When the 18 seniors in Amy Matthusen’s Advanced Placement English class entered Room 104 at Bronx Academy of Letters on Wednesday, they were surprised to see an unfamiliar figure at the front of the classroom.
Instead of their teacher, they found Shael Polakow-Suransky, the Department of Education’s second in command, who signed up to guest-teach in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week. Polakow-Suransky is leading the department’s efforts to make instruction more challenging but hadn’t taught a class of students since working as a principal in 2004.
“When I thought about a good way to express my appreciation, I thought doing some teaching and getting a feel for what our teachers are working on day to day would be a powerful way to do that,” he said.
Matthusen’s students had analyzed three essays about affirmative action, each arguing that a different kind of student should get an edge in university admissions. One argued for race-based affirmative action; another pushed for poor students to get a boost; and the third said admissions preferences could bring more male students to college campuses, where they are under-represented.
Polakow-Suransky didn’t want to pull the class away from its trajectory. So after speaking with Matthusen twice, he prepared an activity that used all of the same materials. His twist: Students would argue the positions contained in the essays before a “Board of Regents,” a group of students responsible for setting admissions policies for a hypothetical university.Of course, he made sure his lesson was aligned with the city’s new curriculum standards, known as the Common Core. The standards require students to be able to interpret dense informational texts, synthesize multiple arguments to develop positions of their own; and locate evidence to support a position they don’t necessarily hold.
The students leaned on the texts they had read, but they also drew on their own experiences. And some of them found themselves tasked with arguing positions they didn’t personally support.
Armando Pascual said he didn’t believed students should be evaluated based on merit alone. But as a member of the group advocating for affirmative action for men, Pascual argued that as the only male student in the advanced class, he uniquely understood the need for colleges to create role models for male students.
(Just three boys applied for the AP class and only Pascual was as qualified as his female classmates, Matthusen said; Principal Anna Hall said the school is hoping to win funds through the city’s Expanded Success Initiative to help push boys into advanced classes.)
Angelica Flores said she had not supported affirmative action until she realized that she had benefitted from it when a theater school recruited South Bronx students — and offered them scholarships to enroll. She wouldn’t have gotten the education without the assistance, and everyone benefited, she said.
“They don’t know how to act around us,” Flores said about white students from affluent families. “It’s the same way with us. We don’t know how to act when we see white people in our school — it’s weird.”
Ultimately, the student-Regents ruled that colleges should practice race-based affirmative action, since it would likely create socioeconomic diversity as well. But they rejected the idea that male students should get an edge. “If affirmative action is only on men, what about minority women?” one student asked.
In all, Polakow-Suransky spent fewer than four minutes addressing the whole class. The rest of the time, he and Matthusen circulated among the groups, pushing them to refine their arguments, and watched students debate each other. That’s exactly as it should be, he said, even if it means that teachers sometimes don’t step in when students struggle or show confusion, as some students did about the purpose of affirmative action.
“We have to develop skills in kids to be able to push each other,” he said after the class ended. “The main role for the teacher is to set that up.”
Matthusen said she would have liked to see students tackle the essay authors’ logic and style in their class discussion — topics that Polakow-Suransky said would make good fodder for follow-up writing assignments. Those issues could also have gotten more attention if there had been more time for the activity, he said, adding that ideally students would have spent one day researching their arguments and a second in debate and discussion. “It wasn’t quite enough time to do all three steps,” he said of the single class period.
But even when a lesson is imperfect, it can be a success if “emotional content” creates a lasting learning experience, Polakow-Suransky said.
“Part of what I was interested in as a guest was trying to create a space where kids could apply their knowledge,” he said. “When you have some kind of simulation-type experience it changes the dynamic in a way that’s hard to do without some public-facing, performance-based element.”