First Person

My students deal with poverty, deportation and military moves. Here’s how I make each newcomer feel welcome.

PHOTO: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post

In my four years of teaching, there has always been at least one student in my classroom dealing with the deportation of a parent or a family member.

Likewise, I have consistently taught students who struggle with homelessness. My students have told me they slept in their car the night before, they had moved into an aunt’s garage, or they were staying with another family until they could find a place of their own.

For more than 2 million American students, their living situation is dictated by another powerful force: the U.S. military. If a parent or caregiver is on active duty, typically there is a move every two to three years.

Whether a student is connected to the military or not, the students in our classrooms who change schools often need additional attention. These moves have a sizable impact on their learning. A 1996 study that analyzed students in Chicago Public Schools published by David Kerbow found that students who were highly mobile could be as much as four months behind their schoolmates by fourth grade. By sixth grade, these highly mobile students could be as much as a full year behind academically.

However, it is possible to limit the impact of changing schools. A different assessment of research published in 2008 shows that having social support from family and peers makes a big difference. More specific studies that examined the impact of the transition to middle school or high school indicate that support from peers and teachers positively influences the academic and social adjustment of adolescent students to a new environment.

In other words, we teachers can make a huge difference in the lives of students who are mobile. We can support our students with strategies that help them to feel welcomed and cared about.

A few months into my first year of teaching, our school secretary stopped me on the way into school. She told me a new student, Mirrana, would join our class that day. She also told me this new student used a wheelchair.

This was the first time I had ever been assigned a new student. I frantically ran up to my room to arrange the tables in my classroom so Mirrana could access our room. I had to track down our custodian to see if he could raise a table so her wheelchair could fit underneath it. All of a sudden, the bell rang. Nothing was ready and I was flustered.

Looking back, I think of how Mirrana must have felt as she entered my classroom. I was concerned about the logistics of adding a new student, but she was concerned about feeling welcome. As the year went on, I was able to build a meaningful relationship with her, but I’m sure the transition could have gone more smoothly.

Ever since then, I have made it a point to have the essentials ready for a new student in a welcome package.

It does not take much extra time or effort because I do this as I am setting up my classroom at the beginning of the year. As I prepare for the first day of school, I set aside extra materials for potential new students.

I fill five cardboard magazine boxes; each contains a homework folder, writing notebook, and name plate for the desk. I also include copies of welcome letters from back-to-school nights and important handouts. For older students, a teacher might include a class syllabus, a binder, and contact information. As a school, we are also able to give each student who enters in the middle of the year a pencil bag with basic school supplies such as pencils, markers, and glue sticks donated from Yoobi, a philanthropy-focused school supply company. It is a very practical and tangible way to make new students feel welcome and cared about.

This idea could even be expanded to include the whole family. Welcome Kits can be adapted to meet the needs of local communities. Imagine giving a new family a backpack full of books or a packet of coupons to local restaurants. One school might include winter hats and gloves. Another might include coins for a local Laundromat, or subway cards. Having the school community give thought to the needs of students who will inevitably enter their school in the middle of the year helps create a welcoming culture.

Welcome Kits have helped me do just that. Since I have already put thought into how I am going to welcome a new student, even when I am given no warning, these pre-made Welcome Kits make students feel they already have a place in our community. I feel prepared to welcome a student at any time.

As teachers, we can’t always control when and why a student transitions to or from our school, but we can focus on what we do control: how we handle each situation. By having strategies ready, we can make students feel welcome and included when they arrive as well as valued and missed if they must leave.

Adapted excerpt from I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids” by Kyle Schwartz. Copyright © 2016. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.