Community

New York

Learning The Power Of Storytelling With My ESL Students

I have long had a curiosity about the power of storytelling and realized that I could connect this passion to my teaching. In reflecting about my teaching with English language learners in the summer of 2011, I thought about inspiring the imagination of storytelling as bridge between the spoken word and the written word. Ultimately, as a teacher of English Language Learners, I am on a quest for fluency. Only by attaining proficiency in writing as well as speaking can we truly say a student is fluent in English. In my experience, the level of engagement has a significant impact on my students' progress, and designing lessons that are consistently relevant and engaging to my students, has been both a challenge and inspiration to me. So I designed a project in which my students would write their own stories. Working with graduate students in creative writing from Columbia University, my English as a Second Language students described their experiences leaving their families and home countries and living in the United States. Students read their stories aloud to seniors at the Cobble Hill Nursing Home, and we published a book of those stories, "Stories That Changed Us Forever." Proceeds from book sales will go into a scholarship fund for the students who worked on the project. My guiding questions for myself for this project were: 1. How do adolescent immigrants find their voice in writing and in life? 2. What strategies engage students in using their voice to transform their writing, while also building confidence, strengthening literacy skills, and providing real audiences for their stories? My guiding question for my students for this project was: What impact does my story have on peoples' lives? Below are excerpts from my students' stories and from reflections that they wrote after reading their stories aloud.
New York

The Worst Eighth-Grade Math Teacher in New York City

For 10 months, Carolyn Abbott waited for the other shoe to drop. In April 2011, Abbott, who teaches mathematics to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, received some startling news. Her score on the Teacher Data Report, the New York City Department of Education’s effort to isolate a teacher’s contribution to her students’ performance on New York State’s math and English Language Arts tests in grades four through eight, said that 32 percent of seventh-grade math teachers and 0 percent of eighth-grade math teachers scored below her. She was, according to this report, the worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City, where she has taught since 2007. “I was angry, upset, offended,” she said. Abbott sought out her principal, who reassured her that she was an excellent teacher and that the Teacher Data Reports bore no relation to her performance. But, the principal confided, she was worried; although she would enthusiastically recommend Abbott for tenure, the Teacher Data Report could count against her in the tenure process. With a new district superintendent reviewing the tenure recommendation, anything could happen. Using a statistical technique called value-added modeling, the Teacher Data Reports compare how students are predicted to perform on the state ELA and math tests, based on their prior year’s performance, with their actual performance. Teachers whose students do better than predicted are said to have “added value”; those whose students do worse than predicted are “subtracting value.” By definition, about half of all teachers will add value, and the other half will not. Carolyn Abbott was, in one respect, a victim of her own success. After a year in her classroom, her seventh-grade students scored at the 98th percentile of New York City students on the 2009 state test. As eighth-graders, they were predicted to score at the 97th percentile on the 2010 state test. However, their actual performance was at the 89th percentile of students across the city. That shortfall — the difference between the 97th percentile and the 89th percentile — placed Abbott near the very bottom of the 1,300 eighth-grade mathematics teachers in New York City.
New York

Looking Back On Student Journalism At Bronx Science

The student press, at least legally, is not a free press. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school newspapers are legally subject to administrative review. As many — including the comic book character Spiderman — have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and indeed, we usually count on the good faith of school administrators in these matters of content regulation. At the Bronx High School of Science, however, whether administrators acted in good faith on these matters is not clear. Last year, I was one of two editors of the Editorial page on the school’s newspaper, the Science Survey. While disputes between teachers and administration have received a high profile in media coverage, here is a side of the story you probably have not heard before. Trouble In The Math Department At the end of April 2010, the union complaint the math teachers had earlier filed through the city union was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Principal Valerie Reidy’s side anyway and more or less ignored the arbitrator’s findings. (In December, an arbitrator ruled that Lamphere's low rating should be discarded.) At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and next year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in several city newspapers), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue. Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously.
New York

On Gestalt: A School Is More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Schools are complex environments, strewn with relationships amongst adults with a multiplicity of roles and allegiances, complicated by the volatile and competitive relationships of children striving to understand their place in the world. To work in a public school is to daily navigate treacherous political and interpersonal waters, work on various teams, alternately pressure and commiserate with parents in meetings and on phone calls, and conference with children to steer them through issues they encounter in their relationships with others. Relationships comprise the foundation on which the real work of schools reside. Teachers meet with one another to plan curricula and assessments (or at least, they should), examine and share student work, analyze data, and share resources and ideas on how to manage children with challenging behavior or inadequate academic progress. Students often have strong relationships with multiple adults in the building, such as the security guard, the secretary, another teacher down the hall, or a trusted paraprofessional or school aide. Teachers use tricks to capitalize on these relationships, distracting students in crisis by asking them to deliver pretend “mail” to other teachers, or sending them to a corner or outside the classroom with a co-teacher or paraprofessional to “de-escalate” and engage in a problem-solving conversation. As a special education teacher, my students often engage with a number of adults on any given day as part of their services delivered via their Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as counseling, speech-language therapy, one-on-one tutoring (SETTS), or occupational therapy. Many of my students are also English language learners (ELLs — gotta love all the acronyms, eh?), and are also pulled for small group English as a second language instruction. This year, I am teaching in an inclusion, co-teaching classroom, and my general education students are also sometimes pulled for academic intervention services (AIS) and dance practice for a school performance. Many of them also attend after-school programs most days of the week. Now think of how many adults contribute to the education of the students I am responsible for. And the farce that is value-added accountability becomes apparent. How can you possibly disaggregate my individual impact on a student from the collective impact of the school environment and that individual student’s work with other adults?
New York

When Turnaround Came To My School

A week ago, as I walked into Flushing High School to start my day, there was a strange energy in the air — a mixture of anxiety and strangely, a little optimism. In the mailroom there was a colorful bulletin board of pictures from a recent rally held by teachers and students on the sidewalk in front of our school. The images were uplifting: smiles and enthusiastic faces marching together for a common cause — to save our school from possible "turnaround," a form of closure. The reason that morning stands out so vividly in my mind is that the public hearing about the city's plan was to take place that evening. The fact that this was real — and that this was really going to happen — set in when I passed the auditorium around 1 p.m. and saw the final adjustments being made to the tables, chairs, and microphones that would facilitate the contentious meeting. I was unexpectedly hit with feelings of sadness and resentment; the auditorium where I had participated in so many concerts, plays, poetry readings, and awards ceremonies was being “invaded” by bureaucrats who had never visited our school, or interacted with any of our students. I joked with my students that it felt like the penultimate scene in "E.T." when scientists set up shop in Elliot’s house. As I recount the details of that evening, there will be one recurring theme: I am so proud of my students! An hour before the hearing began, about 15 students gathered at the end of a hallway to make posters supporting our school. The posters expressed many different ideas: “Save Our School," for example, or “You Can’t Destroy our Dreams" and “137 Years Strong, We Belong!”  The poster-making session was accompanied by lively discussion that included anger, optimism, pessimism, and cynicism. “How can they close our school?” one student asked. “Mr. Albertson, do you think there is any chance that they may vote to keep our school open?”  In a nearby office, students helped each other draft and edit speeches that they would present at the hearing. We walked to the auditorium as a group and immediately signed up to speak. Some of the students meandered through the growing crowd and were collecting signatures on a poster reading: “Save our School!” Within minutes there was no free space for any additional names.
New York

Making Failure An Option

My ninth-graders and I are still working our way through "Romeo and Juliet." I’ve taught this play before. For the most part, I’m using lessons I’ve used before, just tweaking them to suit my new students. I’m not being lazy. I’m being smart. My lessons are good and I know they work. In the middle of Act III, however, we got to my favorite scene in the play. It’s the one where Friar Lawrence chews Romeo out for being self-absorbed and melodramatic. While I love this scene, I’ve never figured out an effective way to teach it: it’s filled with long speeches that students often find very difficult. In the past, I’ve just walked the students through the scene, making sure they get the key points. It works, but it’s kind of boring. This year, rather than reuse my old lesson, I planned something new. I put the students into groups and had them divide up the speeches amongst their group members. In their groups, the students created contemporary versions of the scene, translated into their own contemporary language and supplemented with stage directions. It was a two-day lesson and my plan was to have the students perform their versions of the scene at the end of the second day. As it turned out, I was too ambitious. While a few groups completed everything in two days, none of them had a chance to rehearse for a performance. Many groups didn’t even complete their stage directions. According to the goals I set during planning, I — or my students, or both — had failed.
New York

Million Hoodie March, Victor Hugo Edition: Les Miserábles in the South Bronx

It's a Tuesday after ninth period and I'm walking down the hallway of my South Bronx school toward what looks unmistakably like a fight. A tight circle of high school boys are gathered around two other boys on the floor outside of the classroom where I teach theater. One of the boys appears to be pounding the other with his fist. The other kids are chanting, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" The scene doesn't make sense to me. Sure, we have our fair share of hallway scuffles, but compared to most schools in the neighborhood, ours isn't terribly violent. I get closer and recognize that all the kids in the group are cast members in Les Miserábles, the spring musical I'm directing. Now I'm even more confused. Some of these kids may struggle academically and some have tough home lives, but there's not a bully or a thug among them. Even so, the energy of the scene automatically triggers memories of my early days as a new teacher breaking up fights in the back of my classroom, memories that are quick to surge up and flood me with adrenaline despite the trusting relationships I've built with my students, the leadership work they've done over the years and the creative challenges we've faced together while developing a musical theater program at Bronx Prep. The chanting gets louder. I race down the hall. When I get to the scene, the circle of kids unknots itself and I struggle to make sense of what I'm seeing. George — the student on the floor — is laughing so hard he can barely breathe. The boy kneeling over him is not punching him, but hugging him and slapping him on the back with enough enthusiasm and force to have toppled them both over. Several of the boys around them are wiping tears out of their eyes. At first I assume they're tears of laughter. I ask what's going on.
New York

We All Know Bernard

There’s only one Bernard, but every teacher has a Bernard. He epitomizes everything we loathe about teaching adolescents, everything we love about teaching adolescents, and everything we loved about being (and still love about being) adolescents. He loves to argue and will pick fights with you about almost anything — but it’s all because he’s asking for limits. Once you give them to him, firmly and with clear explanations, you’ve earned his trust. Depending on my own energy level, I can handle conflicts with this student in one of two ways: one that enforces his perception, and or one that patiently and gently guides it into a strong sense of justice and a keen understanding of how to advocate respectfully and effectively for himself. I’d like to share an example of the latter, not just because I’m proud of it but because I think conflict resolution with authority figures is one of the most important skills we can teach young people — particularly young people of color who are so often the victims of harassment and unjust targeting. I hope others will share strategies for addressing the Bernards in their lives. Bernard arrived late to my classroom yesterday (as usual). Unbeknowst to me, he had accidentally brought his phone to school with him and (miraculously) it had not been detected by the scanners through which every student must pass. When he realized it was there, he panicked. He couldn’t let a teacher see it, or it would get confiscated. But the pocket he’d kept it in — a mesh pocket on the outside of his backpack — was too obvious. He didn’t want to keep it in a pocket of his backpack, lest someone steal it. He apparently walked into my room completely preoccupied with what to do about this situation. Students were writing essay, and one girl had asked to type on my laptop. I’d let her sit in Bernard's front row seat so the computer cord could reach the outlet. Bernard, despite being late, was furious and refused to sit anywhere except his seat. Exasperated and worried about losing time, I asked Bernard to step into the hallway and planned to negotiate with him in a moment when I was finished getting the other students working.

First Person

New York

Researchers: College readiness requires resources

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the first installment, Janice Bloom and Lori Chajet present their research into the college application and transition process in New York City Schools. Bloom and Chajet both taught in small city high schools that mostly serve low-income students of color before enrolling in CUNY Graduate Center's urban education program. They now co-direct an organization, College Access: Research & Action, to ease the college transition for city students. Leave questions for Bloom and Chajet about their research in the comments section. Further Reading "Willie Rivera Thoughts: Critical Small Schools and the Transition to Higher Education" An article by Bloom in "Critical Small Schools: Beyond Privatization in New York City Urban Educational Reform," 2012 "We Are All In It Together: The Role of Youth Leadership in College Access" An article by Chajet in Voices in Urban Education, 2011 "(Mis)Reading Social Class in the Journey Towards College: Youth Development in Urban America" An article by Bloom in Teachers College Record, 2007 "The Power and Limits of Small School Reform: Institutional Agency and Democratic Leadership in Public Education, DOE" An essay by Chajet in "Keeping the Promise: Essays on Leadership, Democracy, and Education," 2007 What questions guided your study?   Bloom: How does social class impact students’ choices about post-secondary education and their transition to college? Chajet: What happens to students when they move from a small urban public school, with a college-for-all mission, to college, and how does this illuminate the power and the limits of small school reform and the policies and practices of higher education? How did you conduct your research? Bloom: I used ethnographic research to study students at three small New York City high schools over the course of a year. The elements of my research were: Weekly observations of college prep or “advisory” classes; focus groups and individual interviews with a small target group of students; interviews with parents, college counselors, teachers, and the school principals; two surveys administered to a large cohort of seniors at each school. Chajet: My study had two parts: 1) an ethnographic school based study that included participant observation, interviews with staff members and students, and document collection at one academically-unscreened small school; 2) a graduate follow-up study for which I followed a group of 6 students for three and a half-years as they transitioned into and through college – including interviewing them and their families, visiting them at their colleges, collecting their of syllabi and assignments, emailing and calling them. I also did interviews, focus groups and surveys with approximately 100 other graduates. What were your major discoveries?
New York

Fear And Self-Loathing In The Classroom

Earlier this month, my ninth-graders read the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.” Whenever I teach Shakespeare, I like to have my students do some acting. When I teach the balcony scene, I push the students to take this process very seriously. I look for enthusiastic volunteers who can read the lines with aplomb. This is, after all, one of the great scenes in world literature. In case you’ve forgotten, teenagers are extraordinarily self-conscious. A few of them put their hands up right away, ready to stroll up to the front of the room and try on some Elizabethan English, but they’re a small minority. When I ask for readers, most students aren’t even thinking about Shakespeare’s language; they’re worrying about the pimple on their nose or their changing voice. So when I ask for volunteers, it’s never surprising that many students simply slump down in their chairs and try to hide. I teach in Brooklyn now, but my hunch is that this response, this hiding, is universal. Some years ago, I taught at a private school in Ann Arbor, Mich.; my students there used to hide too. What are these kids hiding from? What are they so afraid of? It's clear to me that they are afraid of failure. In many cases, they’re absolutely convinced that they will fail. Day after day, dejected students tell me that they can’t do things. They can’t write a paragraph; they can’t draw a tree; they can’t multiply fractions. Very often, our job as teachers is simply to push students to engage in tasks that they already know how to complete. It might not sound like hard work, but many of our students are so demoralized, it’s a wonder they even get out of bed in the morning. Here’s the thing: They’re not just being moody teenagers. These students are expressing a hopelessness that’s been drilled into them for years. Day after day, year after year: our students hear the same message: that they are failures.
New York

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground. In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.” It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive. Among other things, my students composed a "Schoolhouse Rock"-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.