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I cannot teach without Digital Schomburg because it has amazing and accessible online exhibitions, historical documents, images and artifacts — from general treasures of the New York Public Library to the African-American migration experience, and more.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.

student teaching

Building a teacher pipeline: How one Aurora school has become a training ground for aspiring teachers

Paraprofessional Sonia Guzman, a student of a teaching program, works with students at Elkhart Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at Aurora’s Elkhart Elementary School are getting assistance from three aspiring teachers helping out in classrooms this year, part of a new partnership aimed at building a bigger and more diverse teacher pipeline.

The teachers-to-be, students at the University of Northern Colorado’s Center for Urban Education, get training and a paid job while they’re in college. Elkhart principal Ron Schumacher gets paraprofessionals with long-term goals and a possibility that they’ll be better prepared to be Aurora teachers.

For Schumacher, it’s part of a plan to not only help his school, but also others in Aurora Public Schools increase teacher retention.

“Because of the nature of our school demographics, it’s a coin flip with a new teacher,” Schumacher said. “If I lose 50 percent of my teachers over time, I’m being highly inefficient. If these ladies know what they’re getting into and I can have them prepared to be a more effective first-year teacher, there’s more likelihood that I’ll keep them in my school in the long term.”

Elkhart has about 590 students enrolled this year. According to state data from last year, more than 95 percent of the students who attend the school qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. The school, which operates with an International Baccalaureate program, has outperformed the district average on some state tests.

The three paraprofessionals hired by the school this year are part of the teaching program at UNC’s Lowry campus, which has long required students to work in a school for the four years they work on their degree.

Students get paid for their work in schools, allowing them to earn some money while going to college. Students from the program had worked in Aurora schools in the past, but not usually three students at once at the same school, and not as part of a formal partnership.

The teaching program has a high number of students of color and first-generation college students, which Rosanne Fulton, the program director, said is another draw for partnering with schools in the metro area.

Schumacher said every principal and education leader has the responsibility to help expose students to more teachers who can relate to them.

One of this year’s paraprofessionals is Andy Washington, an 18-year-old who attended Elkhart for a few years when she was a child.

“Getting to know the kids on a personal level, I thought I was going to be scared, but they’re cool,” Washington said.

Another paraprofessional, 20-year-old Sonia Guzman, said kids are opening up to them.

“They ask you what college is like,” Guzman said.

Schumacher said there are challenges to hiring the students, including figuring out how to make use of the students during the morning or early afternoon while being able to release them before school is done for the day so they can make it to their college classes.

Schumacher said he and his district director are working to figure out the best ways to work around those problems so they can share lessons learned with other Aurora principals.

“We’re using some people differently and tapping into volunteers a little differently, but if it’s a priority for you, there are ways of accommodating their schedules,” he said.

At Elkhart, full-time interventionists work with students in kindergarten through third grade who need extra help learning to read.

But the school doesn’t have the budget to hire the same professionals to work with older students. The three student paraprofessionals are helping bridge that gap, learning from the interventionists so they can work with fourth and fifth grade students.

Recently, the three started getting groups of students that they pull out during class to give them extra work on reading skills.

One exercise they worked on with fourth grade students recently was helping them identify if words had an “oi” or “oy” spelling based on their sounds. Students sounded out their syllables and used flashcards to group similar words.

Districts across the country have looked at similar approaches to help attract and prepare teachers for their own schools. In Denver, bond money voters approved last year is helping pay to expand a program this year where paraprofessionals can apply for a one-year program to become teachers while they continue working.

In the partnership at Elkhart, students paraprofessionals take longer than that, but in their first and second year are already learning how to write lessons during their afternoon classes and then working with teachers at the school to deliver the lessons and then reflect on how well they worked. Students say the model helps them feel supported.

“It’s really helping me to become more confident,” said Stephanie Richards, 26, the third paraprofessional. “I know I’m a lot more prepared.”

Schumacher said the model could also work in the future with students from other teaching schools or programs. It’s a small but important part, he said, toward helping larger efforts to attract and retain teachers, and also diversify the ranks.

“You’re doing something for the next generation of folks coming in,” he said.

testing testing

McQueen to convene third task force as Tennessee seeks to get testing right

PHOTO: Creative Commons/timlewisnm

For a third straight year, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen will convene a task force to examine Tennessee’s testing program in the wake of persistent hiccups with its TNReady assessment and perennial concerns about over-testing.

McQueen announced Monday the members of her newest task force, which will assemble on Dec. 11 in Nashville and complete its work next July. The group includes educators, lawmakers, and parents.

At the top of the agenda: evaluating the first full year of TNReady testing for grades 3-8 and the second year for high schoolers, the latter of which was marred by scoring problems for a small percentage of students.


Five things to know about the latest brouhaha over TNReady


The group also will look at district-level “formative tests” that measure student progress to help teachers adjust their instruction throughout the school year. The goal is to support districts so those tests align with TNReady and the state’s newest academic standards.

The transition to online testing and concerns about over-testing will be on the minds of task force members.

This marks the first school year that all high schoolers will take TNReady online since 2016, when a new platform buckled on its first day. State officials are more confident this time around under a phased-in approach that began last school year with 25 districts. (Middle and elementary schools will make the switch in 2019.)

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Candice McQueen

On over-testing, McQueen has highlighted 11th-grade as a concern. The junior year of high school is intense as students explore their post-graduation options while taking the ACT college entrance exam, the state’s end-of-course exams, and for some, Advanced Placement tests. All are high-stakes.

McQueen told Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month that the upcoming task force will seek to strip away tests that don’t align with Tennessee’s priorities.

“We’re looking for testing reductions … but also setting a path toward (our) goals, which is a new test that’s aligned to new standards that really matter,” she told Haslam during budget hearings.

During its first two years, task force work has led to a number of changes.

Recommendations in the first year resulted in the elimination of a test for eighth- and tenth-graders, as well as the shortening of TNReady tests for math and reading.

In the second year, the task force contributed to Tennessee’s education plan under a new federal law and slimmed down science and social studies assessments for third- and fourth-graders.

Members of the third task force are:

  • Candice McQueen, Tennessee commissioner of education
  • Sara Morrison, executive director, State Board of Education
  • Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman, Senate Education Committee
  • Rep. John Forgety, chairman, House Education Instruction and Programs Committee
  • Rep. Harry Brooks, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Committee
  • Rep. Mark White, chairman, House Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee*
  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Board Association*
  • Barbara Gray, president, Tennessee Education Association
  • Dale Lynch, executive director, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents*
  • Sharon Roberts, chief strategy officer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education*
  • Audrey Shores, chief operating officer, Professional Educators of Tennessee
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and senior director of education policy & programs, Conexión Américas*
  • Lisa Wiltshire, policy director, Tennesseans for Quality Early Education*
  • Shawn Kimble, director, Lauderdale County School System*
  • Mike Winstead, director, Maryville City Schools
  • Jennifer Cothron, assessment supervisor, Wilson County Schools*
  • Trey Duke, coordinator for Federal Programs and RTI2, Rutherford County Schools*
  • Michael Hubbard, director of performance excellence, Kingsport City Schools*
  • LaToya Pugh, iZone science instructional support manager, Shelby County Schools*
  • Bill Harlin, principal, Nolensville High School, Williamson County Schools
  • Laura Charbonnet, assistant principal, Collierville High School, Collierville Schools*
  • Tim Childers, assistant principal, L&N STEM Academy, Knox County Schools*
  • Kevin Cline, assistant principal, Jefferson County High School, Jefferson County Schools*
  • Kim Herring, teacher, Cumberland County High School, Cumberland County School District*
  • Jolinea Pegues, special education teacher, Southwind High School, Shelby County Schools*
  • Stacey Travis, teacher, Maryville High School, Maryville City Schools*
  • Josh Rutherford, teacher, Houston County High School, Houston County School District*
  • Cicely Woodard, 2017-18 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, West End Middle Prep, Metro Nashville Public Schools*
  • Virginia Babb, parent, Knox County Parent-Teacher Association
  • Jennifer Frazier, parent, Hamblen County Department of Education*
  • Student members will be invited*

*new members