In Brooklyn- A New Way of Teaching Brings Success

Oct. 26- Classroom 233 at Granville T. Woods Elementary School has much to be proud of. Polished writing samples are sprinkled across the room, hanging on cabinet doors and bulletin boards. The 10 and 11-year-old students sit under their essays that describe personal goals or science concepts – work that has already been completed less than a month into the school year. In this class, every student reads books at or above grade level. Last June, all of these fifth graders passed their language arts and math tests. And one student from Room 233 boasted the highest score in the school.

While success is apparent in this class, there is also unmistakable evidence of poverty. The fifth-grade classroom sits on the second floor of the school, also known as Public School 335, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It belongs to teacher Meghan Dunn, and is across the street from the Kingsborough Houses, a New York City public housing development. Last year, the school reported a 99% poverty rate, meaning that nearly every student qualified for free or reduced lunch. In a corner of Dunn’s classroom, water drips down from an old air conditioning unit, held together with three strips of duct tape. A bucket has been placed underneath to collect the water that accumulates during the day. The front wall holds an old chalkboard that remains unused by Dunn. It is partially covered by a colorful calendar, as well as posters that assign classroom jobs and groups for using the class computers.

Dunn began teaching at P.S. 335 in 2005 as a Teach For America corps member. She says her first year was a disaster. “I wasn’t prepared for what I was getting into and I didn’t understand the community or how to connect to children,” she recalled. She slowly became more involved. She helped start a Girl Scout troop, she started overseeing chess club, and she has mentored students through a P.S. 335 mentorship program.

After teaching for three years, Dunn decided to move with her students to the next grade level – a strategy called “looping” in the education world. Three years later, Dunn is still teaching the same group of students.

Looping has been studied for years and has been implemented in schools across the United States. In 2009, The Southeast Asian Community Alliance and The University of California Graduate School of Education recommended that the Los Angeles Unified School District use looping to create more equitable schools. Their study showed that looping builds meaningful relationships with students, an idea that the principal of P.S. 335, Dr. Laverne Nimmons, embraces. When Dr. Nimmons came to the school eight years ago, she found unruly children, frustrated teachers, and low test scores. She utilized research from her doctoral dissertation to determine how to turn the school around. Dr. Nimmons says that many students at the school are dealing with difficult situations at home. They may be in foster care or are being reintroduced to parents who were incarcerated. She has found looping to be extremely successful in low-income communities where many children lack stability.

“The teacher doesn’t have to spend six weeks getting to know the child, getting to know the family” Nimmons said. “She knows immediately where they’re from, where they left off in the spring, and knows where to go in September.”

Dunn agrees that forming strong relationships has been a significant benefit. “I know everything about all of my kids,” she said. “I rarely have problems with them but if there is a problem I know one hundred percent that if I call a parent, they are on my side. They know too that whatever I’m doing in class is for their kid and that I’m totally here for their kid.”

It is obvious that the kids in Room 233 are accustomed to Dunn. Her class runs seamlessly. Students are focused and raise their hands eagerly. They transition to new activities quickly and quietly because they mastered Dunn’s classroom procedures years ago. Dunn says that she has time to elaborate upon the curriculum during the year, and estimates that she gains six weeks of instruction time over other classes.

Meghan Dunn prepares her morning literacy lesson before her students arrive at school for the day.
“She teaches us different things that other classes don’t learn,” says one ten-year-old boy, quietly reading on a red cushion in the back of the room. “She teaches us about wars and, like, about our presidents and different important people.” Another student says that both she and her mother have loved having Dunn for the past four years. “She knows what’s going on in my life,” the student said, quietly filling out her reading chart at her desk. “She knows how I’m doing.”

However, experts familiar with looping warn of disadvantages. If a teacher is ineffective, then students risk falling behind in the years they spend with that teacher.

Less than a mile away, Principal Berthe G. Faustin has successfully implemented looping at her school, P.S. 189. She says that there can be resistance from teachers who have spent years teaching the same grade level and must now learn a new curriculum. There are times when the dynamic of the student group doesn’t match the teacher, or occasions when teacher turnover is an issue.

“When you invest in people, you really want to keep them there,” says Faustin. “Especially if it’s working.”

Dunn has experienced another potential drawback of looping: difficult parent relationships that don’t end with the school year in June. Over the years, some of her students have moved to other classes because the parent-teacher relationship just wasn’t working out.

Despite challenges, Dunn is overwhelmingly positive about looping. In June, her students will graduate to one of several local middle schools. Dunn has plans to move on too. She is in the running to open a new school through the New York Department of Education. Her idea, a school where every teacher loops with his or her students, was proposed to the DOE in September. Dunn will find out on November 10th if her proposal has made it into the fourth, and final phase of the process.

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