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I cannot teach without Digital Schomburg because it has amazing and accessible online exhibitions, historical documents, images and artifacts — from general treasures of the New York Public Library to the African-American migration experience, and more.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

Controversy

Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

departures

As fate of ‘Newark Enrolls’ is debated, top enrollment officials resign

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The top officials overseeing Newark’s controversial school-enrollment system have resigned just weeks after the school board blocked the new superintendent from ousting them.

Their departure creates new uncertainty for Newark Enrolls, one of the few enrollment systems in the country that allows families to apply to district and charter schools through a single online portal. Proponents say the centralized system simplifies the application process for families and gives them more options, while critics say it undermines traditional neighborhood schools while boosting charter-school enrollment.

Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, chief of the Newark Public Schools division that includes enrollment, and Kate Fletcher, executive director of the enrollment office, both departed on Friday. The district did not provide information about why they left or who — if anyone — will replace them, and neither of the two could be reached for comment.

Their departure comes after Superintendent Roger León, who took over on July 1, included them among 31 officials and administrators who were given the option to resign or face being fired. Days later, the school board approved all but nine of the dismissals; Ramos-Solomon and Fletcher were among those spared.

Both officials were hired in 2013 shortly before former Superintendent Cami Anderson unveiled the enrollment system, then called One Newark, as part of a sweeping overhaul that also included closing some schools. Parents were outraged by the closures and the system’s glitchy rollout, which left some students without school placements and separated other students from their siblings.

In recent years, Ramos-Solomon has overseen improvements to the system, including tweaking the computer algorithm that matches students with schools to give a greater boost to families who live near their chosen schools. While district data shows that most students are matched with one of their top choices, critics remain wary of the system and some — including some board members — call for it to be dismantled.

León, a veteran Newark educator who was expected by some observers to oppose Newark Enrolls, said in a private meeting with charter-school leaders that he intends to keep the process in place. But he will have to win over the board, whose members have asked the district skeptical questions about the system in recent months, such as why some students are reportedly matched with charter schools they didn’t apply to. (The district says that does not happen.)

Board member Tave Padilla said he was not aware that Ramos-Solomon or Fletcher had resigned, and did not know whether replacements had been lined up. He added that the board had not discussed the fate of Newark Enrolls since a meeting in June where Ramos-Solomon provided information about the system, nor has the full board discussed the matter with León.

“The district now does have the option to keep what we have in place, modify it, or do away with it,” he said. “Whether we choose to do that or not, I don’t know.”