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New York

The Ones Who Stay With Me And What I Try To Give Them

It’s the most challenging students I carry with me long after they’ve moved onto the next grade. The student who threw a desk at me, the one who cursed me out every day, the one who experienced schizophrenic hallucinations in the afternoon, the one who punched a hole in my wall, the one who cried and went into hysterics whenever I asked her to complete a task, the one who ripped up every single piece of writing before he could finish, the one who used a laptop as a weapon on another student and made sure I never left the room during my prep period again ... These are the ones who keep me up at night, the ones who often have undergone childhood experiences so unfathomable that even to speak of the students out loud makes tears spring to my eyes and my voice so thick I don't try to speak, even with loved ones. Such students drive us teachers nuts while they are in our classrooms (and all too often, in our hallways). They are the ones rarely absent, the ones that disrupt the entire class dynamic and rivet everyone’s attention. They always demand immediate answers, they do not accept authority unless it stands up to their own notions of justice, and they make fun of pretty much everything that crosses their radar, which usually includes students unable to stand up for themselves. But it is these students who come back to me. These are the students that teach me how to be a better teacher, and a better person. They have been teaching me what they had been put through, from their earliest days. They were sharing — in the only way they knew how to communicate it — something deep, and fundamental, and raw. And as I have grown to recognize those lessons, I have learned how to better love all of my students, and even — at the risk of sounding cheesy — how to better love humanity. Sometimes, anyway.
New York

On Silence And Confusion

It doesn't matter what subject you teach; every lesson contains at least one frightening transition. After the teacher presents the day’s new content and gives instructions to the students about the day’s activity, he or she says the magic words: “Get started.” It’s like a step into the abyss. On the best days, 75-85 percent of the students get started immediately. Ten to 20 percent of the other students see them working and, feeling self-conscious about their inactivity, pick up their pens, open their books and pretend to be immersed in the work. Confused about their assignment, the two or three remaining students raise their hands and I walk over to answer their questions. Such days are rare. Sometimes, the percentages are different, but the range of activity is roughly the same. Some days, I say the magic words and the whole class stares at me like I’m speaking Greek. Ancient Greek. It’s a brutal moment. Were my instructions that unclear? Am I really that bad at this? Are the students punishing me? Alternately, I might wonder, “What’s wrong with them?” I know I’m a good teacher; my instructions were clear and I’ve taught this lesson before. Why don’t they start their work? In that moment — while the students stare at me blankly, silently — I have to make a choice. I can break that silence, restate the instructions, perhaps more loudly and slowly than before, and take questions from the students. Or I can let the silence sit there and wait it out, hoping and trusting that the kids are just moving slowly today and will figure it out. As a new teacher, my impulse was always to opt for the former.
New York

Slicing The Apple Stereotype

As a first year teacher in 2009, I’d tried to discuss themes of oppression and internalized oppression through short stories about teenagers in inner-city Manhattan and Brooklyn. My students’ discomfort was palpable and, at times, explicit. What I was doing, unintentionally, was setting them up to either defend or attack the issues in their own communities. While I wanted desperately to put aside my whiteness, it was my whiteness that made working meaningfully through the political implications of these texts impossibly uncomfortable for my students. I took a break from these issues for a year. In that time, I attended an “Undoing Racism” workshop and engaging in dialogue with several different groups of anti-racist educators.  I also realized might just have to pick a different text. Last month, my classes read "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian," a graphic novel by Sherman Alexie mostly based on his own experience growing up on the impoverished Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. I chose the book because I hoped it would prompt discussions of racial issues that drew on my students’ cultural backgrounds without having to focus on those backgrounds in a negative light. Moreover, I love the sophisticated issues the book subtly brings to light — not just racism, but racism in its most insidious form: internalized racism, and the low expectations that youth set for themselves when they are too young to “undo” it. The author, like his protagonist, left at an early age because he recognized the low likelihood of receiving quality education and support for professional goals if he stayed on “the rez.” His autobiographical character pays for his aspirations by being teased heartily by his fellow Spokanes, particularly being called an “apple” — red on the outside, white on the inside. There are similar words, Alexie points out, in other cultures: the oreo, the banana. It’s considered “white,” these taunts suggest, to be smart. To be successful. To have ambitions. Alexie makes this comparison in an interview we watched  while prparing to read the book. Students laughed at Alexie’s likeness to the dude from “Everybody Loves Raymond," but the Oreo reference resonated. I know, from the chuckling in the room, that students knew the sneering sentiment of that term. I also knew better, in my third year of teaching, than to inquire about it. To do so would be to force them to unair something unsavory about their own culture, and they needed to do that if and when they were ready to trust me. The first few pages of Alexie's novel boast a comic strip of what the protagonist feels is parents would have looked like had someone “listened to their dreams.” He draws his mother as a well-dressed professor and his father as a cool musician. My student Sera, upon reading through these descriptions, commented, “They don’t look successful, they just look white.”  Immediately, she put her hand over her mouth. “Oh,” she said, “I just said something wrong.”
New York

Blurred Vision

Much of my coursework and my thinking over the past eight weeks, since I started graduate school, has focused on leadership. This shouldn't surprise me, since one of my courses has the word leadership in its title. Still, I find this theme reappearing in my Education Sector Non-Profits class as well as the course on Pursuing Teacher Quality. The question of what makes a good leader intrigues me, because I think there's such a dire need for leadership in education right now. I certainly didn't witness much of it at any level during my time in the classroom. While my classes have presented a number of different models and approaches to leadership, one constant seems to be a need for a clear vision. It sounds ridiculously obvious and simple, but looking back on my experience in the Bronx, there was a shocking absence of vision. At the school level, too few principals articulated a clear and inspirational vision for what teachers and students should be accomplishing. Yes, every school is required to have a mission statement, but I rarely saw schools translate this from a superficial document into meaningful action that pulled them together internally toward a collective purpose. If vision was missing at the school level, it was even more absent from the city Department of Education at the level where it was arguably more vital. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein spoke constantly about the need to close the achievement gap, lower drop-out rates, and raise graduation rates. Their approach was clearly focused on data-driven results and greater accountability for schools and teachers (not so much for themselves). But this speaks to their strategies. It did not lay out a vision, or at least not one that a communities, students, teachers, and school leaders could passionately rally behind. As I've thought about my own teaching, I wonder if I laid out a vision for myself and my students. I know that my driving goal was to prepare my students to pursue whatever path they chose. I wanted to give them the academic and social-emotional skills to succeed against all obstacles. Underlying these ideas was the hope that my students would become lifelong learners, critical thinkers who loved the pursuit of knowledge. Sounds nice, right? But to what extent did I express this to my students, parents, or myself?
New York

What Does Social Justice Education Look Like?

“We’re going to hear from Rossemary about a special opportunity for a social justice field trip.” This is how I started my class during the second week of school. One of our 11th-grade students had already organized a social justice event. She informed us about Barnard College’s Activism and the Academy conference. She urged us all to get registered. And so we did. Elsewhere in the building, my colleague was signing select students up to work with Rocking the Boat, one of our community partners in Hunts Point who fight for environmental justice. That same day after school at least 15 of our students rushed down to The Point, another ally, to sign up to be a part of A.C.T.I.O.N. (Activists Coming to Inform Our Neighborhood), a group of young people who are paid to advocate for the improvement of the South Bronx. The year had just started and I thought to myself, “This is what social justice education looks like.” Over the past few years I have heard a lot of educators talk about social justice. I actually did my student teaching at a now-closed school called Social Justice Academy in Boston. Their mission statement was beautiful, with nods to Paolo Freire, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. This was high-handed material that a young, very liberal educator like me salivates over — but it wasn't so great for students who were already disenchanted by the generally negative atmosphere of their school. I found that only a handful of the teachers believed in the mission. Consequently, the ones who were did often struggled to make community partnerships and actually motivate the students to engage in any kind of activism. The biggest symbolic defeat came midway through the year when we asked students in our class what social justice was and none of them had an answer. Though I do not think the school should have been closed, it had certainly not met its lofty visions and did not deserve to wear the banner of social justice. Not long after that, I saw another kind of half-baked vision of social justice education.
New York

The Forest And The Trees

Confession: I didn’t like high school. I went to a good school, in a highly ranked district on Long Island. I liked some of my classes, I had some great teachers and some good friends, but on the whole, school was not something that I enjoyed. Mostly, I just resented having to be there. I liked reading, I liked learning, but I didn’t like being told when and where to do these things. Like many teenagers, I wanted to make my own decisions about how to spend my own time. I didn’t like math; I didn’t like biology. Spending my days trudging from classroom to classroom, studying subjects that I had no interest in and having adults tell me it was all somehow good for me. … I just wanted to be outside, or back in bed. Still, I learned. History, English, biology, calculus: I retained stores of knowledge in all of these areas, despite my best efforts to resist. It sounds corny, but there’s something magical there. Some part of the mind wants to learn, even when other parts want to do anything but. Now I’m a high school special education teacher. Every day, I watch tired, distracted students study Homer’s "Odyssey," the principles of trigonometry, the French Revolution. Some of these students are not simply battling their teenaged willfulness and the rush of hormones in their bodies; they’re struggling with autism, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorder. Yet for the most part, they learn. Even the students who forget or refuse to do the work will surprise me with an insightful comment about Napoleon’s fall from power, or a comparison between Odysseus and Harry Potter.
New York

Is The Common Core Too Much For The Common Man?

For presidential hopefuls, 2011 is the year of campaigning. In the New York teaching world, thanks to the new Common Core standards, 2011 is the official Year of the English Teacher. That’s right, it’s all about reading to identify flaws in others’ argument and writing airtight arguments of one’s own. Instead of the onus of literacy living principally in the English department, now all subjects at my school are expected to work together toward more coherent development of ideas in our students’ writing. Walk into any classroom in my school over the next couple of weeks, and chances are you will be hearing about paragraph structure, thesis statements, the use of evidence, or the difference between fact and opinion. While it’s edifying to iron out my learning objectives with colleagues across the disciplines, the critical value of the Common Core Standards came to my attention while watching the Republican presidential last week. Rick Perry was asked to speak about his position on immigration, and he did. Kind of. After taking a hard line against anyone who would usurp America’s resources without due contribution, he went onto emphasize his pride in his own immigrant roots. He talked about how hard his Italian grandfather and father had worked to give him the opportunities he’s had in his life. He talked about how vital immigrants are to America’s prosperity. He closed with a sanguine (but apparently unmemorable) relish meant to further inspire American pride in anyone who hadn’t yet been swept away by his passion. There was no connection, however, between his nostalgia and his original point: that we need to limit the number of immigrants entering our country without documentation, or make sure that those who do enter are properly taxed. In a national debate, the governor of Texas had just earned himself a 50 percent on one of my 10th-grade writing assignments.
New York

Epilogue: Reporting Back To Duty

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts. This writing project stems from a conversation I had with my colleagues at the Brooklyn Arts Academy toward then end of my final year there. We were walking back from lunch one day, marveling at how crazy our school might seem to an outsider, and one of my colleagues said to me, half-jokingly, that I should write a book about it. Though I am not so ambitious, I did, upon reflection, agree that our experiences should be documented, and that I was just the guy to do it. I had stayed on at the school longer than most and had witnessed a lot. I also have a reputation for being diplomatic, and although was disappointed by the school or the administrators more than once, I did not leave embittered or vindictive. While I do not know if my former principal has read my blog, I am sure he would find a lot to criticize. But for my part, I have set out to describe my four years of the Brooklyn Arts Academy fairly and dispassionately. I've often wondered if the Brooklyn Arts Academy is representative of many struggling small schools in the district or if it is more of an aberration. Having written this blog, the answer remains elusive. What I do know is that as long as I was there, the school never came close to achieving its potential. It has certainly improved, but the progress has come haltingly and with a lot of collateral damage along the way. Even with certain structural limitations of the small school model and the pre-existing challenges facing many students, the Brooklyn Arts Academy should have achieved much greater success. In general, the small school model does help foster a sense of community and allows teachers to form more personalized relationships with students. Moreover, the concept behind this school in particular — to empower and impassion students through art and music — was inspiring. But a concept, just like so many ideas on paper, is not enough to make a successful school. Administrators often imply that when students misbehave, it is because teachers are doing something wrong. By the same token, if the teachers at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not staying long enough to provide a consistent educational experience for the students, the administration must bear some fault. I believe we would have been much more successful had teachers felt more supported and appreciated for their efforts. Instead, their calls for help when dealing with discipline issues were too often ignored and some were even pressured to leave. To step back even further, if this same administration felt driven to maintain appearances but lacked creativity to address other problems at their roots, that says something about the challenges of providing oversight in a school district where the number of schools have proliferated, even as control over those schools has centralized under the mayor. Concerns expressed by teachers were met with pleas to keep negative feelings within the school and the sometimes heavy-handed leadership of the principal marginalized dedicated educators. But despite the challenges I faced at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, I stayed year after year.
New York

Preach Like A Champion

This column is about those of us who abhor AYP, avoid IMPACT, won’t SLANT or SPORT, don’t “Do Now,” and wriggle when you hear “rigor,” “relentless pursuit,” “high-performing,” “low-performing,” “work hard, be nice,” and “mastery.” My name is Mark Fusco. I love teaching. The buzzwords of “no excuses,” data-driven school reform don’t resonate with someone like me, whose inspiration to enter the classroom came from watching my mother, a lifelong teacher, instruct a class of students with disabilities during the summer before I started kindergarten. I learned by her example that acronyms and test scores were not what stayed with the children, but rather their transformative education came from my mother’s profound love and her commitment to helping students discover their individual talents and intelligences. I am distressed because it appears that my mother’s brand of education is becoming increasingly devalued in our current educational and political climate. I work at a charter school where I am happy, but I am concerned by what I see in the prevalent trends of charter schools in New York City and nationally. First, I see an almost monomanical focus on high-stakes testing. Second the CEOs of the fastest growing charter management networks, such as Harlem Success Academy, are predominantly white, upper-class men and women who I suspect do not fully understand the communities and kids they serve. Many of these leaders seem to resist any collaboration with the neighborhoods their schools are in and the families who depend on them. I have been working in education in New York for several years. I volunteered with 826 NYC. I worked for Harlem Children’s Zone’s after school program. I left for a year to get my masters in education at Harvard. I am now embarking on my second year as an 11th-grade English teacher at Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. I'm thankful that Hyde stands apart from most charters.
New York

Curriculum, Part III: On Core Curriculum And Standards

This is the third post in a series exploring the concept and role of curriculum. Read Part I and Part II. In my last post, I discussed how leaving the critical components of emotional/social literacy and character development out of our curriculum (the so called “hidden curriculum”) furthers inequity. I believe that inequity is also perpetuated by leaving what we teach our children up to chance, when we know quite firmly that there are foundational core components of academic knowledge. In national discussions and debates on public education, both reformers and their opponents are busy focusing on external factors such as poverty, human capital mechanisms (hiring & firing), and accountability. We have been largely ignoring one of the most easily and cheaply modifiable components of education: the curriculum. And this is the component that has arguably the most immediate and direct impact on a student. When I began teaching fifth grade two years ago, though I knew I would be working with students presenting significant academic delays, I was still taken aback by how drastically far behind my students really were. I recall the moment in September of my first year when I introduced students to their fifth-grade Everyday Mathematics student reference books to review use of a table of contents and index. I was then awakened to the fact that the majority of my students not only did not know where a table of contents was located — nor even what a "table of contents" referred to — but furthermore had difficulty locating information in alphabetical order (not simply due to a difficulty with decoding words but more fundamentally from a difficulty alphabetizing). I had many such revelatory moments in my first year, in which I realized that I had to delve far back into the essential foundations of academic knowledge to provide access to our curriculum, such as via teaching phonemic awareness and phonics, or how to line up numbers for addition and subtraction using place value. Teachers know that there are essential foundations underlying content knowledge that is requisite in advancing towards mastery. That's what we teachers are paid to do, after all: break down complex subjects into the foundational procedural and/or conceptual components required for students to gain access to content and render these components memorable and imminently applicable to our students. I don't know if folks who have not actually taught something understand just how difficult doing this kind of task analysis and explicit teaching can be.
New York

The Bittersweet End

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts. When I walked into school on Thursday, June 24, 2010, I knew that my final two days at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not going to be the glorious ones I'd imagined. Word had been sent out that morning from the administration that no teacher would be allowed to leave the building without the permission of the payroll secretary, and that we'd no longer be allowed to stream world cup games in our classrooms. It was clear that the principal had not reacted kindly to the letter that we had written him the day before, outlining our concerns about being asked to sign documents acknowledging error in recording student attendance. We were being punished. There was a meeting for returning teachers held at 10 a.m. I did not attend, but the teachers who did reported that the principal berated them. I was told that he walked in, held up the letter, and said it had made him "sick to his stomach." He had taken particular exception to the first line of the letter, which spoke of the "unified staff of [the Brooklyn Arts Academy]." He said that, since he and the office workers were also part of the staff, the letter did not speak for everyone. He also said that he’d been planning to have an end-of-year celebration for the teachers, but that now he couldn't do it. And he said that the Brooklyn Arts Academy would never be the kind of school he hoped it would be if teachers wrote letters like this. Then he walked out, leaving the assistant principal to finish the meeting with the stunned teachers. She gave the teachers an assignment to write a 2-4 page reflection about how they might integrate "key cognitive strategies" into their curriculum for the next year. The deadline was 3 p.m. Those of us milling about got the lowdown as soon as the meeting was dismissed. All of us, teachers who were leaving and teachers who were returning, decided to have another meeting and see if we could think of any way to defuse the situation. We elected to call the network leader, essentially the supervisor of our principal, and ask him to mediate a conversation for us (the principal had outright rejected our request for a group meeting to address the attendance issue, saying instead that he'd be happy to meet with teachers as individuals). This was the same network leader who'd come to our first staff meeting of the school year and told us to communicate our concerns to our principal rather than taking out our frustrations in other ways (i.e. the learning environment surveys). When we heard back from him, he essentially hung us out to dry.
New York

Two Days As An Evacuation Center Teacher-Volunteer

I got the first call Thursday afternoon. A recording asked if I could volunteer at a shelter during the hurricane. Press 1 for yes or 2 for no. I felt a wave of the familiar not-working-but-still-getting-paid-teacher-in-summer guilt. I thought about the fact that I didn’t have kids and what my mother would say. I pressed 1, mentally crossing my fingers I wouldn’t be called to volunteer. That evening a voicemail message told me to report to Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn Friday morning for my 12-hour shift. I was in shock. I played the message for my roommates and they howled with laughter, especially when the awkward automated voice said “12-hour shift.” At this point, I didn’t know these calls were only being made to city workers. The next day I made my way to Clara Barton. I knew it was the right thing to do, and honestly, feared I might get in trouble if I didn’t show (the message was unambiguously in the imperative). There were about 15 of us that day — an industrious bunch — and we got to work unpacking the large bins that had been stored at the school for years for an event like this. They were filled with instructional videos and books, forms, walkie-talkies, flashlights, notepads, signage, batteries, tape, markers, pens, and more. Along with the three other teachers in the group, I drooled over this abundance of brand-new school supplies — particularly the oodles of Post-It brand poster paper (with the sticky back!) that every teacher knows cost 30 bucks a pop. Our schools might stop just short of putting campus safety in charge of supplies, but apparently the city's Office of Emergency Management had plenty to go around. We were to be an evacuation center: a place for evacuees to check in before heading to a “satellite” hurricane shelter. I ended up with the job of entering information on the website OEM uses to keep track of its staff and evacuees. By now I knew of course, that only city employees had been asked to volunteer. I wondered why there were so few teachers — most people were from the Human Resources Administration. Eventually I heard back from the teacher friends I had texted. Many of them had been contacted; they had all said no. Two were away, the rest were just not interested. I didn’t get the sense that anyone had refused out of spite for the Department of Education or the city; it seemed more that they weren’t keen on spending a hurricane working at a shelter.
New York

Back To School: Learning To Put Down The Duckie

Last week, during my first week at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, I went "course shopping." This is a time when practically all the professors give 40-minute explanations or previews of their courses so that students can make decisions about their schedule. As someone who thought I had my schedule all figured out at the beginning of the week this was exciting and frustrating at the same time, as I suddenly felt doubts about all the classes I wasn't taking. With only two semesters of coursework while I'm here, the stakes feel pretty high for each selection. That said, the stress of figuring out which courses to take has been far outweighed by the excitement of getting to know my classmates and professors. I have been continually awestruck by the knowledge and experience my professors bring to the classroom. I am equally humbled by the breadth and depth of experience of my fellow students. In the past few days I met Ronald Ferguson, a man who literally wrote the book on closing the achievement gap; I listened to Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot speak, and literally got chills; I sat in on shopping sessions for about a dozen other professors who have in many ways shaped the direction and discourse on education in this country. What also struck me in the midst of this exciting and overwhelming period is the need for me to stop and prepare to totally open my mind. During orientation's opening ceremony, one of the speakers, Joseph Blatt, mentioned the need for us to "put down the duckie." By this he meant the need for us to shed our biases, our hang-ups and preconceived notions, and open ourselves up to the rich discussions of the year ahead. Over the past year I have felt pressured to create an ad hoc ideology.
New York

The End-Of-The-Year Attendance Policy Controversy

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts. The end of my final school year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy was going exceedingly well.  My 10th-graders achieved unprecedented success on the global Regents exams — over 70 percent passed, up from a 33 percent pass rate my first year at the school — and three students even scored 97 or better. On the final full day with students, we took them to a local park to play sports. I held my own in the basketball game, but when we switched to touch football I wowed the crowd by running the first kickoff back for a touchdown. I was leaving my students with a maximally positive impression. With the Regents exams graded, my final grades submitted, and my classroom cleaned out, I spent the last few days of the school year in the company of my colleagues. It had been a crazy four years, and I felt pride in my own growth mixed with sentimentality to be moving on from a place in which I'd invested so much. I had informed my administration back in March that I would be moving to China to accompany my wife during her dissertation research year and I had requested a leave of absence from the Department of Education. With my final year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy winding down, I looked forward to the accolades I expected to receive during my end-of-year evaluation and at our final staff meeting (I was particularly proud of the fact that I never took a sick day during those four years, and joked that I wanted a "medal of honor" in recognition of the accomplishment). With the students gone, the atmosphere around school was calm and relaxed until Tuesday, June 22, when one of the secretaries delivered a stack of papers to each teacher. Each piece of paper in the pile represented a discrepancy in the official attendance taken by the school and the attendance taken by the teacher during the class period. For example, if a teacher marked a student as absent first period but this student was marked present on the official attendance taken during period three, than a discrepancy was noted. Teachers were told to sign each document to acknowledge our error in marking the student as absent. The size of the packet of papers given to each teacher varied, but even mine, one of the smallest, contained about 60 sheets. Having never been given documents like this before, the teachers felt anxious and were unsure what to do. Many teachers no longer had records of their attendance from dates as early as February. Some teachers also feared what the repercussions might be if they did not sign the documents. As a group, we decided that none of us should sign or turn in the papers until we'd collectively received some answers to our questions.