First Person

Showcasing Our Best And Worst

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

The Brooklyn Arts Academy is special for offering electives, taught by local professionals, in areas such as hip-hop dance, emcee, deejay, music production, digital photography, fashion design, choir and band. Many students who attend the school were drawn to it for this reason. At the end of each semester, students would show off their new skills in an arts showcase. Sometimes these were held in our cafeteria, and other times in an auditorium we rented from a local college. I never missed one of these performances, and they almost always inspired the same conflicted feelings: pride and awe at my students’ abilities on stage, combined with frustration and embarrassment at the rowdiness and disorganization of the event as a whole.

For a few students, the arts showcase was a time to shine. There was one student who everyone called Michael because he fashioned himself after Michael Jackson. He always had a solo during the hip-hop dance performances and would bring the house down with his impeccable rendition of the moonwalk.

There were two young men — one black and one Hispanic — that formed a rap duo good enough to sign with a label. They kept the crowd spellbound with their brilliant flow and rhymes such as “some of my boys / lost themselves in the bong / truth blowing like bombs or condoms put on wrong / never stepped out of the hood / but say that they gone / I want to travel on planes / because of my songs.”

Another one of my students wasn’t as good as a rapper but amazed me with his stage presence. He could work the crowd like no other, raising his hands in the air and getting people to clap along with him, a wide smile across his face. He performed an unforgettable duet with his girlfriend, rapping the verses while she sang the chorus.

There were four or five students who composed “the band.” This wasn’t a traditional school band with clarinets and trombones, but more like a rock and roll band. They played bass guitar, electric guitar, keyboard, and drums and performed rocking medleys of Stevie Wonder songs as well as original compositions.

The girls’ hip-hop dance routines were another highlight. Their instructor helped them with choreography but they added their own flair and the energy was palpable. Those girls practiced constantly in the days leading up to the performance, even ditching classes at times to do so in the back hallways.

The school’s mission explicitly promotes student self-discovery and self-expression though the arts, and the showcases were the time and place when this was best on display. Our kids had a sense of style and individuality all their own, from the way they dressed (jelly bracelets color-coordinated with shoelaces) to the way they interacted with one another (lots of hugging, cheek-kissing, and elaborate hand-shaking). Attending a showcase was a little bit like going to a hip-hop concert, as our students threw their hands in the air and shouted encouragement to their friends.

Unfortunately, the general raucousness of the crowd made it difficult to focus on what was happening onstage. From my perch in the back rows, I couldn’t see the dance routines because students in the front rows were standing up. When the drama class performed a skit, I could hardly hear them because kids in the crowd were horsing around. Then the students in the audience would devolve into typical classroom behavior. One student would yell, “Shut up you guys — they’re trying to perform!” Then someone else would laugh. Then someone would cough. Then you’d hear lots of “shhhhs!” We needed to teach our students norms for being an audience at a public performance.

We needed to teach other students about the responsibilities of free expression. Though students were told to keep their language appropriate, we inevitably had rappers who cursed or made gang references in their songs. On one occasion, a group had their microphones cut off after dropping a line about “red bandanas.” On another occasion, a boy made a reference to oral sex. In both cases, the students actually had the audacity to get angry at the principal for cutting them off, acting as though the performance was a right and not a privilege.

I believe our students would have behaved better if we made a greater effort to turn the showcase into a more high-stakes experience and a more collective enterprise. For one thing, we could have done a better job advertising these performances, to both parents and the community at large. If students knew they were performing for an audience beyond themselves, they might rise to the occasion. We also should have put a lot more effort into rehearsals and preparations. Students should have been better coached about transitions between performances, and also about how and when to respond as an audience.

Finally, I wonder what the showcase could have been like if it involved all students and teachers working together with a shared goal of putting on a great performance. As a content-teacher, I was minimally involved in the planning or execution of the show. I thought it might be cool, though, if students were expected to incorporate ideas from my history lessons into their performances. As a school, we could create the expectation that all students would have to be involved in some way, and that all classes must also in some way be represented.

I believe that the showcase had tremendous potential to be a powerful motivating force in the lives of our students. The event presented an authentic opportunity for our students to share their creativity and their best selves to the world. It also represented an opportunity for the Brooklyn Arts Academy to demonstrate just how transformative arts education can be for inner-city students. But, in my opinion, this potential could not be realized until the school promotes discipline as much as it promotes student self-expression.

First Person

If teachers aren’t equipped to help trauma victims, students suffer. Learn from my story.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

It took one of my kindergarten students, Andrew, to help me figure out how to handle my toughest teaching challenge.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that Andrew had drawn for me. He often greeted me at the door with a smile. But Andrew would also scream, act out, and even hurt himself in my class.

For quite some time, I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, maybe he would not become so aggressive, not bang his head on the floor. But regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. And with little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless.

Eventually, I did learn how to help students like Andrew. I also eventually realized that when you teach students who have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and the reality that you cannot solve every problem. But the trial and error that it took to reach that point as a teacher was exhausting.

I hope we, as a profession, can do better for new Memphis teachers. In the meantime, maybe you can learn from my story.

I grew up in a trauma-filled household, where I learned to mask my hurt and behave like a “good girl” to not bring attention to myself. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched at being touched and privately expressed concerns that I got help. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.

When I became a teacher myself, and met Andrew and many students like him, I began to see myself within these children. But that didn’t mean I knew how to reach them or best help them learn. All I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I didn’t have the training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings.

It took a while to learn not to internalize Andrew’s attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond.

I learned to never discipline when I am upset and found success charting “trigger behaviors,” using them to anticipate outbursts and cut down on negative behaviors.

Over time, I learned that almost all students are more receptive when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher. Still, each case must be treated differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or “social stories” that underscore the moral of a situation. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

Still other students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness.” My childhood experiences made me aware of how students mask trauma in ways very unlike Andrew. They also made me realize how imperative it is for teachers to know that overachieving students can need just as much help as a child that physically acts out.

I keep a watchful eye on students that are chronically fatigued or overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. I encourage teachers to pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence could be acting as a defense mechanism, and I never ignore a child who is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character.

All of this took time in the classroom and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma. However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a similar background and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s disruptive behavior.

It’s time to change the way we support teachers and give educators intense trauma training. Often, compassionate teachers want to help students but don’t know how. Good training would help educators develop the skills they need to reach students and to take care of themselves, since working with students that have been impacted by trauma can be incredibly taxing.

Trial and error aren’t enough: If teachers are not equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of students’ education will suffer.

Candace Hines teaches kindergarten for the Achievement School District, and previously taught kindergarten for six years with Shelby County Schools. She also is an EdReports content reviewer and a coach and facilitator for Teach Plus Memphis. Hines serves as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success and a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.