The kids high-five Catherine Stine on their way in, say hello, grab their notebooks, sit down, and get to work.
All of them.
I’m gonna be honest: I’ve never seen anything like it. Granted, her class at Animo Leadership in Lennox is small, only 18 students. But still, at least outwardly, these appear to be normal teenagers, all of whom have walked in, rolled up their metaphorical sleeves and gotten down to business.
I mean, I’ve heard about situations like this. I know I was always supposed to make this happen. But in truth, there were always stragglers, doodlers, chatters, whisperers. Even in the most compliant classes, there were one or two daydreamers. Not here. Every single student is completely engaged in the work.
I’m on a roll. A couple of days ago, I was at Harvard-Westlake, where I watched Jeremy Michaelson lead the most engaged class I’d ever seen, a vivacious group of 15 kids calling out enthusiastic answers to every question. But Harvard-Westlake, you could argue, has perhaps the most privileged population in Los Angeles, an overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class group of students who have enjoyed every advantage. Here at Animo Leadership, which is almost entirely Latino/a, 94% of the students qualify as economically disadvantaged.
But money is not the only essential resource for children. Animo Leadership has an extraordinarily engaged, involved parent community. Though when I walk into the shiny, brand-new, solar-powered campus, I see a picnic table of mothers chatting comfortably, parent involvement here goes far beyond feeling welcome. Parents are teaming up with teachers due to a radical policy that was begun a few years ago in response to teachers’ distress over the number of students who were not turning in work.
The program is simple but extremely labor-intensive: if your kid doesn’t do work, you get an immediate phone call wherever you are. To pull this off, first, the school hired a full-time coordinator, Ms. Pena, a parent who would be responsible for the entire operation. Her office is staffed with a fleet of student T.A.s who are assigned to each class currently in session. Ms. Pena is armed with a list of working contact numbers for every single parent at the school. If at any moment a student is late for class, fails to turn in work or bombs a test, the T.A. for that class leads the student to Ms. Pena, who hands the phone to the student to say the dreaded words. I failed the test. I was late. Generally, an explosion of outrage ensues from the other end, along with apologies, promises to do better next time, and occasionally tears.
The program is expensive; the parent coordinator’s salary takes a significant bite out of a school budget that has already been cut to the bone. Installing the infrastructure that requires every teacher to buy in and administer it faithfully and daily must have taken enormous time, energy and faith on everybody’s part. It would not work without the full support of parents on the receiving end of those calls. It also requires taking many students out of class for a period to be T.A.’s, depriving top students of academic class time. But. It works.
I mean, it is amazing. Students do all their work, all the time. If you’re not a teacher, that may sound like a minor point, but trust me, it is one of the most serious issues faced by teachers in underserved communities. I understand all the reasons not to do this program. But I’ve got to tell you, I’m signed, sealed and delivered. When I am king of the universe, it will happen everywhere.
Here’s the other magic ingredient that Animo Leadership’s students have: books. Books! Their very own books, not just borrowed at the beginning of the unit, scanned and returned at the end, but their own to mark up and possess forever. Isn’t it sad that the possession of a book sounds like magic? But if you’ve taught in a public school, you know that my saying this is only slightly less insane than if I said they all had their very own unicorns.
Here again, parents are the key. Though Catherine gives every student the option of buying the book on their own or borrowing a copy from the school, 95% of her students choose to buy the book. Owning a book, it turns out, makes a radical difference.
Books are integral to Catherine’s method. Her class is extremely structured, down to the minute, and includes vocabulary practice with a quiz, but basically is all about instilling the habit of very close reading by practicing intensive annotation. From the beginning of class, students are analyzing two quotes on the board from The Great Gatsby, using a method called “Say/Mean/Matter.” What does the quote literally say, paraphrased? What does this mean? Why does it matter? Every morning, the students analyze a quote together, then go home and practice the same technique on their own for the assigned reading. Students’ books are crammed with writing that analyzes virtually every line. (The handful of students who do not own books use post-its for their annotation.)
Catherine has been working on this annotation procedure all semester, from the first book they read, The House on Mango Street. Their annotations are graded for thoroughness, critical thinking, depth and making personal connections to material. Their final project will include submitting their annotated copy of Gatsby.
Her class discussions are much more structured than Jeremy Michaelson’s at Harvard-Westlake, but since on average almost half the kids here have reading test scores at Basic or below and 18% are English Language Learners, more structure is needed. What’s amazing to me is to see in action a clear method for working with kids to scaffold their close reading skills—it’s like what Jeremy does, but broken down into micro-steps. Catherine pulls names from a cup during class discussion to make sure everyone talks, and pushes everyone to give more detail and analysis. “Can you back that up with evidence?” she asks continually, then pushes for analysis. “How did you get there? How did you make that connection?”
Laminated and posted above the white board are sentence starters to help English Language Learners phrase their comments in academic language. “I understand where __(name) is coming from but I disagree because ….” and “I’d like to add to what _____(name____said….”
The class ends with what Catherine calls a cocktail party; she distributes juice boxes and calls for the kids to mingle in groups of two or three to discuss the book. She plays 20’s jazz as they meticulously take notes so that they can each share a say/mean/matter analysis of a meaningful quote. Before the party begins, she reminds them to make eye contact, mingle with others and stand, not sit—a brilliant way to work on professional social skills while they analyze text, including mastering the art of sipping a drink and snacking while carrying on a professional conversation, something many teenagers have not mastered (along with, let’s face it, a whole lot of adults.)
Joining the party, I listen in on conversations that are quiet, halting and sometimes very shy, but full of the kind of analytic detail they’ll need to provide independently in college. Looking around the room, I see that everyone is participating.
It is amazing. Again, as with Harvard-Westlake, many, many factors have played into creating the classroom I see in front of me. First of all, Catherine is an extraordinary teacher, balancing a quiet presence and rapport with an exceptional, structured array of effective techniques. It helps enormously that she has a class of only 18, though not all classes here are this small. And because of the intensive, close involvement of the parent community and a school infrastructure designed at considerable time and expense to support that involvement, there are almost no serious behavior problems in this classroom or anywhere on campus—ever.
I think again of Jeremy’s class at Harvard-Westlake and his student’s question about the distinction between wealth and money. Though the students here do not come from families with money, there is a wealth of resources here that has to do with non-monetary resources, starting with an extraordinary teacher, an exceptionally functional school culture with 100% buy-in and a parent body willing and able to sacrifice time, energy and whatever they have to support their kids day and night. And time. Animo Leadership was founded fourteen years ago and has had years to try a variety of experiments until they found a system that worked for them.
As a society, what do we need to do to nurture, restore and make possible this kind of resource wealth for every student? What happens in communities where a significant percentage of kids are being raised in foster care or can’t afford phone service or are homeless?
What will it take to give every child this kind of resources?