National Writing Project

New York City Writing Project Helps Teen Immigrants Succeed in Bronx High School

By: Grant Faulkner
Date: July 10, 2008

Summary: Bronx International High School has received accolades for its success with English language learners, success attributed in part to its emphasis on professional development. The New York City Writing Project has provided professional development since the school's genesis.


NyCWP teacher-consultant Ed Osterman
Ed Osterman in a familiar role—collaborating
with a teacher to plan lessons and projects.

The Harvard Education Letter recently profiled Bronx International High School, a member of the Internationals Network for Public Schools as one of several schools that are experimenting successfully with ways to group English language learners. To complement its unique model, "a heavy dose of professional training" has played a key role in the school's success, according to Internationals director Claire Sylvan.

Much of that professional development has been delivered by the New York City Writing Project (NYCWP)—in fact, NYCWP has been involved with the school since its doors opened in 2001, working closely with three principals.

"It was incredibly exciting for us to come in at the ground floor at a school like this because we knew we could put some good things in place that would become part of the fabric of the school," said Marcie Wolfe, director of the New York City Writing Project.

Bronx International isn't just any high school, so the writing project had its work cut out for it. The school is one of the ten small high schools that make up the Internationals Network—nine in New York City and one in Oakland, California. Bronx International is devoted to working with newly arrived immigrants who are in the process of learning English. In fact, the school accepts only those students who have been in the country for four years or less and who scored 20 percent or below on an English language assessment.

Like the other Internationals schools, Bronx International has a unique approach. The school is structured into five interdisciplinary teams, and within each team students work in heterogeneous, collaborative groups. The students in each group have varying levels of English proficiency, so a student with only a few words of English may sit next to and work with a classmate who can read a story in English.

"The range can be enormous," said Ed Osterman, a NYCWP teacher-consultant who has worked with the school since its inception. "For teachers, the whole issue of selecting texts and then deciding what you're going to do with those readings to help everyone understand them is pedagogically complex."

Yet the school has shown remarkable success. The March/April 2008 issue of the Harvard Education Letter notes that the school's graduation rate surpasses the city average, and in its six-year history, the college attendance rate has fluctuated between 88 and 99 percent.

The Writing Project Philosophy: Start with a Teacher's Interest

Ed Osterman had to leave any notion of a script behind when he entered Bronx International High School to deliver professional development to its nascent staff in 2001. "I simply couldn't fall back on the ways I was comfortable working," he commented.

He didn't have a script, but he did have the writing project model to lean on.

Osterman, a seasoned teacher who took part in the NYCWP's first summer institute in the late 1970s, is one of the site's on-site teacher-consultants—teachers who have been released by the New York City Board of Education from teaching duties at their own schools to work full-time for the writing project as teacher-consultants in other schools. He built his work with Bronx International on two pillars of the New York City Writing Project's model:

  • Work with teachers to plan lessons and projects, team-teach, recommend resources, encourage the publication of student writing, and organize peer dissemination of good practices throughout the school
  • Teach on-site, after-school seminars in the teaching of reading and writing for teachers from all disciplines and grade levels.

In writing project language, "working with teachers" doesn't simply mean functioning as the go-to resource for a short-term solution; it means providing ongoing coaching and long-term support. Osterman's consulting approach is grounded in the writing project philosophy of coaching, in which the coach and teacher work as equals—as a writing project of two.

For example, Osterman doesn't come in with an agenda of packaged goods, but listens, engages the teacher in a dialogue about what is going on in the classroom, and then shapes a plan to address the teacher's and school's needs and issues.

"Ed has an amazing ability to establish rapport and trust, to ask the right questions and take teachers' work and scaffold it with them," said Norma Vega, who was principal at Bronx International from 2004 to 2006. "He's helped teachers think about lessons as an ELL student might receive them, and then he always gives them the mental space to develop their thoughts. With his approach to coaching, the teachers feel that they are coming up with all of the ideas."

"I don't view professional development as something one does to others, but as something I do with others," said Osterman. "Our motto is that you work with everybody, but you try to go where the work is."

Integrating Writing

Osterman found plenty of work. His consulting work with teachers has included a range of services that vary depending on the needs and experience of each teacher. And whether in a math class, a science class, the school's internship program, or advisories with students, writing is integrated to support learning.

If you are writing in a new language, you need to look at it again, and you need second and third chances at it.

Instead of introducing the kinds of activities that he did at the more traditional schools where he'd worked, such as having students write essays or start writing groups, Osterman knew he had to take a different approach at Bronx International. Still, many of the teaching practices he suggested grew from the writing project's fundamental belief that teachers who ask students to write regularly for a variety of purposes and who view writing as an integral aspect of their instruction inevitably create classrooms of academic rigor.

To start, he collaborated with content area teachers on a range of informal writing approaches designed to support thinking—ways to help students respond to and interpret reading material and engage in text-based academic discussions.

"We'd give students sentence starters so they would have a way to react to a visual or a paragraph and then begin to know how to open up a conversation about a piece of content," he said. "Or we'd model how to respond to reading by jotting questions down, underlining, and annotating text. We always searched for ways to use writing to support learning as well as language development."

Many of the ideas he brought to Bronx International originated at the regular Friday meetings held at the New York City Writing Project for on-site consultants. At these meetings consultants reflect critically upon the work they do with teachers, students, and administrators; explore new developments in the teaching of reading and writing; stay current with theory and research; develop new seminar topics; and try out new workshops.

"The Friday meetings have been my lifeline," Osterman said. "We do a lot of rethinking and learning as we share our experiences and receive advice and possible solutions from colleagues. I have grown enormously by being part of this community of learners."

The after-school seminar series that Osterman offered from 2001 to 2004 at Bronx International followed a format similar to the proven approach of the Friday meetings and supported Osterman's work with teachers during the school day, as he shaped the seminar topics to teacher needs. For example, in its first year the series focused on the theme of literacy, while the second year keyed on ways to use writing to support reading.

Teachers explored such instructional approaches as working with multiple texts around a theme, and Osterman modeled reading groups. Teachers engaged in writing activities and writing groups, brought in student work for discussion, and discussed various readings, among other things. The seminars served teachers from four schools that occupied the same building as Bronx International, so they were enriched by teachers sharing practices from different situations.

The notion of writing to learn has become prevalent at the school.

By his third year at the school, Osterman was able to refine and deepen the ways that the team leaders he was working with used writing with their students. In turn, those teachers helped spread the word, often ushering in newer staff to use writing in similar ways: to introduce units of work, to support reading comprehension, to prepare for oral presentations, to reflect on process and progress, and to demonstrate what has been learned in a variety of forms.

Writing to Learn

Since Bronx International's classrooms aren't teacher centered, but focus on activities to encourage students to talk and interact on multiple levels, the approaches Osterman has worked on with teachers set up a context where students need to use English to engage with each other and to learn about the subject at hand.

The notion of writing to learn has become prevalent at the school. "Writing can be the vehicle for thinking about what you read and making sense of what you read," said Osterman. "Writing can be the thing you do before you enter into a conversation. Writing can be the thing you do to think about what you've learned and how you've learned, and to reflect on what you've done. This is very important for ELL students."

Perhaps most notably, Osterman helped establish the importance of revision, a practice that is essentially embedded in the curriculum of the school. Revision has become an expectation in every content area: for memoirs, document-based question essays, lab reports, and end-of-year portfolios.

"Kids need to revise their work and understand what revision is about," said Osterman. "It's not just about correction but about shifting your ideas and developing your ideas. This is especially important for ELL students because you cannot do good work on one-shot drafts. If you are writing in a new language, you need to look at it again, and you need second and third chances at it."

The Importance of Collaboration

Osterman is careful to note that Bronx International's success isn't solely a result of the writing project's approach, but has come about in part because of the writing project's compatibility with the guiding principles of the school—in particular the emphasis on collaboration, which you could say is part of the writing project's DNA.

"Our work is in sync," said Osterman. "The very fact that the school believes in collaboration between teachers and between students—I can't begin to tell you what an enormous benefit this is."

In fact, the heterogeneous makeup of the classes is designed for student collaboration, and likewise, teachers operate in a collaborative environment often similar to that of a writing project summer institute.

"Professional development at Bronx International takes place to a great extent on the job," reported the Harvard Education Letter. "The teaching teams, for example, typically meet once or twice a week to design their curriculum and discuss students. They also observe each other and periodically present portfolios of their work to their colleagues, just as their students do."

Osterman worked closely with such a team of four teachers. He attended team meetings, describing them as "a leadership seminar in an unofficial way."

"They were very similar to our Friday meetings in some ways," said Osterman.

The meetings also gave Osterman insight into the issues at the school and he shared his thoughts with the school leaders to help build a strong learning community of teachers and administrators, a chief tenet of the writing project.

"He supported me in terms of strategizing and developing professional development so that literacy and writing were integrated into all of the disciplines," said former principal Vega. "He helped make sure the vision of the school stayed alive through reading and writing."

Also, Osterman worked closely with consultants from the Internationals Network and the Institute for Student Achievement, who played a prominent role in the school's development. "It's been a collaborative effort in professional development as well," Osterman said.

"Our work with Bronx International has influenced our work with other schools. We see the unit of change as the school and its leaders, not just the individual teacher," said NYCWP director Wolfe.

As a result of NYCWP's success with Bronx International, its work is expanding.

"We feel proud that we have contributed something valuable to the school's development, and continue to contribute to its excellent results," Wolfe continued. "That work has provided a trove of useable knowledge that we can export to other places. Now we are finishing our first year of work at Flushing International High School and are in conversations with other schools in the network. We're expanding work that is important to us—these schools share our vision of what students are capable of, and they are wonderful collaborators."

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