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

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.