New Dorp High’s writing revolution

September 25th, 2012

In 2009, when Monica DiBella entered New Dorp, a notorious public high school on Staten Island, her academic future was cloudy. Monica had struggled to read in early childhood, and had repeated first grade. During her elementary-school years, she got more than 100 hours of tutoring, but by fourth grade, she’d fallen behind her classmates again. In the years that followed, Monica became comfortable with math and learned to read passably well, but never seemed able to express her thoughts in writing. During her freshman year at New Dorp, a ’70s-style brick behemoth near a grimy beach, her history teacher asked her to write an essay on Alexander the Great. At a loss, she jotted down her opinion of the Macedonian ruler: “I think Alexander the Great was one of the best military leaders.” An essay? “Basically, that wasn’t going to happen,” she says, sweeping her blunt-cut brown hair from her brown eyes. “It was like, well, I got a sentence down. What now?” Monica’s mother, Santa, looked over her daughter’s answer—six simple sentences, one of which didn’t make sense—with a mixture of fear and frustration. Even a coherent, well-turned paragraph seemed beyond her daughter’s ability. An essay? “It just didn’t seem like something Monica could ever do.”

So begins a profile of the writing program at New Dorp High School on Staten Island in the October issue of The Atlantic. In the article, Peg Tyre covers the school’s transformation from one that was nearly failing to one now looked at as a model by other schools with struggling students. The secret? A focus on teaching writing.

Tyre writes:

New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, which placed an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing, was a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school. The program challenged long-held assumptions about the students and bitterly divided the staff. It also yielded extraordinary results. By the time they were sophomores, the students who had begun receiving the writing instruction as freshmen were already scoring higher on exams than any previous New Dorp class. Pass rates for the English Regents, for example, bounced from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011; for the global-­history exam, pass rates rose from 64 to 75 percent. The school reduced its Regents-repeater classes—cram courses designed to help struggling students collect a graduation requirement—from five classes of 35 students to two classes of 20 students.


[In 2008, the school hired Nell Scharff, an instruction expert, to come help.] Scharff, a lecturer at Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York, kept pushing, asking: “What skills that lead to good writing did struggling students lack?” She urged the teachers to focus on the largest group: well-­behaved kids like Monica who simply couldn’t seem to cobble together a paragraph. “Those kids were showing up” every day, Scharff said. “They seem to want to do well.” Gradually, the bellyaching grew fainter. “Every quiz, every unit test, every homework assignment became a new data point,” Scharff recalled. “We combed through their writing. Again and again, we asked: ‘How did the kids in our target group go wrong? What skills were missing?’ ”

Maybe the struggling students just couldn’t read, suggested one teacher. A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests the following week and reported back. The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher got more granular. He pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed. What words, Scharff asked, did kids who wrote solid paragraphs use that the poor writers didn’t? Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like forandnorbutoryet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively. The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not—the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

The exploration continued. One teacher noted that the best-written paragraphs contained complex sentences that relied on dependent clauses like although and despite, which signal a shifting idea within the same sentence. Curious, Fran Simmons devised a little test of her own. She asked her freshman English students to read Of Mice and Men and, using information from the novel, answer the following prompt in a single sentence:

“Although George …”

She was looking for a sentence like: Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

Some of Simmons’s students wrote a solid sentence, but many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”

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.”

Tyre continues the story, detailing how the school began to teach students a rigid formula for writing in class–for example, by constructing “complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts–but, because, and so“–that students could later deviate from once they understood the basics. The increased instruction on writing, Tyre notes, did not just serve to make the students better writers, but also better readers, thinkers, and speakers:

The structured speaking was a success during Monica’s fifth-period-English discussion of the opening scene of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. “What is Willie Loman’s state of mind? Is he tired? If he is tired, why would he be so tired?” asked the teacher, Angelo Caterina. “Willie Loman seems tired because he is getting old,” ventured a curly-haired girl who usually sat in the front. “Can you explain your answer?,” Monica called out. The curly-haired girl bit her lip while her eyes searched the book in front of her. “The stage direction says he’s 63. That’s old!” Other hands shot up. Reading from the prompt poster made the students sound as if they’d spent the previous period in the House of Lords instead of the school cafeteria. “I agree that his age is listed in the stage direction,” said John Feliciano. “But I disagree with your conclusion. I think he is tired because his job is very hard and he has to travel a lot.”

Robert Fawcett, a loose-limbed boy in a white T-shirt, got his turn. Robert had been making money working alongside the school’s janitors. “I disagree with those conclusions,” he said, glancing at the prompts. “The way Willie Loman describes his job suggests that the kind of work he does is making him tired. It is repetitive. It can feel pointless. It can make you feel exhausted.” The class was respectfully silent for a moment, acknowledging that Robert had analyzed the scene and derived a fresh idea from his own experience.

Read the whole account here. Tyre notes that the conversation about the importance of writing instruction that took place at New Dorp will be occurring at schools across the nation as they seek to align themselves with the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize the use of informative and persuasive essays to teach students critical thinking skills–exactly the kind of skills the questions in our reading guides are also designed to promote.

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