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ETS Gets Into Trenton Classrooms

Ohanian Comment: As a blogger points out, this is not an article; it is a front-page ad for ETS.


There is no critical analysis. Just praise, praise, praise.

The ETS writing consultant focuses on "good leads." Ironically, on this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, with the most famous lead in American literature: Call me Ishmael.

Read the article and note what the ETS writing consultant and the reporter missed--the relationship of the student's lead to Melville's.

The ETS consultant says, "May I make a suggestion. . ." and then she pounces, "That's one lead that was not a good lead."

Tell Melville.

That a consultant could make such a declaration exhibts bad teaching practice. It also reveals lack of knowledge of what writers do (as opposed to what writing coaches pronounce). As it happens, I have made a deep study of how novels begin. The reviled My name is Miss Moore-type opening ranks high among very popular, very successful books.

Teaching students that good writing relies on "catchy" openings and other tricks impresses reporters and even works in the short term. And apparently that's what these demonstration lessons are all about.

TRENTON - The 10th-graders in Carol Ann Moore's class at Trenton Central High School sat in stony silence, eyes cast glumly down at their desks or wandering around the room.

Moore was trying mightily to jump-start a lesson on writing autobiographies. Yet, after 15 minutes of prodding, the catchiest opening any student had suggested for their teacher's life story was, "My name is Miss Moore."

The lesson was tottering on the verge of failure.

Inside Moore's class, however, sat two consultants from the Educational Testing Service of Lawrence and Diane Waff, a top school official whose job consists largely of working with the mammoth nonprofit organization in its new partnership with Trenton High.

ETS may be better known for the SAT college entrance exam than sitting inside inner-city classrooms, but this year it has launched an unprecedented level of collaboration aimed at raising achievement at the high school.

ETS intends to crank up the partnership's profile this spring, extending invitations to Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Hillary Clinton and Bill Cosby to Trenton High in hopes they will speak at an event driving home the importance of education.

But last week, Waff and the ETS team were about to pull research-backed training out of the ivory tower and inject it into Moore's classroom, demonstrating the partnership's essence.

"Can I make a suggestion?" Waff interjected. "Let's write that down. That's one lead that was not a good lead. You could say that's boring. `My name is Miss Moore.' "

For Brittney Glover, even seeing a boring lead sentence on the blackboard was enough to trigger a breakthrough.

"I'd say, `My strength is the same as my weakness,' " she volunteered.

"Yeah, boys!" joked one classmate.

"But that's a great opening," responded Waff.

The tap of writing energy soon was flowing freely. The students broke into small groups, and, with minimal coaxing from ETS consultant Irma Lorenz, Glover was spinning prose about her strength and weakness - her attitude. She wrote of how peers respect her outspokenness but how with adults, failing to "bite my tongue gets me in trouble sometimes."-- -- --

The ETS social mission is one that even some of its own employees aren't fully aware of. And it generates skepticism from some about prospects for effectiveness. That applies particularly to bridging Trenton and Princeton, which may be only 9 miles apart but worlds apart in levels of poverty and education.

"They'll say, `What are you doing there?' " said ETS research scientist Claudia Gentile. "They think everything is to turn a profit and building the business."

But the company is about to make a big splash to ensure the word gets out to Trenton High, its own staff and beyond. It remains to be seen which of the celebrities will accept, said ETS President Kurt Landgraf.

Last week came another splash when Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., an architect of the landmark No Child Left Behind law, and Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, visited to learn about the partnership.

At 5:30 p.m. Thursday, however, will be the true coming-out party.

Landgraf and Trenton schools Superintendent James Lytle will hold a town hall meeting to hear from parents and students about what they would like from the partnership.

While the spring event is a sure bet to attract attention, Landgraf said, the partnership is all about wide-ranging strategies to improve achievement at the high school and gaining insight on how the company's research can benefit poor, minority students nationwide.

"We really need to try to get parents involved," Landgraf said. "Let's be real frank. Parents will be much more interested to come hear Dr. Cosby than hear me."-- -- -- ETS has unleashed an army of 30 employees to spend time each week at Trenton High to boost literacy and math learning, said spokesman Thomas Ewing.

That doesn't include about 20 who volunteer their time as writing coaches, said Gentile, who joined Lorenz in Moore's classroom.

It also doesn't include at least $60,000 in contributions so far this school year for items ranging from computers to staff workshops, Ewing said.

What began three years ago as ETS volunteering to establish a high school writing lab has blossomed into a full-scale undertaking.

"I think there's sort of a mutual self-interest, which I think makes an ideal partnership," Lytle said. "They're not just doing this to be nice to people in the inner city. They really do have a sincere ideological commitment to this project."

Principal Priscilla Dawson used the congressional visit to lobby for federal grants to foster similar partnerships nationwide.

"They've been in the trenches," she told Miller and Holt about ETS. "So often you get a consultant who tells you how to do it but doesn't show you how to do it."

For Carol Ann Moore, the contribution couldn't be more timely. She is establishing an online partnership between her class and another in Harlem, Ga., with each class reading "The Diary of Anne Frank." They'll be chatting about that and, as a way of introduction, their autobiographies.

Moore was skeptical at first. "To begin with, ETS is equated with tests, standardized tests," the teacher said.

But after seeing ETS' work in the writers lab, her skepticism ebbed.

"I knew these were women who would be rolling up their sleeves, who would be student-oriented," Moore said. "It's always good to have an extra set of eyes and hands."-- -- --

Brittney Glover said the presence of ETS was just "all right."

"They've only come twice" to the classroom, she said.

In fact, she said, the first time they came, the class didn't go well because it was overcrowded. There were 40 students and two teachers.

But the ETS visitors were the very reason that class size was halved.

With enrollment growth this year at TCHS, it has taken time to level off class size, said Waff, whose position as director of secondary innovative programs is funded through federal grants - two new vice principals have taken over her old duties.

As soon as Gentile and Lorenz pointed out that the class was in trouble unless it shrank, Waff made sure it was quickly divided.

Gentile, a 17-year ETS employee, said she has been to classrooms in the Bronx, Miami, Jersey City and Newark through ETS.

"What's unique here is the level of commitment," she said. "Before, twice a month was the norm. We come twice a week."

The ETS approach is expected to affect 25 percent of teachers and students directly, Gentile said, with incremental growth sought each year. But certain events, such as a well-attended family literacy night last week, reach far wider.

Gentile said she harbors no illusions about overnight transformation of high school students, particularly those in special education.

But Waff couldn't have been more pleased with ETS' contributions as she boasted to Moore's class about the autobiography of one sophomore, Tidjane Saccoh, which drove to the heart of a typical urban student experience.

"Because a report card has straight A's, it doesn't necessarily mean a student is smart," Tidjane read aloud to classmates. "Intelligence can often be shown in writing, tests or choices a person makes. It's too bad the third one isn't my best."


— Larry Hanover
Trenton Times





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