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Teachers College, Columbia University
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I SPI...A New Curriculum Advisor in Town

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SPI Director Erick Gordon

SPI Director Erick Gordon

TC’s Student Press Initiative expands from classroom writing projects to helping special interest public high schools flesh out their missions

For the past four years, TC’s Student Press Initiative (SPI) has collaborated with teachers and students from urban public high schools, youth detention centers and even other countries, helping students go public with their stories through professionally bound books, readings and staged performances. Now, SPI has expanded its focus to become a primary curriculum advisor to small, mission-driven high schools in New York City.

SPI currently provides professional development to 12 schools, offering intensive training in school vision mapping, co-created curriculum development in collaboration with faculty and staff, and designing student projects that demonstrate schools’ missions in action.

“As a growing number of small schools in New York City cluster around specialized interests, SPI helps flesh out that focus through specially designed curricula and project-based learning,” says Erick Gordon, SPI Director. “For example, at the Academy for Young Writers, a new, specialized high school in Brooklyn, we’ve created a publishing project in which all 108 ninth graders interview and write profiles of working writers in their community—from novelists working on books to ministers working on sermons—to help the students see how the mission of their school is enacted in the world.

“Where in the past our partnerships with schools might amount to several days spent in classrooms, now we’re present for nine months, designing and implementing a curriculum and supporting teachers as they teach writing in ways that go straight to the heart of the school’s culture.”

In these “whole-school” partnerships with several New York City schools, Gordon says, SPI is finding that the deliberate curriculum planning and support for teaching writing is paying off in student interest and achievement. These whole school partnerships include the New York City Lab School, Millennium Art Academy and Heritage High School. The Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) is also collaborating in some of these whole school partnerships. A leading school redesign partner, ISA helps create small autonomous schools, and personalize and improve the learning environment in large comprehensive high schools.

Established in 2003 by Gordon and TC’s Enid & Lester Morse Chair and Professor of English Education, Ruth Vinz, SPI’s model in the past has been to work with individual teachers and all the students in a particular class, regardless of skill level, to write publishable work out of their curriculum projects. Taking an assignment related to the curriculum, students create a piece of writing to reflect their learning over time and carry the piece from inception through revision and, finally, to production. Ultimately, the class designs and produces an anthology of its work that is sold commercially, including within the public school system for use as a teaching tool in other classrooms. Past SPI projects include a series called Killing the Sky, an annual volume of memoirs by young prisoners at Rikers Island; Speak to Us of Work: Bronx Oral Histories, an anthology of stories of community elders by eleventh graders at Millennium Art Academy; About Face: Portraits of Activists , a journalism series from Beacon High School profiling New York City social activists; and many others.

SPI’s efforts to occupy a more central role in school curricula are fostering more definitive interest from partnering schools in how to make writing a vital aspect of their curriculum. Among its current projects:

•    New York City Lab School ninth graders produced an audio CD of rap songs and an accompanying book of lyrics about socially relevant issues in their lives based on their study of Romeo and Juliet. In the process, they compared how both Shakespeare and rappers use devices like imagery, hyperbole, allusion and metaphor to both entertain and critique society. Lab School seniors worked with SPI to create a symposium from genuine research topics stemming from the students’ own experiences.

•    A similar project was undertaken by tenth grade students at the Institute for Media and Writing at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex in Manhattan. Students interviewed people with varying perspectives on questions such as “How do you avoid getting caught up in peer pressure?” and “Do you have to go to college to be successful?” The result is an anthology titled For Every Voice, A Different Truth.

•    At the Pablo Neruda Academy, a new small school within the Stevenson High School Complex in Region 2 of the Bronx, 20 seniors investigated and offered their own perspectives on New York City’s small schools movement. They visited small schools, spoke to leading educational reformers, hosted a roundtable discussion, created an online resource and published an anthology, Small Schools, Big Questions: A Student-Led Inquiry into High School Redesign.

In addition to working with these and other students in the metropolitan area, SPI’s work has begun to take root not only outside of the City, but even outside the country via former SPI volunteers who bring the concept with them.

After working with SPI interviewing students at Rikers Island correctional facility, Bill Lundgren created a program at the educational rehabilitative resource, Long Creek Youth Development Center, within Maine’s state-wide correctional setting. After TC student teachers and instructors interviewed students at Long Creek on topics ranging from their childhoods through the events that led them to the center, transcripts of the interviews were provided to the students to assist them in writing their stories. An event held in Maine in late March featured readings from the culmination of their work, Smoke Signals: Oral Histories from Long Creek.

Another former SPI consultant and TC graduate, Allison Stimmler, developed a similar project for her students while teaching at the University of Sarajevo for the 2004–2005 academic year while living in Bosnia on a diplomatic assignment with her husband. The essays in Facing Memory, written in English by her third-year students at the time, grew out of the assumption that writing in an academic setting can and ought to be more than a traditional argumentative essay graded merely as a product on an end-of-year exam. Students practiced various pre-writing techniques, wrote several drafts, read each other’s drafts, offered advice and critical suggestions, revised their pieces several times, and finally polished their work into publishable memoirs.

For details about these and upcoming programs coordinated by SPI, visit their Web site at www.publishspi.org.


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