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Harlem Link Ink Title

April 2010

As always, there is so much going on at Harlem Link. In this issue, we give you another little peek into what's happening at our school.
As a sneak preview of the June issue, we are also getting ready to roll out some terrific volunteer opportunities for the coming school year.  In the meantime, you can get a sense of our philosophy by reading the blog.  Feel free to post comments on our facebook wall.
Most of all, enjoy some stories about our wonderful scholars!

Margaret Ryan and Steven Evangelista
In This Issue
The World Comes to Harlem Link
Third Grade Goes to China(town)
Linking Families in Kindergarten
Advocacy Update
Fifth Grade Fridays Continue
Donors Choose Spotlight
Volunteer Spotlight
The World Comes to Harlem Link

PART 1: Japan's NHK Visits Room 5-403
By Corey Pepaj, fifth grade scholar
On a Friday morning nobody expected anything unusual: Morning Meeting, Math, Social Studies, Reading, etc.  But then as soon as the fifth graders in class 5-403 got to the door to give their teachers their morning handshake, they found out that this Friday wasn't an ordinary day.  This article tells what happened.
The reporters visit Corey's home
NHK reporters visit Corey's home
The classroom teachers Ms. Kinney and Mr. Klein said, "Just act normally."  They gave these instructions to their students because a very famous Japanese television news station named NHK was in the classroom.  At Morning Meeting they taped the class giving greetings like the Slapper Shake and the Knuckle Touch to each other.
Later the students played a math game called In Between.  The rules require that the player puts his or her decimal (or fraction) cards between the landmark cards showing zero, one half and one (for example, 10% next to 0, 55% next to one half or 90% next to one) without going in between any two decimal (or fraction) already played that are touching.  Four students - Corey, Laron, Sade and Tyquan - were pulled out to play the game in a separate room.  They tried beating each other at In Between while one by one they were interviewed by NHK.
At Friends and Family time [each Friday afternoon Harlem Linksters take inter-grade, student elected 'courses' on extracurricular subjects--ed.], the class broke up as the students joined their elective courses.  NHK went to journaling class and to hip-hop class. 
This has been an article that tells you, the reader, what happened on that lucky day at Harlem Link.
PART 2: From Johannesburg to Link Street
By Steven Evangelista, Harlem Link ink international correspondent
Harlem Link and Bank Street College of Education continued their collaboration in April 2010 when Bank Street's Virginia Casper arranged for a visit to The Link by three professors from the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. 
The Johannesburg visitors with Bank Street's Virginia Casper
Visitors from South Africa
The visiting group, led by Professor Sarah Gravett, executive dean of the faculty of education, came to share their experiences with Harlem Link and in search of insights about new schools; this winter the university opened an innovative public school in Soweto with structural similarities to American charter schools and design similarities to Harlem Link's charter.  These design elements include an emphasis on independent thinking skills and a focus on responding to parent demand for educational excellence.
The first South African generation since the end of apartheid continues to grow and learn in a new world, and those of us at Harlem Link were lucky enough to get an inside glimpse. For one thing, we learned about some similarities between the access - or lack of access - to a rigorous education here and there.  A spirited tour of our school and discussion of Harlem Link's short history revealed that many of the persistent problems that plague public education in America are not exclusive to the U.S.; the visitors agreed that South African school districts often do not enjoy a coherent instructional vision and high expectations for all students to succeed.  
The South African delegation observed classrooms in action.The visitors' questions revealed their values as well as the common challenges we face: How do you build trust with parents who are rightly skeptical after of years of seeing their communities shortchanged on education?  How much control should teachers have over the curriculum?  How do you build autonomy for teachers and yet make sure everyone is on the same page?  What is the long-term vision for the school?
Though they did not promise tickets to this summer's soccer World Cup in South Africa, the visitors extended an invitation for the Harlem Link community to visit their school and continue the exchange.
Third Grade Goes to China(town) 

By Michael Cassaro, Third Grade Teacher 
City National Bank donatesFor the last few months Harlem Link's third graders have been studying China. After some introductory material, they started reading Chinese folktales. The students used these folktales to explore the analysis skills associated with understanding character traits and themes in literature.  They then worked with their peers to craft essays about the characters and themes they discovered in the folktales.  The students found that the themes always do your best and be honest were common in lots of the tales.  Bravery and  honesty were character traits that many students found in the stories, and they discerned that these traits are consonant with our core values of courage, integrity and responsibility. 

City National Bank donatesThe next phase of the third grade's study of China involved writing a non-fiction piece. Students spent a few days browsing non-fiction books about China, discussing what makes a good research question and developing three broad questions to explore. All the students were deeply invested in the research project because they had been involved in the process from the start.  Even reluctant writers broke out of their shell and wrote as many as four pages, in wonderfully clear paragraphs! 

City National Bank donatesThe culmination of the study was a busy and exciting trip to Chinatown.  After a long subway ride downtown, the kids explored the markets and the hustle and bustle of a neighborhood very unlike their own.  "I feel like we're actually in China!" David exclaimed.  Talk about a wonderful vocabulary-building experience.  Following a walking tour, the third grade enjoyed a classic Chinese meal at the Jin Fong restaurant.  The gracious hosts whisked the students away to their table and fed them like kings.  Not everyone mastered the use of chopsticks on the first try, but everyone left sated for the subway ride home.
Linking Families in Kindergarten 

By Julie Sutera, Kindergarten Teacher 
Harlem Link kindergartners have been learning about families during their Social Studies lessons.  They have discovered how families can be the same and, at the same time, different.  In class, each child has discussed his or her family, its members and its traditions.  Each student created a family tree to show his or her family members.  Over our spring break, each child created a family book containing three chapters: family members, family fun and family traditions.  
City National Bank donatesThe kindergartners have learned how to interview family members.  First, they learned question words and practiced using them with a partner.  After they became interviewing experts, family members came to the classrooms as special guests.  The students took turns asking questions.  The questions included: When were you born?  What is your job?  How many brothers and sisters do you have?  Where does your family live?
The research on families is the beginning of a Harlem Link scholar's six-year journey through the study of history, geography and culture.  Since five- and six-year olds are so focused on themselves and their immediate families, this study is an appropriate entry point upon which future social studies units will build.  Each year, as the children grow, what they learn will be more abstract and will move farther from home, from neighborhood, to city, to nation and, finally, to the whole world.
Thank you to all the kindergarteners' families for helping the children gain a current and historical perspective on families, both their own and those of their classmates!
Advocacy Update: Harlem Link Parents

Parents have always been central to the success of the New York State charter school movement.  The 1998 charter law was founded on the principle that promoting choice for parents, especially in educationally at-risk communities, would help move the state's public education system forward.  Along with teachers, school administrators and community residents, parents are explicitly mentioned in the law as being eligible to apply to start a charter school.
In the years since 1998, the uncertainty created by shifting political tides has shown that the need for parent advocacy to support charter schools has grown.  Harlem Link has responded to the call with our Community Outreach Group (COG) and through participation in events held by the New York City Charter Center and its offshoot, the Charter Parents Advocacy Network (CPAN).  CPAN is one of a number of parent-led organizations that have sprung up to help coordinate the efforts of charter school parents.  Other groups include Harlem Parents United, Parent Power Now! and the New York Charter Parents Association.
City National Bank donatesHarlem Link's parent advocacy efforts received a boost in 2009 when the Charter Center selected Harlem Link's top parent, COG President Valerie Babb, to be the first director of CPAN.  Valerie led 3,000 attendees at the annual state charter school Advocacy Day in Albanyin kicking off a media campaign to fight for fair state funding for charter schools.  Hear her discuss her views  on charter school issues with ABC's Diana Williams here.
What about that fight for fair funding?Aren't all schools getting squeezed during this recession?  As it turns out, because of  state funding formulas and the action of the New York State legislature, charters are getting doubly squeezed.  As of this writing, the two chambers of the legislature are debating final cost-cutting measures to close state budget gaps for the coming fiscal year.  For the second consecutive year, it appears that charter schools will experience a freeze in state support, even though the formula written into the law states that charters should see a 5% to 8% increase.  These scheduled increases were tied to district funding increases.  However, because of last-minute decisions by legislators, charters have not shared in that increasing revenue stream. 
Time will tell if parent activism pays off with equitable state funding for charter schools and protection from the political attacks of those who are content with how the system functions now.  Since active citizenship is one of Harlem Link's two mission goals, the work of parents and other volunteers speaking up for charter schools is as much a model for our students as it is a strategy for supporting their right to a high quality education.  Stay tuned for more lessons in democracy!
Fifth Grade Fridays Continue through June
You may have heard of Follow Friday on Twitter. At Harlem Link we're continuing our year-long celebration of our senior scholars by profiling fifth graders every Friday, in what we are calling Fifth Grade Fridays.
City National Bank donatesCity National Bank donatesEach week, we will publish brief profiles of two of our graduating seniors.  The profiles are based on the "Questions For" format used by Deborah Solomon in her weekly column for the New York Times Magazine.  For most of our seniors, saying goodbye at graduation on July 1st will mark the end of a five year journey with Harlem Link.  After five years together, we will find it very hard to say goodbye.  Memorializing their personal stories to this point is one small way for us to continue to celebrate them as we count down to their next step in a life full of learning.

The profiles are available throughout the rest of the school year on our Harlem Link Facebook page.
Donors Choose Spotlight
Eager Readers Want To Grow Their Classroom Library

Please click on the link to help our third grade teachers procure 24 picture books to continue to bolster their classroom libraries!

Volunteer Spotlight
City National Bank donatesThanks go out to professional photographer Angela Gaspar, who volunteered to come to Harlem Link this month to take beautiful, professional-quality digital photographs of our scholars in action.  We will use the photos to adorn our walls, support our website redesign and inspire us! 
Angela found Harlem Link through, and you can check out her work and inquire about contracting with her for weddings, events and other purposes at

Support Our Cause
City National Bank donatesYou can join our list of supporters.  As a charter school, we are our own, single-school public school district.  Because of the charter funding formula (and the mind-boggling recent decision by the state legislature to freeze charter funding while increasing overall public school aid), we depend on private donations to supplement our state tuition allocation.  In the coming years we anticipate raising as much as 25% of our budget in our Annual Fund.  Tax-deductible donations - and now, appreciated securities - can be made to our fund by clicking here.
In Closing
Students at our old Lower SchoolWith the state tests approaching, our minds are on high achievement.
With the state legislature and the media paying more attention to charters than ever before, our minds are also on spreading the truth and good news about our school.  You can help simply by coming to visit!  We hope you enjoyed a few stories about our school and would consider coming by to visit this spring.
Director's Blog: Theories of Intelligence
This past college basketball season, a commenter on a sports website described a particular star student athlete from my alma mater as "big, strong agile and smart."  I wouldn't dispute that characterization, but I have some inside information about his academic performance.  An esteemed mentor professor of mine confided that this scholar could be found staring into his Blackberry during his lectures, something you don't want to do with this particular professor - both because you'd be missing out on a golden opportunity to absorb some wisdom and because you won't like the menacing stare that is sure to follow!
The comment raised a question I've wondered about since I was a child: what does it mean to be smart?  It turns out there is a lot of research and literature on the subject, and an endless number of opinions. 
The question is of vital importance in a school setting.  If educators begin with the assumption that there are some kids who are "smart," and other kids who are "not smart," and these are fixed capacities that can only be mildly influenced by school, well then there's not a whole lot of good that a school can do other than shepherd each kid through their path appointed by fate.  If a school treats a child as having limitless potential, whatever environmental, medical or psychological issues have begun to shape him or her, then the approach becomes a very different one.  Namely, that sort of school will naturally have a high expectation for all students and will challenge all kids to rise up to meet academic expectations, to retain and synthesize what they experience in school.  In my view this expectation that our knowledge and skills need not have limits is, along with natural human curiosity, the starting point of all learning.
I believe that the idea that intelligence is some fixed quality about a person, like height, is a dangerous and damaging concept.  I have observed individuals internalizing the negative ("I'm not smart") when provided evidence of it more than internalizing the positive ("I am smart").  In the school setting, this belief has often led to a shallow and I think misguided attempt to build students' self-esteem regardless of the circumstances.  We can fight the very human tendency to fixate on the negative not by hiding it, but by acknowledging the truth of where we are and affirming the real potential that we all have.
In a series of town hall meetings this past week that reinforced my belief, Margaret and I talked frankly about this subject with groups of our students about to take the state exams.  I showed them our school's test scores from last year and how I hope they perform on the tests this year.  We compared their performance in 2009 to that of District 3, our local school district that is a diverse and fairly accurate snapshot of the city as a whole.  (District 3 includes our small part of Harlem and all of the Upper West Side.) 
The curious thing is that, when I asked the third graders, who saw that our third grade had a 98% passing rate on the state math test last year, if it meant they were smarter than the District 3 kids who scored lower, they all said, "No."  They implicitly understood that at any time, the other kids could perform better and knock them off their perch.
I have seen supposedly smart people appear foolish time and time again in my life.  We all witnessed it with the mortgage and banking crisis that precipitated our current recession.  On my nightstand right now is The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  This book all but predicted the economic crisis the year before it happened, when the global economy was going through what turned out to be irrational exuberance.  Taleb's thesis was summarized by "We're all blind to rare events and routinely fool ourselves into believing we can predict risks and rewards."
Congress and the federal education department also seem to be filled with ostensibly smart people making not so smart decisions.  The people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 are at it again.  The president's proposed reauthorization of the law (actually called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) will eliminate the now-unrealistic demand that all students in the country are to be deemed proficient on state tests by 2014.  That's all well and good - but there's a problem.  The department has begun a Race To The Top, offering federal stimulus dollars to state education departments that show they will implement favored reforms, such as tying teacher evaluations to student achievement, supporting charter schools and more.  These are all good ideas, but what's disturbing - and foolish - is that there has been no public discourse on what went wrong in 2001.  Instead of a reasoned, well informed discourse on the 2001 expectation and what went wrong, we are on the next silver bullet that's going to solve all of our problems.
Our kids?  We continue to pound the message to them, with the state tests on the horizon: you are not the sum of the numbers assigned to you.  Because you're human, your intelligence can't be fully measured by a test.  (Believe it or not, Alfred Binet, the creator of the first IQ test, would agree, as he was horrified by the use of his diagnostic test to label and sort people.)  The state tests, like the PSAT, SAT, SAT II, Regents and AP tests to come, are instead a chance to show what you know, and know how to do, in a certain domain.
That basketball player probably didn't do so well on last semester's final exam.  But he is intelligent, in a manner of speaking (it takes analytic, creative and practical skills to succeed in high level athletic competition).  In the classroom he made some not-so-intelligent choices, or developed some not-so-intelligent habits.  He has made a choice to develop and express certain aspects of his intelligence, and may be allowing some other areas of his intelligence to wither.  Our school-wide attitude about testing is moving toward this notion of individual choice, and the understanding that tests are a narrow and limited window into one dimension of knowledge.  This attitude is still forming, since 2010 is only our third year administering state tests and we've been adding adults each year to teach our upper grades.  Ultimately, I see Sternberg's and Taleb's ideas as supporting the triumph of the human spirit and the supremacy of individual choice.  Consistent with the great thinkers across human cultures and history, they would have us question our basic assumptions about what we see, hear and believe.
-Steven Evangelista
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