Cynthia Callister’s instructional method is currently being implemented in 10 schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens and is being associated with gains in academic achievement.
Read together. Stop. Encourage. These are the three rules of Unison Reading, the foundation of the Learning Cultures Curriculum developed by Cynthia McCallister, a professor within the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development’s Department of Teaching and Learning. A comprehensive school reform model, McCallister’s instructional method is currently being implemented in 10 schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens and is based on the idea that student-directed and student-engaged activities are the primary context for classroom learning.
“In Unison Reading, students read in sync until one student breaches or stops the group. Maybe it’s a word that he or she doesn’t know, or a concept that’s difficult to understand. The student can knock on the desk or simply say, ‘stop.’” said McCallister. “The conversation then turns to addressing the breach. The reading can’t continue until the breach is resolved. Students have to work together to ensure that everyone understands before moving forward.”
According to McCallister, when students are made aware of high learning expectations and given responsibility, independence, and autonomy in pursuing goals, they are more intent on success and likely to succeed.
And they do succeed.
McCallister’s curriculum was piloted at the Jacob Riis School, a high-poverty, public pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school in lower Manhattan from 2007 until the spring of 2011. Based on the Degrees of Reading Power, a trusted measure of reading comprehension, students in sixth grade and seventh grades more than doubled the national average rate of growth in 2009-2010, and students in the eighth grade outpaced the national average by five times.
“Students are actually articulating their questions, keeping themselves on track and self-assessing their own work,” said Yan Wang, a ninth grade integrated algebra teacher at the High School of Language and Innovation, which implemented Learning Cultures last fall. Wang, a five-year teaching veteran, teaches about 70 students a day, approximately 80 percent of which are English Language Learners (ELLs). “It’s a successful model and it can be applied anywhere. It’s the required components of the model that make students face their academic challenges.”
The Learning Cultures curriculum architecture is strategically designed around discrete subjects or “activity blocks,” including reading, math, science and language arts that allow students to take part in self-initiated, autonomous, and goal-oriented activities. Each activity block is first initiated by teacher-developed lesson plans. Activity blocks are then organized into “learning formats” composed of lessons, work time, conferences, group lessons, and sharing.
According to the New York City Department of Education, 154,466 students are classified as English Language Learners (ELLs). Wang, a native Chinese speaker, attests that her students are becoming leaders, identifying their own goals and the steps they need to take to achieve those goals, and are evolving into researchers and critical independent thinkers. “Growing up, if I were in a classroom with this model, I can only imagine how much my English would improve,” Wang said.
For the 2011-2012 academic school year, the Learning Cultures curriculum was piloted at The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women (UAI), a New York City public school designed to provide high-quality middle and secondary education for typically underserved students in Brooklyn. Based on UAI students' mid-year results on the Degrees of Reading Power, achievement patterns are outpacing those established at Jacob Riis.
“What's significant about the Urban Assembly pilot is that it was done solely on the specifications of the model,” said McCallister. “I was not at all involved in its implementation. That means that Learning Cultures is scalable and successes like this can be replicated in other schools and classrooms.”
The Urban Assembly Schools (UAS) are a network of 21 schools in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn developed to teach the “hardest to reach” students in New York. According to UAS network leader, Jonathan Green, the special education population throughout the 21 schools is significantly higher than each borough average.
“Learning Cultures provides and consistent and coherent approach to literacy for all students and we want to reach all students,” said Green. “Previous curricular models were hit or miss. It’s the rigid and clear guidelines of the model that direct the behaviors of both students and teac
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