Hillhouse High School Introduces Innovative Writing Program

Hillhouse Zeroes In On Writing
by Melissa Bailey | Dec 9, 2011
 Courtesy of New Haven Independent
Writing ... again? groaned Fred Redeaux’s honors geometry class.
“Let me give you a news flash,” the teacher responded. “You’ll be writing come Christmas. You’ll be writing when Santa comes. You’ll be writing all next year.”
Redeaux made the announcement at James Hillhouse High School the other day as he pushed forward into the third month of a non-fiction writing requirement designed to boost flagging literacy rates.
The most recent data show 90 percent of the incoming freshman class at Hillhouse is reading below grade level, according to the Achieve3000 non-fiction reading test kids took in November, said David Goldblum, who runs the freshman academy.
Goldblum joined Redeaux and over a dozen other teachers over the summer to volunteer on a new literacy team. They came up with a solution that’s being implemented this fall: Every teacher in every class, from math to art to gym, now has to set aside 10 minutes per class on a non-fiction writing assignment.
“We realized we have a problem in terms of literacy,” Redeaux said. “If they can’t read or write, they’re not going to be successful in college.”
Redeaux, who has taught at Hillhouse for 12 years, said he has found that students’ literacy skills can get in the way of their learning even in math class.
“If you can’t read a word problem, you certainly can’t solve it,” he said.
Redeaux is leading an interdisciplinary team of teachers spearheading a new literacy campaign.
He and his colleagues started off the school year by passing out 4,000 journals, one for each student in each class. The journal stays inside the classroom. Every class period, students take it out and respond to a writing prompt.
Goldblum said the school adopted the method after reviewing research that showed that non-fiction journal writing boosts students’ performance across all subjects.
The writing journals emerged last Thursday afternoon at Redeaux’s honors geometry class, where he led 16 sophomores through a series of problems on volume and surface area. One problem asked students to find the volume of a hemi-spherical soup pot.
“I don’t want you to tell me, I want you to write to me,” Redeaux instructed as students began to blurt out an answer.
One student said she didn’t know where to start.
“Write what you think,” he offered.
“What if I don’t even think?” said the student.
“You think something,” he coaxed.
Students spend 10 to 20 minutes of every class writing, reckoned sophomore Hydiea Johnson.
“At times it can be annoying,” she said, “but it’s nothing now. We’ve been doing it for, like, a month.”
One goal behind the writing requirement is to have students think critically about what they’re learning. Another, of course, is to improve their writing skills.
The emphasis on literacy is visible in Redeaux’s classroom.
“Let me tell you a story,” Redeaux began at one point, perching for a moment on an empty desk. Students looked up, ready of another dose of his humor to get them through the day.
“It was a hot day,” Redeaux recounted with dramatic flare. “I was on the Boston Post Road. I was thinking about coming to school, and I bought some posters.”
He pointed them out to the class: On one side of the room, brightly colored posters show the formulas for finding the area of a triangles and the volume of spheres.
“Why did I spend my hard-earned money?” he asked. “I want you to use them.”
“Why is there a literature poster?” asked one student, perusing the walls. Near where she sat, another set of posters announced proper punctuation and proofreading marks.
“Because we do a lot of writing,” Redeaux said.
“I thought November was non-fiction writing month,” one student said.
Redeaux replied that every month is writing month. For homework, he asked students to explain in writing the answer to a problem they’d solved in class.
When he gets the homework back, he’ll use a writing rubric to assess the work. The rubric, used by all teachers, aims to standardize the way writing is being taught and graded in the school. Click here to view the rubric; Click here for a FAQ on the writing requirement.
In Thursday’s class, not all students in Redeaux’s class moved their pencils during two writing sessions. “Some of them didn’t really understand what strategy to apply for the problem,” he conceded. “That’s why I gave them the opportunity to write” some more at home.
The expectation is for every teacher to spend at least 10 minutes on writing in every class. Redeaux said he’s generally been able to do that, except when testing or assemblies interfere. Administrators have been checking journals in classes across the disciplines to make sure students are getting the writing done.
The initiative was inspired by a school in Brockton, Mass., said Hillhouse Principal Kermit Carolina. He said he met the principal of Brockton High School at a school improvement conference in Chicago and learned of a stunning success story at the urban school of 4,000 kids.
In 1998, 44 percent of the students at Brockton High were failing English on standardized tests and 75 percent were failing math. Staff implemented a school-wide literacy initiative that included a daily writing requirement in every class. Over the course of 12 years, the number of students failing English fell from 44 percent to 5 percent. The story was captured in a CBS special last November—Click on the play arrow to watch.
Carolina said the story hit home for him.
“Literacy is our greatest challenge at Hillhouse,” Carolina said. He said the demographics at Brockton are similar to those at Hillhouse, where 97 percent of students are black or Hispanic and 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a measure of poverty.
Carolina said he returned from the Chicago conference and played an excerpt of the CBS report to a group of teachers. Then they took the initiative to develop a literacy campaign. Teachers volunteered their time over the summer, and continue to do so on Saturdays.
On Nov. 18, Redeaux and other teachers headed up to Brockton High School to learn some first-hand tips. He said he picked up some good ideas to bring back to New Haven as the literacy initiative expands beyond the writing requirement.
In his own class, Redeaux said, the added writing has helped him gauge where students are struggling with literacy, so he can help boost those skills during extra sessions at Saturday Academy.
He remained hopeful that his students will make “tremendous gains.”
“The only direction we can go is up.”