First Person

A Snow Day Revelation: Teachers Need More Time

Yesterday’s snow day brought me a revelation about teaching: teachers need more time to engage in the kind of intellectual activities that we hope to engage our students in.  

We teachers need more time to read, write, investigate, research the big questions about our lives, discover new books and new perspectives on those questions, and work on new theories about how we live and work in the world. To be better teachers for our students, we need more time to be learners and seekers of knowledge ourselves!  

There are two categories for the kinds of learning a teacher should engage in. First, teachers need time to learn and explore in order to grow in our practice — to increase our pedagogical knowledge. We teachers need more time for this kind of learning because the necessary pedagogical knowledge for urban teachers is so vast; it is so much more than experimenting with new practices regarding instruction and classroom management. Our pedagogical knowledge also involves being up to date on research on how teachers can best obviate the hindrances to learning created when students are dealing with the foster care system, housing issues, inadequate access to quality healthcare, drugs, gang violence, teenage pregnancy, and the myriad of other outside factors that make learning difficult or impossible for them. Some teachers will see upwards of 150 of the city’s neediest children per day. There is literally no limit to what one can learn to become a better teacher for such children.

Second, teachers should be engaged in meaningful learning related to our content areas — not only to increase our content area knowledge, but also for the sake of being engaged in the kind of learning we want our students to be engaged in. When teachers are excited about our own content area learning, our students are more likely to catch on and become excited about what is going on in our classrooms. Our classrooms come to life when we are energized by the inquiry and discovery process; learning becomes contagious.  

I was reminded of the importance of content area learning — and the need for teachers to have more time for it — through having extra time on my hands due to this week’s snow day. I decided to spend my snow day time completing an assignment I gave to my students in an AP English class I teach at a high school in East New York, Brooklyn. 

Students in my AP English class are currently reading “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf; and I am asking them to write “dialectical reading journals” as they read. In a dialectical reading journal, the student uses Woolf’s novel to develop a big question that genuinely troubles and intrigues her; she analyzes that question within the multiple contexts that are opened up by the primary text, secondary texts introduced through research, and class discussions; and over time she attempts to construct a theory in response to her question. The journal, in this sense, is a space for the kind of serious grappling with ideas that can lead to an interesting research paper and sometimes even to a transformation in the student’s thinking about language, literature, and life.

I decided the best way to spend my snow day was to begin my own dialectical reading journal on Woolf’s novel. I started out by writing about and questioning a psychological theme that a student identified during a class discussion. I explored my primary questions about that theme in multiple contexts and was inspired to do some research on the Internet to see how scholars in the field have addressed the same ideas. As I continued to research and write, I began to realize that my inquiry process may lead me to some profound discoveries about Woolf’s text: Thinking and struggling through my writing about the central motifs in the novel may have the power to transform the way I think about gender roles, gender-based experience, and how these function within the individual psyche.  

I printed out my first journal entries along with two of the texts I researched on the web and plan to bring them to school tomorrow. I am very excited to share my inquiry process and discoveries with my students during our next class session.  

Reflecting on all of this now has me wondering, Isn’t this why I became a teacher in the first place, to share the joys of learning with young people? This is, in fact, one of the reasons I became a teacher. But working in a New York City high school, it is often difficult to find time to engage my own content area learning in meaningful ways. While teachers have a free “prep period” every day, that time is usually spent preparing lessons, tutoring, or, if we are lucky, finding a quiet space with which to regain the peace of mind that is prerequisite to being patient and understanding for our students. There is also substantial time allotted to professional development activities. Unfortunately, though, teachers spend most of this time being inundated with urgent and complicated policy mandates that are designed to create the appearance of quality education and make politicians look good — policies and practices that do more to obstruct teachers’ genuine efforts to reach our students than to bolster them.  

We teachers, therefore, need more time. As any teacher will tell you, we do have lives outside of school. We have families, friends, and hobbies of our own; and unless we compromise the time we normally devote to these things, we will always encounter difficulty in pursuing inquiry and discovery of our own. It is true, as some social theorists tell us, that teachers are being molded into deskilled clerks rather than transformative intellectuals.  

The amount of time and resources that teachers are given to assist them in their job of educating young people is a reflection of how much our society cares about the education of particular groups of young people. In the case of minority and poor children, a more potent compassion needs to become a component of our society’s moral conscience if we are to see an increase in resources that go into their education. Until that happens, we teachers in NYC are likely to encounter more obstacles than support as we work to develop our practice of sharing the love of learning with our students.

First Person

Why I take class time to teach perseverance (and let my fourth-graders write on their desks)

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

Every morning, I hand my fourth-grade students dry-erase markers and ask them to do something unconventional: write directly on their desks.

Their task is to write a goal for the day. I have seen them write things like “Today I will be a better friend” or more abstract ideas like “My goal is to accept challenges.” When it’s time to leave, we celebrate those who met their goals and encourage those who haven’t to try again tomorrow.

Daily goal-setting is one of many strategies I use to teach perseverance, self-control, confidence and teamwork — “soft skills” often referred to as social-emotional learning. Most require just a couple of extra minutes at the start and end of our school days, but the payoff seems invaluable.

Research shows that students who internalize those skills may actually be better at learning hard skills like math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school. One study showed that students were more motivated when they were told their brains are muscles that can get stronger with practice, just like any other muscle. This year, I’ve already seen students use their daily goal-setting to focus on tasks they used to think they could not accomplish, like multiplication.

I’ve seen this strategy work with students of all ability levels. We are a diverse community, and the same goals don’t work for everyone, especially my students who fall under the special-education umbrella or whose primary language isn’t English. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded. Part of the learning process for students is crafting their own goals that will work for them.

Another part of this exercise is practicing compassion. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing my students take a genuine interest in each other. They’ve even written goals like, “I want to learn to speak English” (with help from another classmate) or “I will help Alan with his math today.” And they actually did it. Those two students sat together in class and worked on sight words and multiplication problems.

An important part of this work is defining these ideas, like empathy, grit and determination for students so I can be specific about what we’re aiming for. (I like ClassDojo’s Big Ideas videos, which explain those concepts through the eyes of a little monster named Mojo, and prompt my students to talk about how they’ve felt when they didn’t know an answer or were intimidated by a task.)

An unexpected benefit of these lessons has been personal. Lately, my class has been struggling with getting off-task — and, as all teachers know, every minute I spend asking a student to please stop talking or stop distracting others is a minute not spent on academic content or teaching the rest of the class. At one of those moments, I asked my students to empathize with me, one teacher trying to reach 22 of them, and with their fellow students, who wanted to learn but were being distracted.

We talked as a class about building a new set of expectations for our classroom. And by the end of the day, I had received two hand-delivered notes, secretly created and signed by each student in the class, saying that they were sorry for disturbing class.

The notes showed me that my students are learning compassion and also that they are beginning to value their academic time. I hope that it was a sign of soft skills leading to hard skills — students recognizing that how they act has an impact on learning the skills necessary to solve problems and succeed.

Stephanie Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Roy L. Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp

Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens.