How I Teach

‘I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had’: Why a Brooklyn teacher gave up professional photography for the classroom

PHOTO: DeMario Palmer
Una-Kariim Cross

Una-Kariim Cross’ teaching career was supposed to be brief.

But after spending a year as a substitute teacher in Lansing, Michigan, she had a hard time shaking the experience.

“I was already on this pathway to go to graduate school — so I kind of stuck with that plan,” she said. After completing her MFA in photography and honing her craft behind the camera and as a freelance writer, Cross found herself itching to get back in the classroom.

Now, she uses her arts background at the Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Brooklyn, where she teaches language arts, and works to connect students to the local arts community.

“I wished I had a teacher that was invested in me as a young person and a person of color,” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

School: Gotham Professional Arts Academy

Current grade/Subject: High school / Language arts, art criticism

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a print- and image-rich learning lab. There are traditional desks and chairs, but what’s most important is what is on the walls, what students see when they come into this space.

On the border above the chalk/white board is a culmination of images of writers, artists, and educators that have worked in New York and at Gotham Professional Arts Academy. Additionally, there are images from class trips we’ve taken and leaders in the community that my students have met, and art from a recent exhibition at BRIC in Brooklyn. That border gets significant attention from students and guests. It consists of writers: Langston Hughes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., Tupac.

What apps, software or other tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I cannot teach without Digital Schomburg because it has amazing and accessible online exhibitions, historical documents, images and artifacts — from general treasures of the New York Public Library to the African-American migration experience, and more. My absolute favorite is “Ready for a Revolution: Education, Arts, and Aesthetics of the Black Power Movement.”

Using art as a point of entry has really pulled some of my scholars in. The images ignite their curiosity in a way that leads them to autonomous research.

How do you plan your lessons?

Lesson planning always begins with assessment, which allows me to see what skills students have when they are entering a classroom. I’m assessing basic reading comprehension, if they have analytical abilities, and basic writing.

Usually, they’re coming from middle school and they’re just doing basic comprehension. They personalize everything [instead of analyzing the text], and I have to see if they’re still doing that. Or I can have students who are getting it and develop their own critical questions. And that determines whether I can do a short re-teaching mini-lesson or can move on.

What makes an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson, or an ideal moment in the classroom, is over 50 percent student engagement. It’s a lesson or a day where the students are leading, invested, demonstrating learning, and on fire! They are filled with passion and they show it.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

This is likely one of the most challenging moments in the classroom. The most important thing to have in one’s teaching arsenal when confronted with this scenario is to know your scholars. Know what makes them tick, know what you can leverage, know who they are and what their interests are, find out what is causing the lost focus and bring them back.

Depending on the scholar, I can also ask them to re-engage by creating a leadership position, such as facilitating a discussion or even something smaller such as writing names on the board as we prep for discussion.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received was from artist, author and former educator Faith Ringgold. I was struggling with the realities of teaching young people whose lives are often in crisis and I was talking to her about it when I visited her studio in Englewood, NJ. She said: “Your job is to teach the children.” I remember that essentially she was saying, ‘No matter what their circumstance is, your responsibility is to educate.’ That always keeps me focused.


Bronx middle school stabbing used as evidence in federal report calling for rollback of Obama discipline rules

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
New York City closed the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, where a student was stabbed to death, at the end of the school year.

A federal recommendation that school districts no longer be encouraged to reduce suspensions cites an unusual tragedy in New York City as one justification.

In a report released Tuesday, the federal school safety commission recommends rescinding the Obama administration’s discipline guidance that aimed to reduce suspensions, specifically for students of color. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to follow that advice soon, handing a win to the conservative campaign to link school discipline reforms with unsafe schools.

That campaign has pointed to the September 2017 murder of a Bronx middle schooler as evidence that efforts to address racial disparities in discipline may have made America’s schools less safe. In that incident, Matthew McCree, a 15-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation, died after he was stabbed in a school classrom by a classmate whom he had reportedly bullied.

One footnote in the discipline section of the federal report cites a study by Max Eden, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, that concludes that changes in discipline policy in New York City between 2012 and 2016 caused school climate to deteriorate. Another cites Eden’s reported piece that contends that the stabbing happened because discipline in New York City’s schools had grown more lax.

“This change was in line with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise of putting city schools at the vanguard of a nationwide movement to unwind traditional discipline in favor of a new progressive, or restorative, approach,” Eden wrote in the story, which cites accounts from current and former teachers and students at the Bronx school.

The idea that less punitive discipline leads to less safe schools is not at all clear. While teachers in multiple districts have reported feeling hamstrung by new restrictions cutting back on suspensions, little research exists to make the case that their students have suffered — or to argue for alternatives such as restorative justice that the Obama-era guidelines urged, either.

Even less clear is how much difference changed federal guidance would make to New York City. Districts will be able to continue to pursue alternatives to suspension if they so choose. In continuing to promote alternatives to suspension, de Blasio could point to data showing that the city’s schools are largely safe. Under his administration, major and minor crimes have fallen, and the stabbing in the Bronx was the first murder in a city school in about two decades.

At the same time, the city has recently seen suspensions tick upward, even before the changed federal discipline guidance. Chancellor Richard Carranza last month attributed the new numbers to at least some misbehavior going unreported in the past. “Part of it is that people are actually now reporting everything, which I think is a good thing,” he said.

Yet even as Carranza appeared to give credence to some of the criticism of the Obama-era discipline guidelines, he emphasized another of the administration’s goals — ensuring that students of color are not punished excessively. In New York City, as in much of the country, black and Hispanic students receive a disproportionate share of suspensions.

“The data that was released is jarring,” Carranza added. “It should make every single New Yorker ask the question: What is going on? We’ve actually been asking that question. We’re working on a series of things that we’re going to do to address the disproportionality.”

chronically absent

‘We’re doing it to help all of us’: In Newark, student-researchers ask their peers why they miss school

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Members of the New-Ark Leaders of Health research team. From left: Hansier Rodriguez, Kutorkor Kotey, KryJuan Roberson, Eric Bellamy, Israel Alford, Kayla Killiebrew, Simone Richardson, and Asiyah Marti.

With one in three Newark students considered chronically absent last year, a team of researchers has set out to discover why so many students are missing so much school.

To solve that riddle, the team has held focus groups and surveyed high school students at summer school programs, churches, and supermarkets. Many researchers have conducted similar studies, but this team is different — it includes students interviewing their peers about their shared struggles with attendance.

“We’re speaking in a language they understand,” said Manuel Mejia, a sophomore at Rutgers University-Newark who attended Newark’s Arts High School. “We’re not here to research them as a separate group — we’re doing it to help all of us.”

The research team includes students from Newark’s traditional, charter, and county-run high schools, alongside students from Rutgers University-Newark. They are part of a Rutgers-based program, called New-Ark Leaders of Health, where students aged 14 to 21 research public-health challenges and propose solutions.

Earlier this year, the 17-member team decided to focus on absenteeism. They considered it a matter of public health because of the dire consequences for chronically absent students, who tend to have lower grades and higher dropout rates, and are at greater risk of entering the criminal-justice system and facing poverty as an adult.

Newark suffers from unusually high rates of chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of days in a school year — the equivalent of about a month of class. Unlike truancy, which refers to unexcused absences, this category includes anytime a student misses school — whether because of illness, a suspension, transportation difficulties, or other causes.

Last year, 33 percent of students were chronically absent. In the first three months of this school year, about 22 percent of students already are, with more likely to join them as attendance typically dips as the year wears on. And yet, because absences can accumulate gradually as students miss a few days one week then another day weeks later, many never realize the academic danger they’re in.

“I was basically chronically absent and I did not know,” said student-researcher Kutorkor Kotey, an 11th-grader at Bard High School Early College Newark, who said she missed several days one month. “Our main focus is to bring awareness to people.”

The research project was funded through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Rutgers-based group that provides leadership training to Newark families and students. The students who were selected to participate earn a small stipend.

Attendance in Nov. 2018 | Green = rarely absent | Yellow = frequently absent | Orange = chronically absent | Red = severely chronically absent | Credit: Newark Public Schools

In the spring, the team submitted a research plan to an institutional review board at Rutgers. After they tweaked a consent form to make it easier for high schoolers to read, the board approved it. By then it was summer, so the team targeted students in summer school and out in the community. They administered about 100 surveys and held two focus groups.

The student-researchers focused on high schoolers partly because those are their peers. But that is also the age also when chronic absenteeism spikes. Last year, nearly 40 percent of ninth-graders were chronically absent — a risk factor that greatly diminishes their odds of graduating on time.

To the average adult, that might sound like lots of students playing hooky. But the researchers knew from personal experience that many absent students would like to attend school — yet an array of obstacles often stand in their way.

“There’s always this narrative that people from Newark are perceived to be, from an outside perspective, lazy, poor, drug-ridden, and that’s why people are chronically absent,” said Simone Richardson, a Rutgers senior who helped lead the research team. “But what we’ve seen is that a lot of it is because of these oppressive structures.”

The researchers uncovered a heap of reasons why high schoolers miss school, from dentist appointments to unreliable city buses and concerns about gang violence on the path to school — or once they arrive. Often they are grappling with adult responsibilities, such as getting younger siblings to class or working after-school jobs, that make it hard to show up to school on time or at all.

One of the researchers, Eric Bellamy, who is in the 12th grade at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, described his own struggle to balance school and work. After classes end at 2:40, he rushes to a downtown seafood restaurant where he works as a cook and server from 3 to 9 o’clock, he said. It’s often 10 p.m. before he’s taken the bus home and can even think about homework.

As one of nine siblings, he said, he cannot rely on his mother to help pay for school-related expenses like a tuxedo and photos for prom.

“I’m not going to depend on my mom,” he said. “So I just have to thug it out and continue with the job.”

In some cases, schools themselves deter students from attending. Bellamy said school can sometimes feel like jail — “a cell that has more freedom,” as he put it. Other students mentioned strict uniform policies, unappetizing lunches, or ineffectual teachers that make them want to say away. Still others cited school policies that mark students absent after they have been late several times, and that block students with multiple absences from participating in extracurricular activities or even lead to suspensions, perversely adding to the days away.

“Schools don’t really get down to why that student is late,” said Israel Alford, a Rutgers senior who coordinates the research project. “Rather, they jump to, ‘Hey, let’s just punish this kid, maybe that will motivate them to come on time.’”

One of the main factors that the team heard time and again was mental health. Many students said they were coping with trauma or battling anxiety or depression. School guidance counselors are often overworked and under-qualified to address students’ mental-health needs, they said. Meanwhile, the schoolwork they must manage alongside their other responsibilities just adds to the stress.

Kayla Killiebrew, a 12th-grader at a charter high school run by North Star Academy, said she sometimes babysits her younger nephew on the weekends, which prevents her from completing her homework.

“Then I wake up in the morning stressed and I don’t want to go to school,” she said, explaining that she dreads having to tell her teachers she didn’t do her work. “There’s just so many factors in school that will add onto the stress I’m already having. So I’d rather just stay home and deal with it.”

The team is planning to conduct another round of surveys in high schools early next year, but first the group needs the district’s permission. They are hoping the new superintendent, Roger León, will sign off since he has said improving attendance will be cornerstone of his agenda.

Once the student researchers have finished gathering and analyzing their data, they intend to publish their findings along with policy recommendations. Their mission is to make sure that student voices inform any plan to improve attendance in Newark.

“Students know why they’re chronically absent,” Alford said. “The problem is that no one’s asking them.”