Case Studies in Practice



by Kathleen Cushman

For our WKCD audio slidesshow series “Case Studies in Practice,” we go out to hear directly from youth who are working hard to get really good at something. In their own words, these young people talk about how they got started and what it takes to keep going even when it gets hard. And they also speak of "flow" — that wonderful feeling of energized, full involvement in a challenge within their reach. Whether that challenge involves ballroom dance or building a robot, reading the classics or debating a political issue, kids have something important to say about what inspires, encourages, and assists them to meet it. 

For more, see firesinthemind.org.

 

What makes the pages turn?

To anyone who’s ever escaped into a book, it shouldn’t be surprising. Give kids the choice, and they’ll escape, too–into whatever worlds hold most appeal. And if that means vampires or romance, sports or spies, there’s a book to satisfy that hunger piled in some brightly colored bin here in this NYC school where virtually every student is now an avid, and critical, reader.

The four in this video didn’t come into middle school as good readers. That’s pretty typical of the 550 very diverse students in grades 6 through 12 at East Side Community School, a completely unscreened public school in lower Manhattan.

But just listen to what these kids say about how their school changed all that. Mark Federman, its principal, decided early on that this school would be all about reading. And starting with the Principal’s Book Club (it’s packed with kids), every single adult in the school has found ways to make that happen. Now students here are reading all the time–it’s just not cool if you don’t. And as they grow into young adults, they are poring over authors from Art Spiegelman and Louise Erdrich to James Baldwin and August Wilson.

 

What if we made a robot?

If you had the chance to spend some time cooking up a cool invention with a bunch of your friends, wouldn’t you want to at least try it?

That’s what learning starts with, when kids get involved in robotics, a branch of engineering that merges math and science in what they call “the hardest fun you’ll ever have.” Students all over the country participate in the big competitions that pitch their club’s robot against those of others. Usually they are part of a club, but sometimes their school creates a course that centers on building a robot and entering it in the contest.

As Molly and R.J. tell us in this video, it’s a great way for kids to overcome any bias against math and science and get their hands into the real thing. And the fun of doing it as a team gives them a lot of practice in collaboration, critique, revision, and all the other habits of expert engineers.

 

Shut your eyes and pretend

Remember “Mad Hot Ballroom” — the movie about middle school dance contests in New York City? I’ve always wanted to get better at ballroom myself, so I tracked down a couple of eighth grade ballroom dancers to tell me what it took.

At Tysheena and Dan’s middle school, kids can take ballroom dance for their physical education class. (Their teacher was also the principal!) Once they get to eighth grade, they can try out for a school team that competes in the city competitions. The contest adds an extra thrill, Tysheena said, but it’s clear that she and Dan are also motivated by the sheer pleasure of doing it well.

So try this when you watch this video: Shut your eyes and pretend Dan and Tysheena are talking about learning some academic subject–say history, or English composition. What might a classroom teacher learn from the way they talk about rising from novice to mastery stage?

 

"With all due respect": How debate sharpens thinking

”I was always the one arguing with teachers,” said Posha, a high school debater from Newark, NJ. “You gave me an order, and I’m like, I’m not doing this!” But when she pushes back these days, debate has given her a new demeanor of confidence and respect. “Now it’s: I think you’re wrong because,” she said. “I have more information to back up my argument, instead of just yelling.”

Debate is growing fast as a practice to sharpen the minds and skills of urban youth whose voices have long been ignored. In this short video, two Newark students describe how becoming debaters has taught them to do research and analysis, to speak up in public, and to disagree using words, not force.

“You pick a topic out of a hat and you just get up and speak on that,” says Michael, who was in trouble for fighting before the debate coach tapped him for the school team. “Everybody started thinking on their feet.” At first, he said, “I was obliterated.” But his competitive instinct made him work hard to nail the skills he needed: reading, writing, thinking, and effective speaking.

These young debaters take up serious subjects; this year, it’s the U.S. military and police presence in South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey. Their practice room is lined with books and students pore over them intensely.

The Jersey Urban Debate League to which Newark’s team belongs is part of theUrban Debate Network, an initiative of the Open Society Institute. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) currently exist in 24 of the nation’s largest cities, with over 500 urban high schools participating. Almost half of these offer a credit-bearing course in argumentation and debate, and some districts incorporate formal debate coaching throughout the regular curriculum. More than 40,000 public school students have competed in UDLs, the network estimates.

 

Just life . . . but solved as word problems

Can life be seen as math, when you’re just going into eighth grade? The middle schoolers in this short video talk about their new coats, their baseball averages, and even the weather with a curiosity that drives them to figure things out mathematically.

Coached by a college student who is a summer teaching intern at Providence Summerbridge, they are learning to describe their everyday concerns using the language of math.

Nic talks about picking out his school clothes in the morning, and he’s suddenly talking about permutations and combinations: “You can put six to seven different ways into one pants and two shirts . . . you just have to find out the outcome of it.”

Shaniece pleads with teachers to make the math connect to things kids do: “Like, use props. Do something. Do a little skit. Bring food. Let us come up and teach the class. See how we understand it, and see what works.”

 

 
 


Kids on the Wire

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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator