Will this year’s crop of students dazzle or dismay? Will the new teacher crack jokes or crack the whip? Will lunch ever come?
The first day of school brims with questions. The way students interact in the halls and answer writing prompts, how teachers decorate their classrooms and respond to misbehavior, all give clues about the coming year.
On Wednesday, Chalkbeat spent time in four different classrooms in the nation’s largest school system. From personal goals to flying golf balls, it was a day of expectations and excitement.
At a school for inventors, lessons on solving problems and saving laptops
Just after 7:30 a.m., Urban Assembly Maker Academy Principal Luke Bauer swung open a side door of his Lower Manhattan school building and greeted a pack of early arrivers.
“Look at all these makers out here!”
Now in its second year, the small school now includes ninth and 10th-graders, who yanked off their headphones, shook the principal’s hand, and headed upstairs. The high school was developed by the nonprofit Urban Assembly and grew out of the maker movement, where hackers and inventors build robots, gadgets, and other tools to solve everyday problems.
Last year, the school brought in software developers to work with students on the first day. But the staff quickly realized that new students are anxious to learn the basics, like how to get a hall pass or find the gym. So this year, teachers designed two days of orientation sessions.
In one early session, English teacher Alex Sosa taught a group of students about a popular note-taking system and asked them to practice by listing the ways books are organized.
Like most non-selective schools, the students had arrived with a range of abilities. At a back table, one boy said books could be sorted by genre or periodically. His partner didn’t recognize either term.
“I can’t even say that word,” he said. When Sosa asked the students to write what they were excited about this year, the boy wrote, “I’m excited what is in store for me.”
Across the hall, design teacher Gerry Irizarry was explaining the school’s problem-solving process, which leads from discovering the problem to delivering a product.
The problem Wednesday was figuring out how to build a basket out of straws and tape that could catch a falling golf ball. To test the product of a group that called itself Basket-Robbins, a girl hopped on a desk and dropped a ball. It landed in the basket, and the class cheered.
A few doors down, special-education teacher Jared Russo introduced himself to the students in his session about laptop care. “I am the weirdest, craziest, most fun guy in the building,” he said. “But I’m also the strictest.”
As if to prove this, he dropped (an already broken) laptop on the floor to demonstrate what students should avoid doing to the laptops they each would receive. He explained that about 30 laptops were damaged last year.
“Some of them broke through kind of normal stuff that happens,” he said. “And then some of them were sat on.”
A challenge, and encouragement, from a teacher who’s walked in her students’ footsteps
At the School of Diplomacy in the north Bronx, Shamika Powell waited outside her classroom Wednesday morning for her seventh-grade English students to enter her room.
It is her seventh year as a teacher at the school, but long before that she walked the same halls as a student at the Richard R. Green School, which has lent its name to the building that now houses four small middle schools.
After the students got seated, fanning themselves with handouts on the muggy morning, Powell jumped into her classroom expectations.
Be prepared each day.
Work quietly and do not call out. Everyone will get a chance to ‘shine.’
Next she covered some formalities, including the promise of homework every day of the year (which drew sighs). Then she dove into the day’s lesson, asking, “What steps should someone take in order to be successful?”
Students gave their answers proudly: “Work hard.” “Pay attention.” “Come every day.” “Don’t get distracted.” Powell told the class that the path they take now will help determine their futures and prepare them for college.
“This is your job. This is your form of employment,” she said, before adding that “as long as you try your best, that’s what really counts.”
In a timed writing prompt, students detailed three steps they could take to ensure their success.
“This year I will come to school as early as possible,” one girl said, “so I can be ready to learn and be prepared for high school and college.”
When a simple problem stumps his students, a math teacher digs in
Jasper DeAntonio was using every trick in the book to get his students to participate on their first day at East Bronx Academy for the Future, a combined middle and high school.
On the board was a math problem that his ninth and 10th graders should have mastered years ago: 4 x 4 – 4 ÷ 4. But when DeAntonio prodded them to discuss their solutions, he found few willing volunteers.
The fourth-year math teacher paced between tables and hovered over students in hopes they would chime in. After giving them a few more minutes to huddle with a partner, DeAntonio changed tactics.
“If more of you raise your hands, it’s less likely you’ll get called on,” he said, nearing exasperation. A few students slowly lifted their arms.
After class, DeAntonio chalked the slow pace up to students’ nerves, but acknowledged that he’ll be battling some underlying issues all year. Many of East Bronx Academy’s students come from nearby neighborhoods — among the poorest in the country — and enter high school far behind grade level in math and reading.
One girl he pulled aside explained that it was more than first-day jitters that were keeping her from participating.
“I don’t want to work because I am always bad at math and I’ll always fail,” DeAntonio summed up. “She told me that to my face — ‘I don’t have anything against you, but I hate math and I don’t want to do it and I don’t want to be here.’”
That mindset is what DeAntonio and his colleagues are hoping to change. Before jumping into the meat of the school’s Algebra curriculum, students will spend the first several days in what the math team calls “Unit Zero.” Each class sets aside time to dispel notions that students often have about math and reinforce the idea that math isn’t an inherent ability, but something you get better at with practice.
DeAntonio said his relentless pursuit of his students’ participation on the first day — he spent more than 15 minutes trying to get them involved — was about establishing the expectation that no student would escape tough problems in his class.
“Now they know that I’m going to come around and ask them,” DeAntonio said.
At the end of a long day, students find ‘brain goals,’ ‘heart goals,’ and Yoda
Before the final period of the year’s first day, Alex Corbitt stood outside his seventh-grade English classroom inside the Bronx School for Young Leaders and greeted his last group of new students.
He knew the group, called 703, was tired and hungry (the school does not serve lunch until nearly 2 p.m.), and he’d heard that it contained more than a few troublemakers. Still, he was determined to follow Principal Serapha Cruz’s advice to her staff to balance toughness and tenderness on day one so that students would expect to work hard but also have fun at school.
“Alright 703, my name is Mr. Corbitt,” he told the line of students in the hallway. “I’ll talk to you more when you get inside.”
Inside, Corbitt asked them to create name cards and, on the back, to write the cell phone number of a loved one he could call whenever they did something praiseworthy. He waited until the class was silent, then he explained that every day they would have a “brain goal” having to do with English, and a matching “heart goal” meant to develop their character. He asked a girl what a heart goal might be.
“Let’s say you have anger,” she said. “A heart goal helps you get rid of that anger and be prepared to learn.”
Now it was time to tell them about himself. Cruz tells her teachers to ignore the old adage to avoid smiling in front of students before winter break; instead, they should open up and show the students they care. A third-year teacher, Corbitt had already seemed to master that concept.
He pointed to a whiteboard with a photo of him along with symbols of his interests: a guitar, a football, Yoda from “Star Wars.” A stock photo of students had the caption, “I’ve got your back,” which Corbitt said meant that they could seek his help with academics or “seventh-grade drama.”
Then he took students’ questions: Did he dye his beard? (No, it’s red because he’s Irish.) How old is he? (25.) Did he know he wanted to be a teacher when he was their age? (Nope. “That’s the crazy thing about life — you never know what’s going to happen next!”)
Corbitt had learned that students digest rules and procedures best when they’re embedded in activities, so next he explained how to listen closely to peers by having them share details about themselves. Whenever they got off track, Corbitt crossed his arms and waited stoically, until the class fell silent.
Finally, it was time for the grand finale. Corbitt had produced a highlight reel of videos of last year’s 7th graders. On his iPhone, he’d captured them working diligently in class, conducting a mock trial, and swimming during a class camping trip.
“The eighth graders now, when they were in your desks, they worked 150 percent,” he said before starting the video. “But guess what’s kind of cool: Every year the students get better and work harder and achieve more.”
Then he played the video and the students were transfixed. As they lined up for lunch, they all looked excited for day two.