As the head of four charter schools in New York City, Ron Chaluisan is aiming high. And he wants his students to do that, too.
“For me, the big question is: how do you constantly get kids to be thinking?,” Caluisan says. “They’re asking questions. There’s an internal dialog going on. They should be tired because they’re thinking.”
His students are poor kids, minority kids, immigrant kids. He wants them to acquire far more than basic skills in reading, writing and math — even though these are skills that many of them lack, despite advancing year by year through the school system.
He wants his students to be critical thinkers and to gain the habits of mind and industry that people need to succeed in a fast-changing world. He wants them ready for the 21st century.
We recently profiled one of the schools that’s putting Chaluisan’s ideas into practice, the New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities II, or Hum II, in the Bronx (story here).
When we spoke with Caluisan last month, he told us much more about his ideas for education than we were able to run in that earlier story. Here is more of our interview with him.
Born and raised in the Bronx, and a graduate of Harvard, Chaluisan heads the charter schools run by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit that’s helping scores of New York City public schools raise their game, mainly by giving close instructional support to teachers and principals in almost 80 New York schools. In addition to that work, New Visions runs four charter high schools and plans to open two more next fall. They’re all part of the public school system.
Chaluisan was a teacher from 1983 to 1997, always in New York schools except for a three-year stint in California, and a principal for three years. He joined New Visions in 2002.
We spoke with Chaluisan on February 15 in his office in the West Village.
IFL: You’ve got ambitious aims for students. But many of the kids who enter your high schools are lagging years behind in reading and math. How do you reconcile the ambitions with the reality? What exactly do you do to “constantly get kids to be thinking”?
RC: The question becomes: how do you do it with a group of kids who, for 13 years, mostly have been told that they’re not successful in one way or another?
In a weird way, you have to first get them to a place where you get them first to be students: what does it mean to be a student? And then, how do you create a whole bunch of small opportunities for kids to experience success?
Because if they don’t know what they’re working for, they’re less likely to work.
You can never tell a 14-year-old kid, the kids that we work with, a kid coming in with a 4th grade reading level or a 3rd grade reading level, and say, “Do this because it’s important, because it’s school.” That’s not where the kids are today.
How do you get to the kids’ understanding that success can build on success, can build on success — and it’s something they can use now? That it’s not something that’s useful four or five or 10 years from now, or that it’s for a good job? For right this second, how can I get you to do something so that, if you do well, you can see the advantage of it today?
And that’s a very different mentality for teachers.
You hear teachers say to students all the time: “You need to do well for the exam in June, you need to do well in order to get into college, you need to do well in order to get a job.” But, do they need to do well in order to do something tomorrow? So we’ve been working really really hard on this.
Kids need to experience success. They need to get success, to understand what it means. Not just to feel good. (Although, yes, there’s a piece of that.)
Let me share a story, it was a real intense learning experience for me.
I danced as a kid. But then I became a principal and I was 33 years old, and I had stopped dancing at 25 or 26. But there was a production I wanted to be in, and I passed the audition — and I hadn’t danced for eight years. At the first rehearsal, I was horrible. Absolutely horrible. I went up to the director and I said, “You’re probably wondering why in the world you picked me for this. And I want to assure you that when we need to be ready, I’ll be ready.”
I saw what I had to do. I had the tape. I knew what I had to rehearse and work on — and I was fine.
And I went back to school, and I said, “I was so clear. I knew what I needed to do in order to accomplish this. It was absolutely clear in my head. Do our kids know that — do our kids know what they have to do to succeed?”
I said, “We don’t do that kind of work with our kids. We don’t make explicit to them and show them, and have them experience, that if you do this and this and this, you can do that.”
And it’s such a basic thing that we take for granted. For our kids, it’s daunting to them. they don’t connect those pieces.
If I sit down and I try to write something, and I just put everything down, and then I rearrange the stuff and read it out loud and hear what it’s saying, and I ask someone, what is it saying — if I do those things, I’ve going to have a well-written piece.
It’s not like that for them. For them, it’s like, if I’m going to be a good writer, I’m going to sit and I’ll write. Because that’s what they think writers do: it’s amazing the moment it goes on the page. They don’t think about rewriting, reading it out loud, sharing it — none of that. They’ve never made that connection.
They absolutely believe and I’ve seen this, I’ve talked to so many hundreds of kids over my 30 years, they will tell you I’m not a good writer, because when I sit down and write, it’s horrible. Like, there’s no process to it.
And it’s the same thing for test-taking and reading and presentation. They think, ‘The people who are successful just do it. And I can’t do it, so I’m not successful. And you’re going to ask me to take this test, and I’ve never been successful on tests and I’m not a great test-taker and I’m never going to be a great test taker.’
IFL: Can you give us an example of how you’ve built up someone’s feeling that they can succeed?
RC: Sure, but we’re at the beginning stages of it.
A teacher will say, ‘OK I want you to create a commercial that shows blah blah blah.’ Now, creating a commercial isn’t something that most people do. So, first of all, you say, ‘You have 30 seconds. And now, sometimes you have a direct narrative, or a visual with voice0over. And how many scenes…?” So you break it down. And then you help kids do those pieces so they have the greatest chance of being successful.
You’re working through it with them. And you’re helping them do it. And when they’ve actually produced it, they can say, “I did this.” That’s a really important piece.
Are we 100 percent successful? No.
IFL: The point isn’t to create commercial writers, obviously. But it is to do what?
RC: It is for the student to create a strategy, follow a strategy and complete a project.
The language that we use is: a kid needs to know stuff well enough so they can ask a question. They need to be able to find information so they can answer that question. Then they need to put something together — they need to show their knowledge — and then they have to be able to defend their choices.
It’s not even, necessarily, what’s the right answer? It’s what the best answer you have now, given the information you have.
It’s a real shift. It’s not, “Get these eight questions right on the test.” It’s, “Here’s a question. Here’s some information. What’s the best answer you can put together, given the information that you have?” And then, “How are you going to put it together, and how are you going go show us that you actually have applied it to something else?”
In a classroom, the people who should be working the hardest are the kids. They should be making and doing stuff. They should be arguing. It’s not the teacher. the teacher’s work should be in the planning, 80 percent of it.
If I’m evaluating a teacher, my goal in evaluating the teacher’s work is to look at the planning. When I go into a classroom, I don’t want to see the teacher doing something. I’m looking to see what the kids are doing.
If the kids are sitting there quietly and the teachers are acting, it’s not a good class. It’s not the class I would want my kid in. I want my kid to be arguing and presenting and writing, you know, because at the end of the day, when I think about what I do on a day to day basis, and what i see successful people do … and it doesn’t matter the job you’re doing — I look at the TSA [Transportion Security Administration], it drives me insane every time I go into an airport, because my brain is going, “How could this be more efficient?” and it seems like no one’s asking that question, and it’s a big mess everywhere, except for a few examples where someone smart seems to have figured it out.
And so there’s room for efficiency and effectiveness in every single job. And whatever kids choose to do, I want them to enter life that way. To think: How can I contribute to making whatever I’m doing better?
If we can accomplish that, it’s an amazing thing. And that’s where you get joy: “Wow, I thought of that, I made this better.”
Story and photo by Howard Goodman
- A high school that aims to take struggling students beyond the basics (innovationsforlearning.wordpress.com)