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Going Off-Track: TC Alumna Michelle Fine Shows BookTalk Audience that Inclusive Classes Work

Sponsored by the Office of Alumni Relations, the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation, and TC Press, the TC BookTalk Series is an opportunity for discussion and exchange of ideas among members of the audience and TC authors.


Michelle Fine (Ph.D. in Social Psychology, 1980) showed one BookTalk audience a video she made about her research in Montclair, N.J., "Off-track Classroom: Privilege for All."

The Montclair school district is under a court order to desegregate. At the elementary and middle school levels, the district has desegregated classes, Fine said. The high school, however, is typical of too many secondary institutions. It has a racially mixed student body, but its classrooms are segregated because a disproportionate number of minorities are placed in low-track classes and a disproportionate number of white students are placed in honors and high honors classes.

A small group of teachers decided to challenge that model by creating a new detracked ninth-grade English class that would be an example of how to create a course with rigorous high standards that all students could reach. One of the teachers in the video, Dana Sherman, described the class structure. The classroom is a democratic environment. The students were assigned to the classes in a way to guarantee balance between the number of students who normally would have been on the high track and those who would have been on a lower track. The students' opinions matter and all of the students are expected to express their opinions - in class and on paper. The students are asked to rewrite their papers three or four times before the teacher accepts them for grading.

The students are asked to analyze, comment and think about what they've read, Sherman explained. "The students are expected to actively participate in class-in fact their involvement is a necessity," Sherman said.

"In the detracked setting," she continued, "the teacher can't be at the center or there's no point in detracking. The kids become not only the learners but also the teachers in a way."

One thing that Fine discovered as she made the video was that the lines between "the smart kids" and the others became blurred. The students agreed.

Peter Cookson, Director of the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation, served as moderator for the BookTalk. He noted sadly that after their experience in the ninth-grade English course, the students are placed back into tracked courses for the remainder of their high school experience. Cookson asked the question that many in the audience wanted answered: "Why did that happen?"

"This was a project that was very much seen as an experiment," said Fine. "Even though the class continues to be offered."

Some of those students entered the class reading at the third grade level, she said. Yet, in this class, they read and analyzed works such as 12 Angry Men and The Tempest. What Montclair teachers achieved could be accomplished in any class, Fine said.

"It changes everything when the child's voice is heard," she said. "Kids who have been detached suddenly want to belong and to participate."

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