the Culture, he learned how to think and talk about his own learning. Though he had struggled with school when he first arrived at UAGC, he now is able to "feel success" in working through tough texts and content.
The response to intervention at UAGC draws from the principles of RTI while centering students' work in the classroom as the nucleus around which all our support is clustered. Rather than interventions pulling students from the culture of learning that is being daily built in the classroom, our interventions seek to support student empowerment within that setting. At UAGC, we are working to understand how RTI can be implemented in a school system wrought with segregation, where the educational minority of students in need of tiers two and three are grouped together in a few schools, without access to the majority of students fully served by tier one instruction. We hope, through this endeavor, that we answer the call for RTI in secondary schools with our inclusionary belief that all students can learn, and can learn from all their peers, our commitment to scientifically based instruction through Learning Cultures, our school-wide approach to literacy through Cooperative Unison Reading in every classroom, and the unique involvement of both students and staff in supporting all of our community.
We welcome your questions and comments on our blog and invite you to come and visit our school to see the amazing work that is possible through intentionality, responsibility, and collaboration.