New York City Urban Debate League

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When debate and students come together, great debates happen.

"All students can be great debaters." -Erik Fogel
“All students can be great debaters.” -Erik Fogel

This month’s blog presents the New York City Urban Debate League (NYCUDL) and how it has flourished despite few resources. It’s been rated among the nation’s top after-school programs by many leading education organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, National Council for the Humanities, and First Lady Michelle Obama calling it, “one of the top arts and humanities based programs in the country.”

First Lady Michelle Obama Honors 2012 NAHYP Awardees at White House
Read more about First Lady Michelle Obama honoring 2012 NAHYP Awardees at White House

According to Erik Fogel who is the driving force behind the NYCUDL,

The Great Debaters program is so successful and so simple and can be replicated to any school.  All students can be Great Debaters!

Why debate?

With our nation slipping behind many other countries in the subjects of math and science (2013, CNN) one may find it hard to justify a course of study with no immediate application to tests on basic skills.  Unless you’re a lawyer there are very few jobs that will pay you to research and argue a subject.

So again, why debate?

Debate engages students on a deeper and more meaningful level than most classes because it forces students to engage in more serious subject matter and view important issues from many angles.

Simply put, it teaches a range of skills that are applicable in almost any situation.

What type of knowledge, skills and abilities does debate support?

  • Rigorous and Critical ThinkingDebate participation promotes problem-solving skills, viewing issues from multiple angles and teaches students to synthesize a large amount of information.
  • Master Multiple Subject AreasDebate students learn about current events, politics, philosophy, critical studies, economics, environmental studies, international studies, geography, culture, race, and public policy.
  • Listening and Note-taking SkillsDebate requires that you become an excellent listener and good note taker.  This helps students learn the material more profoundly and helps them to get better grades.
  • Cognitive and Academic Vocabulary SkillsDebate students often read and write at a level 25% higher than their peers.
  • Mental and Emotional MaturityDebate forces students to engage each other in a mature and professional manner.  It teaches students how others think, how to stand in the face of adversity, and ultimately teaches them self-confidence.
  • Academic and Professional AchievementThe average debate student is in the top 10% of their class.  Ninety-five percent go on to college and many debaters go on to have very productive professional lives and tend to be more politically active and engaged.

A great many leaders and important thinkers participated in debate. A few famous examples include Justice Sonya Sotomayor, and President’s Kennedy and Johnson.

…I joined the debating team…. That’s where I developed my speaking skills and learned to think on my feet…. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere.”

-Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler

So what does a model debate program look like?

Debate competitions traditionally have been reserved for only the schools that could afford the very steep price tag.  This means that the vast majority of inner city public schools lack the debate opportunities of their more well off counterparts. But if you want to see the exception that proves the rule, one need look no further than the New York City Urban Debate League (formerly the Bronx Urban Debate League) to find an ideal model.  From humble beginnings in a single school in the Bronx, they have since expanded to over thirty-five schools, covering the entire New York City area with plans to expand further. Mr. Fogel said, “Thanks to the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation we were able to expand our debate team to the entire Bronx and New York City by offering free debate tournaments to all students.”

Essential components of the program include outreach to schools and a wonderful website – but that’s not all. Once a school is identified, “we meet with schools and customize a plan to start a program (recruitment of debaters, curriculum, and teacher training). We match paid and/or volunteer high school, college, and alumni debaters to each school to serve as assistant coaches.”

The League offers specialized programs including policy debate, public forum debate, parliamentary debate, a girls debate league and more. Along with community and school efforts, NYCUDL also holds a free debate camp each summer. Alumni of the program receive college and career advising.

So who is the New York City Urban Debate League (NYCUDL)?

The NYCUDL, led by Erik Fogel consists of a collection of teachers, administrators and other volunteers. They meet with schools on an individual basis to plan customized programs, build a debate curriculum which includes hundreds of files of arguments and evidence, recruit student debaters, train teachers and other volunteers, and organize leagues. They provide the schools with free debate resources (books, handouts, lessons, and videos). Additionally, with all that they also hold two free tournaments every month, more often than not with free transportation to and from schools.  Fogel explains, “These tournaments are foremost educational and motivational and so we distribute numerous awards. We provide support for member schools to participate in city, regional and national tournaments for free.”

So what has the impact been thus far?

One need only look at the NYCUDL’s yearly report to know that any resources spent on them is well worth the cost.

  • Originally planned to expand into three to five schools, NYCUDL expanded to over twenty.
  • Instead of offering a few free tournaments, they offer whole free leagues including an after school league, a weekend league, and a young woman’s league.
  • NYCUDL teams have won the City Championship, State Championship, and 3rd, 4th and 5th places at the National Championships (a first for that Title I school).

Most importantly, students in the NYCUDL have 100% college acceptance among their graduating seniors. In fact, NYCUDL alumni often win multiple scholarships. If those facts don’t inspire a debate about the academic enrichment efforts you are implementing in your school, perhaps they should.

Considering starting a debate enrichment program?

To learn more about NYCUDL and the strategies highlighted in this project, visit these resources.

Beyond the Book: Opening Classrooms to Close the Knowledge Gap

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Addressing the Knowledge Gap

Among the many challenges facing us in education one of our most formidable foes is the comprehension gap, across all content areas, between students of low socioeconomic status and those of high socioeconomic status.

English: France in 2000 year (XXI century).
Despite the change in technology and time, many educators still rely on textbooks. Are there better ways of improving student literacy in content areas? English: France in 2000 year (XXI century). Future school. France, paper card. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[T]his neglect of [content] knowledge is a major source of inequity, at the heart of the achievement gap between America’s poor and non-poor”

E.D. Hirsch, The Case for Bringing Content Into The Language Arts Block and for a Knowledge Rich Curriculum Core for All Children American Educator, Spring 2006.

The Importance of Literacy Skills

While there are many factors that attribute to poor performance, one of the chief offenders is a lack of literacy skills.  This is often noted at the college level when students are forced to take non-credit developmental education classes just to catch up to the basics.  This both demoralizes the student as well as extending the amount of time they have to spend in, and thus pay for, college.

Educators also need strong content area literacy skills. (Photo credit: Broken Sword)

By expanding literary sources, however, we expand the sphere of knowledge surrounding the content areas.  Students can gain a broader context of how a given subject fits into the larger narrative of the real world.

“If they want their students to learn complex new concepts in different disciplines, they [content teachers] often have to help their students become better readers…”

Chris Tovani in her text Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?


Peer Assistance and Review (PAR): A Teacher Development Project

Teachers need to move beyond textbooks to increase their literary skills so that they can better communicate their subject to students. So how do we get a teacher to step away from the science textbook and into some Sagan or Hawking?  

One of the ways we can work to address the knowledge gap is through the model of Peer Assistance and Review. In order to address inequity, our featured project at The School of the Future has done just that. With a Teacher Development Grant from McCarthey Dressman, The School of the Future helped improve the overall literacy of their teachers and subsequently their students.

Supports for Improved Content Literacy for Educators and Students

  • Collaboratively Created Curriculum
    Teachers in high school met after school and collaborated to develop, create, and implement a curriculum that would enhance their students’ ability to read and write in the content areas (History, Math, Science and Technology) across the 11th and 12th grade.
  • Shared Texts Across Content Areas
    The group worked together to come up with a list of shared texts across content areas.  While history and science have obvious literary sources outside the textbook, with a subject like math the teachers could study the history of math and biographies of mathematicians to give a wider scope to how the content area applies to the real world.
  • Content Literacy Support
    Included was a training program for inexperienced or ineffective teachers to improve their literacy skills across their content area, specifically focusing on grades 11-12 to start.

The Difference: Educator Driven Approach

Literacy Today
Literacy Today (Photo credit: dennyatkinson)

The difference between this program and previous initiatives aimed at teaching reading in the content areas was that previous efforts were top down administrative mandates that focused on ensuring uniformity in how reading, whereas the current effort was focused on expanding the teacher’s actual knowledge base.  Past “one size fits all” approaches to teaching reading in the content areas failed to account for the fact that students read different types of texts in every content area.
The unique aspect to this program is its need for a personal “buy-in” from the teachers.  Not a monetary buy-in, but those teachers who want to get involved will need to be willing to pull up their sleeves and put a little more time on the table.

The Impact: Students Identify and Analyze Printed and Non-Printed Texts

What have the teachers accomplished with this project?

During year one, five teachers (half the 11th/12th grade team) studied professional literature in their content areas to be able to implement a plan for teaching students to independently identify and analyze multiple non-fiction printed texts and non-print texts, at the student’s own instructional level, appropriate for the content of the class. Classroom visits and observations of each other in the form of Lesson Study, analysis of student growth, refinement of practice, creation of videos, continued throughout the year. In year two, participants in year one become “Anchor” teachers and shared best practices with the half of the team that was not previously involved (“Innovator Teachers”). For year three, the 11th/12th grade teacher team will mentor the 9th/10th grade team.

PAR provides teachers with the opportunity to work collaboratively to improve professional development.  But it is not easy; successful implementation of PAR requires commitment, time, resources, cooperation and flexibility from the teachers involved.  In successful PAR projects teachers play a key role in the support, assistance and review of their colleagues.  Everyone has to pull their weight for the program to be successful

Teachers can look to existing program models, such as the California Peer Assistance and Review program to get some idea on how they can best start their own.   Those who have experienced it emphasize that PAR models should only be used as reference tools, not as fixed templates, which could hinder the development and implementation of plans tailored to meet individual schools and students needs and goals.

Learn more about PAR

Application now available

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Applications are now being accepted on our website for this year’s application period (January 15 – April 15, 2013).

Please apply early as the number of applications which may be submitted is limited.

You can learn more about McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation’s 2012-2013 Grant Recipients here.

Here’s to another year of enriching and inspiring both learners and educators!

For more information, visit

BOOM! A Writing Program With a Mentoring Focus

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When student publishing and mentoring come together, student engagement and writing skills explode!

A screenshot of the BOOM! Magazine website.
Students at Manuel High are supported by mentors to develop both literacy and life skills at BOOM! Magazine

When students write for an authentic audience, research has shown that they take more pride in their work. Throughout a student’s school life, they are writing stories, book reports, research reports, “What I Did Last Summer,” etc., but it is often for a very small audience, perhaps just the teacher.

This is not to say that this writing is not important in the learning process. However, it becomes a different kind of writing project when you are actually writing for a real audience and writing for a real purpose.

According to Anne Rodier, “Over time we have discovered that our students are just like us: They have to grow into being writers. They have to believe that what they have to say is important enough to bother writing. They have to experience writing for real audiences before they will know that writing can bring power.”  In this blog you will learn about an innovative program called BOOM!

How are mentoring and literacy combined in an after-school program?

BOOM! is an after-school program and literary magazine produced by students at Manual High School in Denver, Colorado for their fellow students and their community. The mission of BOOM! is to develop the writing skills of students in a positive, mentoring environment that equips them for success in high school and beyond.

After School Program Model
Two afternoons a week BOOM! writers work with community volunteers (many whom are professional writers) who tutor them as they write articles and fictional stories. The students sign contracts with their volunteers to ensure their attendance and timely completion of their articles. They also work with professional graphic designers to design the 30-page publication. A few of the article categories include: The Pulse of ManualWhat’s Good in the HoodWe Got Game, and Creative Fiction.

BOOM!’s program and its one-on-one mentoring help kids of all abilities, from extremely talented to barely literate writers.

The program focuses on three key areas which support students in:

  • expressing themselves
  • improving writing abilities
  • gaining confidence and life skills

The program was funded by McCarthey Dressman Educational Foundation and is a collaboration between the school and the Volunteers of America Community-Connect office at Manual with a goal of having students write about their school and their community which culminates in a professional publication.

What is the impact of an after-school literary magazine project?

An infographic highlighting the impact of BOOM!
A snapshot of the challenges faced and impact leveraged with BOOM! Magazine

Over the past three years that BOOM! has been operating, the program has mentored 30 students, produced 11 publications and reached more than 4,000 student and community readers.

BOOM! is not only improving literacy, it is making a difference in students’ lives. Mentors serve as role models and often remain close to the students after they have exited the program. Teachers see the program as another tool in assisting students in becoming writers and successful in school. And, as students see their name in print, it makes them proud and allows them to see themselves as authors and to find writing to be an outlet for their creativity. It is no small surprise that all graduating BOOM! students have been accepted into universities. This makes combining literacy and mentoring an excellent model of a collaborative program between a school and a community organization.

What do the participants say?

Some quotes from BOOM! students, teachers and principal at Manual High School:

  • We don’t have people to help us in the classroom. There’s one teacher and 26 students. But here it’s more like 7 mentors and 10 kids. They help you make sure you are writing the correct way and going outside what you normally can do. I find now I can go more in depth with analysis in class when we read books. My grades have gone up in my English classes and I feel more confident. It’s helped me create better personal essays for college scholarships. Even though you might think BOOM! is about writing, it’s about being able to express yourself and have someone help you along the way to express yourself. – Ronnie
  • I joined BOOM! to get involved and meet new people. I see now that I’m in college how it helped me become a better writer. From all the interviews I did, I feel confident talking with new people, meeting new people and having very professional conversations with them. I feel comfortable writing longer college essays. – Dani
  • BOOM! was the major factor that got Dani to college. She went from a passive student to taking an active interest in her future.  – Manual teacher
  • BOOM! offers students the individual attention and instruction they need. – Manual teacher
  • We have to find a way to get this program to reach more students!  – Manual principal

BOOM! helps students express themselves, improve their writing skills, and take part in a positive community.

To learn more about BOOM! and the strategies highlighted in this project, visit these resources.

Integrated Studies: Placing Learning in the Real World

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How do visual arts, science and literature come together for student engagement and success?

Journaling This month’s blog presents Valuing Place: A study of human impact on the American West an 8th grade integrated studies project that explores the impact of human activity on the American West’s ecosystems.
Ben studies the map of the Great Basin Region in the Visitors Center at Antelope Island State Park.
What is integrated studies?

Integrated studies connects two or more disciplines, showing ideas in context and giving students a more realistic view of how one works in the real world.

Teaching this way promotes:

  • collaboration
  • critical thinking
  • an in-depth understanding of the areas being studied

For support developing an integrated studies approach visit the Edutopia website.

What can integrated studies look like for 8th grade students?

The project Valuing Place is a collaboration between science, humanities and visual arts teachers at the Salt Lake Arts Academy.

Image 2

Through this project teachers have designed a cohesive curriculum that unifies the facts, skills, goals, and knowledge found within their core standards.

By designing a collaborative unit the teachers have created a powerful learning model for future integrated curriculum.

These powerful learning activities included standards-based connections to each content area:

  • In the humanities, students read works of fiction and non-fiction, including primary sources about the settlement of the American West and Utah.
  • In science, the standards addressed the theme of “change” and students were asked to analyze the influence humans have had on the environment. Students studied the geological forces that created the geography of the American West and its natural resources and eco-systems. Through experiments and fieldwork students studied how human activity, along the Wasatch front, positively or negatively impacted the local eco-systems.
  • In visual arts, students were taught photography, basic drawing and watercolor techniques. Additionally they analyzed old photographs and artwork of the American West and Utah.

Emmaline's mantis

Students created original products that showed a deep understanding of the complex issues as a result of western expansion and how those issues remain relevant to the present as well as to the future way of life for Utah.

The Valuing Place project helped students demonstrate:

  • increased proficiency in narrative, expository and informational writing
  • targeted visual arts techniques
  • multiple perspectives about how human activity has impacted their local eco-systems over time.
The Salt Lake Arts Academy has an award-winning leadership program that invites their 8th graders to identify an area that needs improvement and the actions they must initiate to make these improvements a reality. They used this leadership program with the Valuing Place project.
Fieldwork Provides Opportunities For Integrating The Disciplines
How can an integrated studies project evolve?

During Year One of McCarthey Dressman funding, students looked into the changes in the past 150 years to the Wasatch front, and the impact of mining on local eco-systems.

In Year Two of the project, the students looked into the water and the impact of expanding development in the 20th century, the Central Utah Project and reliance on the Colorado River system.

In Year Three the issues and costs of future expansion, green building guidelines, alternative energy sources and conservation were studied.

What is the impact of integrated studies?

Jeni and Jason

In closing, this is an excellent example of how education should work, now and in the future. Instead of learning in discreet, separate subjects, the disciplines are taught in a more integrated manner. Students are studying real problems, understanding the content at a deep level, working in teams and producing products they can be proud of and that are shared with a larger audience.

Next Month’s Topic

BOOM Magazine – an after school program that helps kids of all abilities, from extremely talented to inexperienced writers, express themselves, improve writing abilities, and gain confidence and life skills.