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Just-Released Book Offers Intimate Glimpse Inside a Newark Classroom

Read an excerpt of a chapter about interactions between kids and teachers at the Rise Academy charter school

Elizabeth Green

In the bookstores this week, Elizabeth Green’s “Building a Better Teacher” describes the paths to quality teaching nationwide – and the debates over how to best accomplish that. One chapter in the book is titled the “The Discipline of Discipline,” and explores the story of Newark’s Rise Academy, a middle school in the TEAM academy charter school network. Following is an excerpt.

As it turned out, Rise’s teachers already had another tool. They’d been building it for years without quite knowing they were doing it. The approach evolved from their frustration, early on, with the limits of a longtime KIPP tradition, the Bench.

The Bench was like a glorified time out, punishing misbehavior with social isolation. A student on the Bench wore a different colored T-shirt and was barred from talking to peers. The KIPP twist was that students on the Bench did not actually miss class; instead, they sat either at the edge of the room or in a normal seat, separated only by the color of their shirt and the prohibition on talking (although talking for the purpose of class was often permitted).

The Bench was effective as a deterrent. From a fifth-grader’s point of view, it was “the worst thing you could ever get on,” according to Malik, a Rise seventh-grader. “I see fifth-graders that be walking through this hall like they’re scared,” he said. “They’re scared to even look at me.” They didn’t want to do anything that would land them on the Bench. (Interestingly, from an adult’s point of view, the fifth-graders could not have looked happier: walking through the hallways, they grinned and held each other’s hands; later, in class, they threw their hands into the air to answer a teacher’s question with gleeful gusto.) But the Bench also had a perverse side effect. The students who had the hardest time interacting with each other were also, naturally, the ones most likely to get on the Bench. Some of them would stay on “for weeks and weeks and weeks,” says Ranjana Reddy, the former Rise teacher.

As a result, “our biggest behavioral problem kids would have no practice interacting with other kids socially.”

The irony wasn’t lost on the teachers. So as the students got older, Ranjana and the other teachers decided to modify the Bench. Soon, seventh- and eighth-graders—the “upper school” at Rise—had a new Bench alternative.

Choices, the teachers called it. Choices traded the Bench’s immediate social isolation for the relatively less disruptive consequences of detention and silent lunch. (Instead of eating in the cafeteria, silent-lunch participants ate in a classroom with other misbehavers.) Choices added a new requirement too. To get off of it, students had to deliver a public apology to the class in which their original offense occurred— and the class had to accept.

The goal was to switch the way the school taught its disciplinary lessons. The Bench presumed that students would learn from the consequence of their actions; the punishment of social isolation would be enough to teach them never to misbehave in the same way again. And maybe that worked with fifth-graders. But for seventh- and eighth-graders, the teachers suspected, a punishment wouldn’t be enough to teach better behavior. Some kind of reflection was also necessary. With Choices, Ranjana says, “the theory here is that the learning happens at the end of that piece— that there is a conversation when the person gives their apology later, and people are allowed to ask them questions when they give their apology.” The resulting dialogues forced students to make sense of their mistakes, to think them through.

As Rise’s teachers facilitated more and more of these public apologies, they also started to lead spontaneous conversations about behavior. “Culture conversations,” they called them. Like Choices, culture conversations had their origins in more choreographed routines, in which teachers would introduce the reasons behind the school’s rules by reading a book or showing a clip from a movie that illustrated the idea they wanted students to learn. But over time, the conversations about behavior started to hap¬pen right in the middle of class. Some conversations were modest, small-group affairs. Watching two students deliberately leave out another as they picked partners for a science lab, for instance, a teacher named Shannon Grande turned the moment into a chance to discuss the pitfalls of cliques. Later, in the same lesson, Shannon responded to a meltdown of a student named Destiny— “You need to be in LINES and QUIET!” she had screamed before storming out of the room—by asking the whole class to pause and discuss how to respond when Destiny returned.

Shannon didn’t know about Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert’s TKOT, but the culture conversation approach bore similarities to it. Just as with TKOT, they didn’t forsake lectures, which were still crucial for clarifying important concepts and introducing new ideas; they simply supplemented them with responses to students’ in-the-moment misunderstandings. And just as in TKOT, the culture conversations didn’t just happen over the course of a single lesson. They sometimes stretched over weeks and months as students helped each other think through their behavior decisions—the source of which they came to think of not as “discipline,” but as social and emotional growth.

In Shannon’s classroom, for example, a seventh-grader named Jamal often failed to control his anger. Even the littlest comment could set him off. Your shirt’s not tucked in, another student would tell him, and he would scream, slam his books on the floor, and shut down. “Ohh, why do you always have to say this to me?” he’d say. And, “I hate this place!” Sometimes, he would break out and cry during the middle of class with no explanation. At one point, he even got into a fight with one of the grade’s best students, usually a paragon of perfect behavior.

Frustrated, the girl lashed back, telling him that he was dirty, that he smelled. Shannon couldn’t believe it. “I pulled the girl, and she was like, ‘Well, he brings it on! He gets angry and then what am I supposed to say?’ ”

Perhaps, Shannon suggested, don’t tell him he smells. “And she’s like, ‘Well, he does!’ ”

That was true. Shannon knew that Jamal’s hygiene was an issue. His home was a chaotic place. Just the week before, the power had gone off. The week before that, the water was shut off. At another point, part of the roof caved in. Often, with their mother gone, Jamal and his brothers would be on their own to cook dinner. He and one of his brothers didn’t have regular access to showers until the staff at Rise arranged a private bath¬room they could use before school.

Faced with the girl’s legitimate statement—yes, Jamal did sometimes smell—Shannon decided to give the girl more context to shape the idea into something more constructive. One day, in between classes, she took that girl and three other high performers in Jamal’s advisory (Rise’s version of homeroom) aside. “I said, I’m going to have a very mature conversation with you right now,” she says. Jamal, Shannon explained, “struggles just to get here everyday. I was like, ‘you wake up in the morning and you’ve got somebody that’s getting you out of the door, giving you breakfast, making sure your clothes are clean, making sure you’re getting here on time. He doesn’t have that.’ ” His anger wasn’t acceptable, but it was understandable. And what he needed was not more reasons to feel attacked, but support—and examples of ways to react differently. Shannon concluded with a plea. “I was like, ‘So I need you to keep this quiet, but I also need you to use your power and influence in the advisory to start making a change.’ ”

The girls were taken aback. “I didn’t know that,” Jamal’s original combatant said. Then she asked her a question that Shannon hadn’t anticipated. “She’s like, ‘Well, can we talk to him?’ ” At first, Shannon balked. She’d hoped the girls could just lead by example, responding to Jamal’s outbursts with more equanimity. She certainly didn’t want to create a situation that would make him even more vulnerable. But after thinking for a minute, she decided to let them try. The risk in drawing more attention to a behavior problem was obvious. As with Destiny, the original trigger for Jamal’s meltdowns was often other students. Giving the students an opportunity to share their feelings could exacerbate the teasing, making Jamal feel worse. But Shannon also knew that middle school was a cauldron of social relationships, whether teachers paid attention to them or not. When Destiny stormed out of science class, she was gone for the moment, but soon enough she had to return, and when she did, the students had to figure out how to treat her. Similarly, Jamal and these girls saw each other every day. They went to class, lunch, and recess together. They were all on Facebook. If they didn’t talk now, in the safety of a conversation that Shannon could moderate, they would talk someplace else.

Plus, just as Deborah Ball and Magdalene Lampert had found with TKOT, the upside of a conflict—the behavioral equivalent of a mathematical mistake—was a chance to learn. Opening up Jamal’s behavior problem for collective examination might help him think about it differently. The group might do it better than Shannon could on her own.

“Social problem solving,” researchers called similar approaches.

Still, when the conversation began, Shannon was nervous. And the girls launched it with a bomb. “When you get angry, we get angry back,” they said. “What do you expect us to say?” But to Shannon’s amazement, Jamal responded not by lashing out, but by talking calmly. Soon enough, all of them—Jamal and the girls—were asking Shannon to let them finish the conversation in private. She decided to let them go for it. All of the students were in her advisory, and by that point, she was not only holding culture conversations with them, but letting students lead them.

Whatever they said, over the next month their advisory transformed. When Jamal had an outburst, instead of lashing back at him the other students would lead him in a conversation on what he was doing to change: journaling or deep breathing or taking a minute in the hall. The most powerful strategy of all seemed to be not any single technique, but the conversations themselves. “Even when he has a rough day, we talk about it in advisory, and he gets it out, and he moves on,” Shannon says.

For his part, Jamal began to see school differently. Early on, with all its crazy rules, Rise had felt like the rest of his life: a series of personal attacks all devised to break him down. But as Shannon Grande and his classmates worked with him, Rise started to feel different, even safe. The new feeling transformed him. “Rise was my turning point,” he said that year. The change wasn’t academic, but much more abstract. What Rise gave him, Jamal said, was “a different view on life.” Before coming to the school, he was an expert at negative thinking. He felt alone, and he thought a lot about death. At Rise, he learned to imagine success as clearly as he could imagine failure. One morning, he even woke up remembering a dream he’d never had before. “I was living by myself, but with my family, in this big house, and it was peaceful. No yelling, no arguing. Nobody saying somebody stole this. Nobody dying. Just one peaceful area.” Before, he said, “I was expecting to die.” But “at Rise, it gave me a new future. It gave me hope.”

Educators often talk about discipline as a choice between rules and autonomy, systems and freedom, “tight” and “loose”—as if they have only two choices: either build elaborate behavior systems like the Bench or let students roam free. At Rise, changing the way the school exerted control by no means meant letting go of it. In fact, it was the opposite. Just as Ruth Heaton and Sylvia Rundquist had found at the Spartan Village school, giving students more independence meant the teachers had to do more work, building more intricate systems with more deliberate supports—the stuff teachers call “scaffolding.” They weren’t less strict. They just changed the point of intervention. Instead of building a million rules to prevent misbehavior from happening in the first place, they loosened up at the start—only to erect ever more elaborate responses when, inevitably, students crossed a line.

In addition to culture conversations, teachers increasingly sought outside help. As Paul Tough explains in How Children Succeed, a combination of research in economics, psychology, and neuroscience has shown that the students targeted by charter schools—the children of families suffering from multigenerational poverty and a history of racism—face more challenges than their more affluent white peers face. Even the best teachers often needed the help of psychologists and other professionals for students who continued to struggle.

Sometimes teachers used more specialized approaches. “Does it make sense for one fifth-grader to bring up a concern about another fifth-grader in front of thirty kids?” says Mariel Elguero, one of the school’s founding teachers, who became dean of instruction. “Maybe in some contexts, yes, and maybe in some contexts, no. Maybe what would actually make sense is if we got those two kids together and they sat in the corner by themselves, and we gave them tools, and they figured it out.”

The more complex approach did not solve all behavior problems, not even close. Although Rise was religious in its refusal never to ask a student to leave (a policy the school did not share with all other charter schools, or all district schools for that matter), every teacher could still rattle off a list of the students who made the decision themselves, resisting Rise’s considerable efforts to change their minds: Aisha, who twice had to be taken from the school in an ambulance and once threatened to kill both of her parents in the school’s main office; Deon, who missed two months of school one year and failed all of his classes; Abdul, the best basketball player ever to attend Rise, but a struggling student whose mother refused to let him repeat a grade. Some days, even after Jamal’s turning point, it was hard not to worry that he would fall down the same path. “We have a lot, a lot of kids that it doesn’t work for,” Drew (Martin, the principal) says. “We don’t have an answer. We just hold on as long as we possibly can.”

Excerpted from Building A Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How To Teach It to Everyone) by Elizabeth Green. Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth Green. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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