“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
― Maya Angelou
Staten Island’s New Dorp High School was made famous by a school-turnaround article in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic. Spending time in the bottom 10% of all high schools, it faced closure. The school’s principal initiated a turnaround plan. The central focus?
In every subject.
This new focus didn’t go over well at first. If reading is the star of the K12 disciplines, writing is the pariah, and opposition was the reflex. It make sense—if they’re like most districts, they lean heavily on reading instruction. Students walk into school with Brown Bear, Brown Bear and leave with Brave New World. Writing, on the other hand, is taught by osmosis—if students read books, they’ll “pick up” writing.
So, why focus on writing?
New Dorp’s focus on writing feels akin to what Charles Duhigg calls “keystone habits” in his book, The Power of Habit. These “keystone habits” are small leverage points that have a carryover effect far beyond the thing in itself. Duhigg gives exercise as an example. People who start an exercise routine (even exercising as little as once a week) often improve their diet, feel less stress, and notice general improvements in their family life. These keystone habits are like Archimedes’ long lever where a modest movement can have a big effect.
Writing was their keystone habit.New Dorp’s writing initiative pulled on such a lever, and the turnaround was remarkable—rippling far beyond writing skills. Just two years after beginning the writing initiative their pass rates for the English Regents improved from 67 to 89 percent, pass rates for their global history exam went from 64 to 75 percent, and graduation rates soared from 63 to 80 percent.
What about our students with complex instructional needs? Can they see results from writing? It’s unfortunate that the initial reaction I’ve often heard is that these students aren’t capable of writing. This argument is not new. Many New Dorp teachers said their students weren’t smart enough to write at the expected level. The students proved they could.
Dr. Janet Sturm, professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at Central Michigan University spent the last 15 years focused on how to teach and measure writing with this population. She recently worked with teachers and students in four Michigan schools to bring a new process to writing instruction, accommodations, and new writing measures that help track the smallest writing progressions.
Where students once had writing goals of handwriting their names by the end of high school, they now are moving up the writing scale into paragraph writing and beyond.
You needn’t look further than a brief 5-minute video clip of Antonio, one of the students with a remarkable story who now proudly shouts, “I’m an author”!
After watching the video, it’s hard not to see parallels between these Michigan schools and New Dorp High. The turnaround in self-confidence and behaviors is clearly seen from the principals, teachers, parents, and the students themselves. The principal at one of the schools commented, “Not in our wildest dreams did we ever think of having the students write expressive kinds of things about their interest areas or topics.” But they did.
Going back to Maya Angelou, if a bird sings because it has a song, the kids of New Dorp and these four Michigan schools learned to sing. Each of our students with exceptionalities has a song, they just need to be taught to sing it—to write it down.
– Ben Johnston
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