Cultural Literacy: It’s not The Canon

A common concern about the ICS approach to teaching English is that the stories and experiences we teach are part of the Western Canon; ‘dead white men’ as postmodernists like to say.

Setting aside the issue of whether and how children in America are taught the history and culture at the foundation of their country, the assertion misrepresents what we do and believe.

The Canon is ever-evolving and ever-moving. This came to mind as my daughter told me about her life saving class. She just learned CPR. I asked if she knew the chest compression rate was the same as the beats in the BeeGee’s hit, “Staying Alive“?

“Who?,” she replied, quizzically.

Artists, writers, philosophers have always looked to the future through the lens of the past; When”Empire State of Mind” was topping the charts, I explained to my then nine-year old son that Jay Z was paying homage to the past when he rapped:

I’m the new Sinatra, and… since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yea, they love me everywhere

My son was incredulous that Sean Carter from Marcy knew about Sinatra. Or that the skinny Italian from Hoboken was once so edgy that my grandfather threatened to throw out my mother’s collection of his albums. (Thankfully he did not, and we still have them). The Canon is not static.

A few years before Kendrick Lamar was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Texas author Lawrence Wright won it for “Looming Tower,” his account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His most recent book is about his home state.

Discussing Texas culture and its many layers, he writes, the base is “Aggressive, innovative, self-assured.” But as Texas looked outward, it mimicked external influences. This Wright calls layer two. In the third layer the culture absorbs external influences and “returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.”

The best examples of Level Three tend to be origin stories. Beyoncé’s album Lemonade absorbed the street talk and country music and the church choir of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and enlarged the tablet of popular music.

I hope there will always be a Western Canon. We know Shakespeare because his extraordinary insight into the universal human condition makes him as relevant today as when he was alive. Leonardo DaVinci, bastard child of a teenaged mother, understood science hundreds of years before society caught up. Voltaire, Smith, and Locke inspired Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson to imagine a country and government that had never existed.

When we teach systematic phonics and expose kids broadly to history, geography, literature, art, music and science we are not imposing a dominant world view that sanctifies one group. We’re laying a foundation that helps them to make sense of the past and the present. And prepares them for the future.

Advances in Knowledge

At ICS the academic progress we usually monitor is of our students, but today we note Parag Pathak, a 37 year old from Corning, NY. He won the John Bates Clark medal for the best economist under the age of 40.  It’s only slightly less prestigious than the Nobel prize.

While it’s unlikely you know his name, Pathak’s work has had enormous practical impact in cities like Boston – where he teaches at MIT – and New York. Lotteries such as the one you entered to enroll your child at ICS are one way to allocate a scarce resource – good schools – fairly. But Dr. Pathak and his collaborators have been busy developing improved systems and studying their effect.

Kevin Bryan, a Professor at the University of Toronto, writes that Pathak labors in:

an area where theorists have had incredible influence on public policy, notably via Pathak’s PhD Advisor, the Nobel prize winner Al Roth and his proteges like Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez, as well as the work of 2015 Clark medal winner Roland Fryer. Indeed, this group’s work on how to best allocate students to schools in an incentive-compatible way – that is, in a way where parents need only truthfully state which schools they like best – was adopted by the city of Boston, to my knowledge the first-time this theoretically-optimal mechanism was used by an actual school district. As someone born in Boston’s contentious Dorchester neighborhood, it is quite striking how much more successful this reform was than the busing policies of the 1970s which led to incredible amounts of bigoted pushback.

Pathak’s family came to the US from Kathmandu, Nepal. Atila Abdulkadiroglu and Tayfun Somnez are originally from Turkey. Roland Fryer grew up in challenging circumstances in Lewisville, Texas. At a time when many Americans are anxious about the impact of immigration, trade, and expanding opportunity for previously marginalized groups, it is quite something to reflect on the impact of this talented, young, diverse group of researchers on educational opportunity in America.

Although it is supposed to work like Boston’s, Pathak examined New York City’s [high] school choice program to check that belief. (Critical thinking!)

He concluded that parents do not choose irrationally, but they value the quality of the other children at the school over the school’s academic effectiveness, which may be hard to judge. This creates a perverse incentive for the school’s administration to allocate resources to screening applicants more carefully – in order to get higher quality students – rather than to improving instructional quality. Because of Pathak’s work we know more and have chances to improve this fraught time in kids’ and parents’ lives.

With a lottery as our only entry method, ICS has no incentive or way to screen applications. And as you know, we focus a lot of resources on instructional quality.  But what makes me especially happy is to live in a country where economists like Parag Pathak are given the chance to think broadly about difficult social issues and develop solutions that will improve outcomes and opportunities for all our kids.

Tough Love

In 1948 Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “education has a two-fold function to perform… one is utility and the other is culture.” At ICS we refer to these functions as knowledge and socio-emotional learning  On the wall outside the music room our children see that King warned us that “intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

This advice came to mind when my younger daughter took a Tae Kwan Do belt test in Friday night. Apart from the physical benefits that come from martial arts, Tae Kwan Do also seeks to inculcate character values similar to ours at ICS: courtesy, integrity, perseverance and self-control, among them.

Before the test began, her teacher, Master Kwok asked the students if they were living up to the Tae Kwan Do values. “Did any of you greet your teacher when you entered the room?”

Silence. A lot of staring at feet.

“Do you think I should proceed with the best test if you have not even learned the first value? What does it mean to be courteous?”

A parent sitting near me could not hear what was going on and asked “Why does he seem so mad?”

William Kwok

I explained that apart from the forms and strength, Master Kwok expected them to learn values that would reflect well on themselves, and on him as their teacher. 

The tension continued as he asked more questions. He turned to the assistant teacher, asking what this situation suggested. She seemed uncomfortable.

After a few more comments, he agreed to start the test. The children acquitted themselves well, demonstrating precise forms and strong kicks. But afterwards as he handed out the belts he warned them that living the values of his studio was as important to him as their technical knowledge. “You can ask [name of kid]. He was a red belt with three black stripes and I dropped him back to white. He had to earn everything again.”

 *  *  *

Greater appreciation for and acceptance of diversity is a positive aspect of our society in the past 60 years. Writing this post on a Saturday morning from a coffee shop at the corner of 87th St and 4th Ave in Bay Ridge, I see Arab moms in headscarves, Chinese grandparents pushing shopping carts, and white kids in Rangers tee-shirts. Thomas Jefferson wrote said it was ‘self-evident’ that all men were created equal but we have long struggled to live up to this ideal.

As we become more open and accepting, the challenge is to simultaneously remain committed to common values that bind us together. When we hesitate to impose these values, for fear we are shaming or excluding, we tell kids these values are not really important to us. 

Directors of Culture

The Family Organization adult book club is reading David Brook’s The Road to Character.  Whether you can join them for the discussion (Tuesday May 1st) or not, the book offers yet another variant on this universal lesson and rewards your effort.  

It’s no fun setting your alarm to wake up 15 minutes earlier, or enduring the whining of a child to whom you have to say “No, it’s a school night.” I’ve got three of my own, and I wish I could tell you they become courteous and full of perseverance right at the end of 5th grade. 

But as Shakespeare wrote, sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind. Even at 8:02 in the morning.

Lottery Overview

Our lottery was drawn on April 3rd, at 1:30 pm at our school. Results were emailed out on Saturday.

The email you received contains specific instructions about next steps, including our enrollment process and information sessions where families can see our building, ask specific questions, and meet other potential ICS families prior to committing.

Our Family Organization will host adult-only events at 6:00 pm on April 26th as follows:

  • Fort Greene: Putnam’s Pub & Cooker  – 419 Myrtle Ave
  • Brooklyn Heights/Downtown Brooklyn: Circa Brewing Co. – 141 Lawrence St
  • Prospect Heights/Park Slope: Morgan’s BBQ, – 267 Flatbush Ave
  • Bed-Stuy/Crown Heights: Chez Oskar  – 310 Malcolm X Blvd

The Details

As of April 1st we received the following applications:

Kindergarten 1st – 4th Grade Total
CSD 13 242 65 307
Non-CSD 13 274 236 501
Total 516 301 817

State law requires us to give preference to families residing in CSD 13. Their names will be drawn randomly, but before the names of families who do not live in the district.

If a child with a sibling is offered a seat, we must offer a seat to his or her brother/sister, even if they have a lower number in the lottery.

Waitlist Policy

Children to whom we cannot offer a seat will go onto our wait list in the order of their lottery number. When seats become available we will call once and email you twice; you will have 24 hours to reply. If you do not respond, your name will be removed from the waitlist.

Families can join the waitlist at any time.


School Safety

Lockdown drills have become a sad element of school culture. The shooting in Parkland, Florida was particularly upsetting as the killer exploited students’ natural reaction to a fire alarm to increase the number of deaths he could cause, and the police response was not ideal.

As with any terrorist incident, these senseless deaths provoke emotional responses. We are human and terrorism exploits this.

Our families are diverse and have responded differently to this news. Some discuss it with their kids, others shield them. As an elementary school we must consider your children’s emotional capacity, while respecting your choices.

I pointed out previously that we live in one of the safest large cities in the country, Crime rates have been dropping in Brooklyn, consistently in the last decade, even as we ended the ‘stop and frisk’ program that some claimed was integral to our increased security.

Further context can be found in this story from the non-partisan news site, which quantifies key elements of gun violence in America. Shootings like Columbine and Parkland, while horrid, are far from the biggest gun violence risk we face. By a long shot.

Reviewing the history, one sees that school shootings have taken place almost exclusively in middle and high schools, perpetrated almost exclusively by current or former students who had motives (albeit twisted), and access. David Ropiek writes in the Washington Post that since 1999 there has been a 1 in 614 million chance of a child being killed in  school shooting.

The chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is extraordinarily low. Not zero — no risk is. But it’s far lower than many people assume, especially in the glare of heart-wrenching news coverage after an event like Parkland. And it’s far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports

Ellen and I have consulted with neighboring charter elementary schools, reached out to the 84th precinct, and spoken with a retired NYPD detective who now heads corporate security for a large financial services company. The key thing you can do as parents to support our policies is to follow instructions at pickup and drop off.  We have spoken with the teachers about their key steps as well.

Ropeik notes that school shootings don’t happen in isolation but in the context of worrying news about all sorts of things. Our judgement suffers from the “mean world syndrome” arising from relentless headlines about war, terrorism and the flu. He concludes:

Just as surely as there will be another school shooting, it will prompt another flood of outrage and fear. That fear, while understandable, will distract us from greater threats and lead to behaviors that do greater harm. The real lesson we need to learn is this: We need not just reasonable gun control, but also a bit more self-control over our emotions and instincts if we want to keep ourselves and our kids safer.

Technology in Schools

Prospective parents often ask how ICS exposes kids to technology. We offer a counter-intuitive answer:  “Not much.” Our experience is that the impact of most educational technology is oversold.

This weekend I read a provocative essay by a local mom, who notes there is little evidence that technology in the classroom aids poor kids, whose disadvantage is often used to justify large spending plans.

Talk of a ‘digital divide’, she says, is misleading:

The real digital divide in this country is not between children who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It’s between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success. 

At school, both for ICS kids and my own, I see time and attention spans sliced into ever smaller bits; kids who struggle to find the deeper meaning in written words and conversation. In 1984 George Orwell predicted the government would use constant noise to prevent citizens from thinking. The irony is we have done it to ourselves.

We are not Luddites. Our partners at Amplify are looking at a range of ways in which we can use technology to better assess kids’ comprehension. But as you see the picture to the left, the adult is talking to the child, not simply hooking him up to a screen. As we see impact we are willing to invest more. But poorly conceived school-wide or district-wide programs rarely succeed.

Another area of interest for technology is in programming and engineering-like activities. The Family Organization is partnering with the League of Young Inventors on one such program.

Additional screen time leads to increased attention deficit disorder and other academic issues, according to the essay I cited above.

In general, families can best support their kids by putting down the computers and phones, and talking. Or reading a book together. Set limits (for yourself too!) and stick to them. It is not easy, but the impact is high and the investment will pay dividends for both your child and our society.


How Long?

Psalnyc elementary schoolm 13 begins by asking “How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?”

The question seems apposite in light of the latest study from the New School, publishers of the popular InsideSchools website that helps many parents to pick schools. The Times covered it today, noting:

the poorer students were, the lower they tended to score on the test, even when they went to the same school as wealthier children.

Take P.S. 8, …  in Brooklyn Heights, which the Center for American Progress identified last year as having one of the richest Parent Teacher Associations in the country, and which has a relatively diverse student body. While 64 percent of its students passed the state math test in 2016, compared with 36 percent of students citywide, black students at the school were nearly a full proficiency level behind their white peers. (emphasis added)

I raised this same concern three years ago, observing that average Black-White achievement gap in seven desirable Brooklyn elementary schools was 37 percentage points in English and 43 in math.

At the time I wrote to one Brooklyn mom that until we wake up every morning asking, “why is this?” we’re fooling ourselves that we’re solving the problem.

It seems we are still asleep.

A co-author of the New School’s study told the Times her study “shows diversity, and whether a school does or does not have diversity. But there’s a big leap between having diversity and having integration.”


ICS kids have yet to take state tests. We’ve made our overall view of the role of state testing data very clear. That is not the same as asserting that ICS will not face a gap. We know where the challenges lie.

But we’re not hiding from them.

A ray of hope in the New School report is a diverse-by-design charter school in Cobble Hill, where the economic gap does not predict the academic gap. Many of you will know this school is part of the Success Academy network. There’s an interactive site here where you can look up individual schools and districts.

Meanwhile, we continue to invest in our children and their families. With high quality instruction, emotional support, and harassing messages to please get your kids to school by 8:00.  Because we believe all kids can succeed, and income must not be allowed to predict outcome.

Know Your Ancient Civilizations

Veterans of 1st grade will recall we invest several weeks learning about ancient civilizations. Like the King in Alice in Wonderland we think history makes more sense when you “begin at the beginning and go on ’til you come to the end.”

As parents know far-too-well, time is quite abstract for young children. Many educators believe kids can’t learn history at this age as it is not concrete enough. We know they can, they just need support.

After a class presentation on monotheism, I recently explained to a 1st grader that David, the famous King of Israel, lived a long time ago.

“You mean like the 80’s?,” she asked?

Even longer, I explained.

Her classmate chimed in, suggesting, “Like the 2500’s?” That’s more like it, I nodded.

The stories of the Babylonians, Egyptians, Aztecs, and Israelites might seem to offer little more than the answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. But their cultures form the foundations on which ours rests, whether in art, literature, technology, math or philosophy. The fact that you can read this blog post is a sign of our debt to our ancient ancestors’ systems of writing. (Something many ancient American civilizations lacked.)

Ancient cultures frequently borrowed from each other – Our third graders understand how the Romans recycled the Greek gods. But these civilizations also had distinct features, as one of our 1st graders recently explained.

This week his mom recounted seeing a paper on which her son’s name was written, and underneath an unusual script. “What’s this,” she asked?

In the tradition of families everywhere, the older sibling, who does not attend ICS, blurted out: “It’s hieroglyphics. He spelled his name.”

The ICS student responded promptly, “No, it’s not, it’s cuniform.”

“Same thing,” interjected the older child.

“No it’s not,” replied the younger one. “Cuneiform is Mesopotamian and hieroglyphics are Egyptian.”

If you’re struggling to tell the difference in the pictures in this post, ask one of our first graders. They may not know (yet) exactly when the Sumerians and the Israelites lived. But there’s a lot that they do know. And bit by bit, maybe even without you realizing it, they are building insight and understanding that will serve them for the rest of their lives.


On Gratitude

Future ICS student ready for his 1st Christmas

As I look back on the year, I am continually grateful for the opportunity I was given to start ICS. The support and faith of our families, the staff and outside stakeholders has helped us overcome so many challenges.

This is very comforting as the world outside our doors remains unsettling. We live in a world increasingly incapable of agreeing on the simplest of things. I believe this arises, in no small part, from the anemic state of public education. Our failure to build a foundation upon which our children can make sense of the world around them is disheartening.

Of course, ours is not the first society to confront this threat. As in the past, I recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s night journey on Dec 24th, guided by ghosts of the past, present and future. In the present, Scrooge spies two small figures, hidden among the Spirit’s feet:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.

Scrooge asks the Ghost “Whose children are these?”

They are Man’s, said the Spirit, looking down upon them. And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

I think I found the answer

Our community continues to demonstrate many ways to erase ignorance. Just three examples from the last week:

  • Reading about the Roman empire one of our third graders noticed the map in his book was mis-labeled and called it out. “That’s why close reading is important,” he told Ellen. (We closed December with a full Roman holiday, aided by support from many of our 3rd grade families, for which I am grateful.)
  • A kindergartener, inspired by our 12 Days of Kindness program, made a card for his letter carrier, and also wanted to ‘re-gift’ a scarf from his grandmother. The mail carrier told mom this was the first time she’d received a thank you from a child.
  • A teacher whose grandparents always make a gift to a child in need at this time, donated her check to support our afterschool scholarship program.

Academically and emotionally ICS continues to light candles rather than curse the darkness. And for that I am indebted to Ellen, our teachers, our Trustees, and our families.

May the coming days be joyful and restorative. See you on the 3rd!

What To Make Of State Tests

In April our third graders will take tests in math and English. They are required by federal law, and administered to public school students across the state.

Ellen and I will host at talk on Tuesday January 16th at 8:30 am at 55 Willoughby to review the details of how the tests work. We encourage all third-grade families to attend.

Below, I have laid out our philosophy. I have written about these tests since 2012. My thoughts have not changed:

  • State tests are imperfect, if well-intended,
  • State tests are one of several ways to assess progress,
  • State tests are only as stressful as we adults chose to make them.

Great Idea, Poor Execution

For decades, we rarely asked how well schools worked, especially for kids with disabilities, in poverty or of color. Every year we spent more money on schools. SAT scores showed it was having little impact.

From this arose more demanding learning standards (the Common Core) and annual tests, with results broken out along key demographic lines. The idea was to confirm that kids learned what the standards said they should know.

But New York’s English standards alone run to 30 pages. The 45-50 questions a test maker can ask won’t cover all the standards. There are better ways to test, but they are costly.

Thus, the first thing to understand is these tests check only a sample of the things the state says kids should know. We will never compromise our teaching by focusing on the few standards the state checks.

The second thing to understand is that annual tests are proficiency exams, designed to measure students in the middle. Each year experts pick a passing score which is nothing more than an informed guess. The tests also can’t detect small, but important, changes among the highest and lowest performers.

Ultimately there are very few things we – and you – learn from these state tests that we did not already know.

Imperfect as they are, the test results offer a basic level of insight about how the school system (as a whole) is performing. They help our authorizer at SUNY to judge the relative performance of the 170 schools in their portfolio. For individual parents (and teachers), however, they provide little additional insight above what work brought home, report cards, and conversations already tell you.

And despite myriad flaws, annual testing has shone some light on students who were ignored in the past. Anna Allenbrook, Principal of the Brooklyn New School, at the heart of the opt out movement, concedes that “parents and schools want to know how their children are doing and standardized exams are one way of measuring that.”

They just don’t provide great insight to school leaders or parents regarding individual students.

Multiple Measures

Given these imperfections we judge student progress in many different ways. Exit tickets, spelling tests, group projects, unit tests and our internal standardized assessments are but a few of them. We start checking in September and continue until June. The report cards you get reflect these multiple measures, as do the conversations you have with your child and his or her teacher over the course of the year.

Where the data show us that a child is struggling, we design interventions and monitor progress more closely. Where they show us that a child is accelerating, we design greater challenges and push the child to do more. Long before April of their 3rd grade year.

Reading is the area where you can have the greatest influence; better comprehension even improves their math results. Turn off the TV, confiscate the smart phone, and ensure your child always has a few good books to read. Ask your local librarian for ideas.

Another way to help is to praise your child for her effort, not for being ‘smart.’ Cognitive psychologists say that kids who are told that results come from hard work, not lucky genes, overcome setbacks more easily and achieve better grades.

Lastly, get them to bed early. Sleep is critical to children’s health and growth. Research shows it’s also when their brain consolidates and organizes all the information we expect them to master.

It’s All about the Adults

Given the flaws in state tests, and the wide range of data available to us already, it is a wonder that school leaders chose to get so worked up about them.

Ellen is in classrooms every day, observing teachers and providing feedback. She’s not waiting for state test results to decide if a teacher needs extra support.

Your child’s teacher is also in class every day. She has a ton of data and experience that helps her to see where your child is making progress and where he or she is struggling. She’s not waiting for state test results to decide if a child needs extra support.

For a few days this April our third graders will spend a few hours on reading and math tests. It will be a bit different than a typical day, but we’ll keep is as normal as we can.

And then we’ll get back to what we know works best: A coherent, content-rich curriculum that builds background knowledge and cultural literacy. A socio-emotional curriculum that fosters intrinsic motivation and self-respect. Physical education and movement. Art, Music and Spanish. And love for one another.