Unicorn Governance - Foundation for Economic Education

(This post was written by Janet Price; after a long career with the New York City Department of Education and ISA, Janet is now a leadership and strategy coach and consultant for schools, school districts, and those organizations that work with them.)

Given the huge and competing demands on secondary school teachers, what is the most productive focus for their professional development? Clearly, the way to go is to promote teaching and learning strategies that accomplish several important goals at the same time. Why not support  teachers’ mastery of strategies that facilitate content coverage and academic skill building while simultaneously increasing student engagement and nurturing their growth mindset? And what if the strategy can also help students get better at working and communicating with others?

A sterling example of such a “unicorn” strategy can be found in this video clip of a ninth-grade English class in a low-income area of the Bronx. Most of the students entered the school performing below grade level.

The clip shows a student-run discussion of a question posed by students related to their study of Sophocles’ Antigone. The teacher is off on the side charting the flow of the discussion. Afterward, she shares the chart with the students, who discuss what went well, what could be improved next time, and what grade they have collectively earned this time. They will use their notes from the discussion to write their individual essays.  

This particular class session was filmed in the early spring. The clip includes the teacher explaining how both the discussion strategy and the students’ skills evolved over time. In their  debrief, the students advise the teacher on additional opportunities to practice their discussion skills.  

This is one of a number of strategies that have emerged from ISA’s multiyear work with schools on integrating social, emotional, and academic development (SEAD). Teachers across the nation are expected to address social-emotional learning as well as cover the content and build student achievement. This clip is one example of how that can actually be done through a practical strategy adaptable across grades and subject areas. It takes some intentionality and patience to get it right, but it’s easier than finding an actual unicorn.

As you watch this clip, you may wish to ask yourself:

  • What preparation would my students need to pull off a student-led discussion like the one shown? What lessons/activities might precede this ambitious seminar?
  • What open-ended questions, fashioned around my current curriculum, could trigger robust student-to-student exchanges?
  • How might I productively “layer texts” to deepen student interest in and understanding of the main text as well as to generate a livelier student discussion? (In this clip, the teacher coupled the Sophocles tragedy with a contemporary feminist piece.)