For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs.
Curator's Note: Peg Tyre in the Atlantic writes here about a challenging and uplifting pedagogical experiment carried out by the teachers and students of a poorly rated high school in Staten Island, where student success and graduation rates were jeopardized by their inability to write. While tests revealed that the students were capable of reading--often at grade level--what they were incapable of doing was translating what they had read into coherent segments of written expression that outlined or presented key ideas and their relationships. Most surprisingly, the teachers discovered that the students' abilities to use conjunctions (such as "despite", "however", "unless") was absent. And without the use of these connectors, students were out of luck in terms of their abilities to demonstrate relationality, cause and effect, or degrees of importance in relation to what they had read. The teachers tackled the problem head on, with amazing results.
"A lightbulb, says Simmons, went on in her head. These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech. With such grammatical gaps, it was a wonder they learned as much as they did. “Yes, they could read simple sentences,” but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them—not because they were too lazy to look up words they didn’t know, but because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”
Some teachers wanted to know how this could happen. “We spent a lot of time wondering how our students had been taught,” said English teacher Stevie D’Arbanville. “How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?”