First Person

Same New Boss

I was teaching my precalculus class when the news broke that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor. Precalculus is one of the very few classes I have taught in my three years that is not tied to a Regents exam, and for this reason it is one of my absolute favorites. I use an inquiry-based curriculum taught in a Socratic method style, with students initiating ideas for solutions and communicating their ideas with one another. The idea is to teach critical thinking, and to change students’ conception of math from one of a large collection of “steps” or “right ways to solve problems” into the complex yet accessible system of logic that it is. I am there as a guide and as a facilitator, to provide access to the vocabulary and language of the math, and on rare occasions to provide students access to particular solution strategies used in mathematics that may not be obvious based on anything they have learned previously.

In classes that are Regents-based I am only able to do this type of teaching to a very small extent. Inquiry-based learning requires time, and it does not lend itself well to broad, shallow curriculums. Teaching with the test in mind starts in the early grades, and it is especially prevalent in schools where students struggle to pass the exams, which are also often schools dominated by low-income students and students of color. Most of the ninth-graders I am preparing for the Integrated Algebra Regents exam in June came in struggling with many basic pre-algebra topics, which means that to prepare them in one year to receive a passing grade on the exam I have to review a lot of middle-school skills and focus on particular, Regents-approved “methods” for solving particular types of problems. Almost all of my students can solve a multi-step algebraic equation by this time in the year, but few of them truly understand why the method that I imposed on them actually works. They will remember the method in June when they have to take the test, but I personally do not believe that their critical thinking skills or their understanding of the meaning or purpose of solving an equation will have improved greatly in their time with me this year. How my students perform in June does matter a great deal for their futures and for our school’s future. But what they understand 20 years from now, and how the seeds planted now have developed by that point, matters much more.

Students in my precalculus class were incredibly resistant to the inquiry-based methodology at the beginning of the year. Several of them would complain consistently that I wasn’t “telling them how to solve the problems” or “teaching them the steps.” I was feeling so much resistance that I turned to my assistant principal for advice. I am lucky to work with an educational leader who holds a social justice view of education, and she gave me a riveting speech about how I needed to be completely honest with my students about why they have that view of mathematics, that they are wrong about what mathematics is, and that it isn’t their fault. “Students who look like me and who look like them are given a different type of education than students who look like you,” my assistant principal, an African-American woman, told me. “You need to tell them that their minds have been enslaved; that they have been educated to believe that they are good students if they don’t think and just perform as they are told. That is not educating. You have a responsibility to un-teach that view of learning and support them in learning to think for themselves.”

I want to be able to teach all of my classes like that. I know that in algebra there is a place for learning skills and strategies, but I wish every day that there was a great deal more of a place for deep critical thinking, for reflection, for developing conceptual understandings that will last longer than June. As long as high-stakes testing remains as high-stakes as it is, however, it is simply a reality that the curriculum will narrow and many teachers will focus on the specific skills students need to be successful on the exams. And the stakes associated with scores on these exams, including having one’s school shut down and its space converted into a charter, will remain incredibly high as long as the reforms being pushed in New York City and nationally do not shift course.

And so, when I went on lunch and heard the news that Cathie Black was no longer our chancellor, there was a piece of me that felt so much hope about a possible shift in that course. Maybe this meant real change. We had won something — we, the teachers and parents who pushed and agitated against Black’s appointment; who turned people out to PEP meetings; who created a legal case to deny her a waiver; who kept the reality of her incompetence in the press; who held Fight Back Fridays to protest her offensive appointment. This is a pretty huge and validating reality, and one would have to be a complete cynic to not take a moment to smile about that fact. If we could build, together, enough public opposition to Cathie Black and force Bloomberg to admit he made a mistake and remove her from her post, perhaps we can win on the standardized testing front. If we can win that, perhaps we can win in the fights against school closings, charter conversions and colocations, and the fundamental issue of mayoral control.

But then reality set in: the truth is that Black was just a pawn, and with mayoral control in place it actually matters very little who the chancellor is. In fact, one could argue that the choice of Dennis Walcott actually makes it much easier for Bloomberg to push his misguided, destructive reforms on the children of New York. Walcott’s personal history makes him a much less offensive choice of chancellor, even for me. I remember feeling so deeply disgusted by the fact that Cathie Black had never once stepped foot in a public school (primary, secondary or higher-ed) in her entire life before becoming chancellor. She had no knowledge of the meaning of educational terminology or the history of education that all New York State teachers must study in masters programs. These statements are less true for Mr. Walcott because he grew up in our public schools, his children and grandchild attend public school, and he has been involved in education work through the mayor’s office and as a professional before that.

Yet Walcott has already said he will still push for school closings and more charter schools replacing public school space. Teachers and parents should still be offended by the choice of Walcott because their opinions were not a part of that choice, and because according to state law he, like Black, is unqualified for the position of chancellor. He will still push for the use of high-stakes standardized tests to justify closing schools and to hold students back, and as long as he is Bloomberg’s chancellor he will do it whether he himself believes in it or not. At the end of the day, Walcott will be accountable to one person and one person only, and that is Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While we have a system in place that has no checks and balances, where one person can make considerable changes to our educational structures with no accountability, then the purpose of a chancellor is to serve as nothing more than a salesman and a talking head for whatever changes the mayor would like to impose. And Walcott will actually serve as a much more effective salesman for Bloomberg’s policies than Black ever could have been. While the mayor seems to be immune to any accountability, in my classroom and in schools across the city, the word accountability and its twisted effect on teaching is a constant in my daily life.

Over the course of the year the students in the one course I teach that is not tied to a standardized test have transformed their relationship with mathematics. I never get requests to “explain the steps” anymore. Instead, students explore various ideas and methodologies that they come up with through the process of struggling with problems. Sometimes these methodologies lead to solutions and sometimes they do not, but it is through this process that they have developed a much deeper understanding of mathematics and problem-solving that will benefit them immensely both in college and in life. The growth of high-stakes standardized testing has endangered this type of learning, and as long as such a disproportionate amount of our budget is going into pushing discredited reforms instead of strengthening teaching and learning it may even become extinct.

This narrowing of the curriculum because of the overuse of tests to make high stakes decisions predates black and will exist after her. The short-lived joy I experienced after learning of Cathie Black’s removal only reaffirmed to me, once more, that mayoral control must end. The use of test scores as a justification for closing schools and replacing them with charter schools that then underserve students with the highest needs must be stopped or we are putting at risk the deeper type of learning that we all know is what good education should be.

Yes, Cathie Black’s removal was a win, but in some ways it was an easy win because her appointment aroused so much resentment. Reforms such as school closings and the proliferation of charter schools, the central reforms being pushed right now, are generally opposed in the communities who face them, but they don’t feel so deeply offensive for the  teachers, parents and students who escape facing their school being closed or pushed out by a charter school. They are of grave concern for all of us, however, and should be fought city-wide because they undermine and disempower communities, the same way standardized tests disempower our children. The truth is we will never ‘win’ as long as mayoral control is in place because without the input and empowerment of parents, children, educators and communities, there simply cannot be the kind of change needed to move our schools forward. Becoming a member of the Grassroots Education Movement is one way to join the fight.

Cathie Black was just a face from the corporate world, but what her face represented is actually much more damaging. She represented the belief that reforms borrowed from that same corporate world, such as accountability in the form of high-stakes testing and a consumer choice model of education, will change our schools for the better. They won’t, and attempting them might well irrevocably damage much of what we hold dear about public education.

First Person

What a refugee student from Iraq taught me about reaching newcomers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Some days, Fahad looked like defeat, his tight face tucked into a red hoodie and folded over his thin legs. Other days, he looked like chaos, a screaming fit of flailing limbs.

My role in this scenario remained the same. Each day, I failed to get through to him. Each day, I tried anyway.

I’ve spent years of my teaching career in rooms with refugee students like Fahad, who, for months, responded to only a handful of English words. He mumbled hi and yes and no. He didn’t make eye contact and walked on his tiptoes, gazing at the floor. He avoided human touch. Fire alarms were cause for an immediate meltdown.

He was placed in my classroom for newcomers, a community with 19 students encompassing 16 languages and six world religions, in the hope that it would be what he needed. And after spending so much time with students like Fahad, I’ve realized a few things outsiders should know about teaching students like him.

One is that these students protect their peers with everything they have.

I’ve watched as other students draped their arms around Fahad’s shoulders, physically coaching him toward the appropriate task without adult cues. I’ve watched as they chose him as a math buddy, as they rotated bully-defense duties in the lunchroom, and as they cheered for him when he succeeded. Perhaps the other students understood something about Fahad that only other refugee students could.

The other is just what it feels like when you do get through to a student like Fahad.

One day, walking through the hall, Fahad reached for my hand. “Mrs. K, you hold my hand, OK?”

I smiled. “Fahad?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know that I care about you and that you are safe with me?”

“Yeah, Mrs. K.”

“Can you look at me, buddy?”

Fahad comes to a complete stop. He faces me. Eight months after our introduction, our eyes meet for the first time. I blink quickly, struggling to restrain my emotion.

“Yeah, Mrs. K. But you have to keep holding my hand.”

Days later, we took a class playground break. As an afterthought, I brought along a box of colored chalk. The students charged the swings and monkey bars, making up for two hours of classroom time with a few seconds of unleashed energy.

Except Fahad. He reached for the chalk and set to work creating a mural along a sidewall of the playground. After some prompting, he explained.

“See, Mrs. K.? Those things in the sky have the guns. And here are guys on the floor with trucks.” (By things, he meant helicopters, and by trucks, tanks.)

“They have guns. You see this people over here? That people is hiding. The other people already die. Who is hiding? It’s me! And my baby sister and brother and my mom. No dad. He over here, see? By the guns, Mrs. K.”

Conversations with Fahad’s mother, through an Arabic translator, paint a clearer picture. Fahad’s father helped the U.S. government in Iraq, and a price was put on his head as a result. Fahad’s mother fled with their children. In the process, Fahad was kidnapped and held hostage by soldiers. After a few days, the soldiers relented to his mother’s incessant pleas for his release, and the family was eventually reunited and granted asylum. Twelve days after arriving in Denver, Fahad passed through our school doors.

His story is a reminder that teachers’ jobs are so much bigger than math, reading, and science. We are detectives, lighthouses, listeners, and foundation builders.

Fahad has a long road ahead, but he doesn’t hide under desks anymore. He hugs me every morning. He writes in full sentences and is working through multiplication. On occasion, Fahad is brave enough to read aloud. He wants to be a scientist — not just any scientist, he says, but an American scientist … of rocks.

Best practices in newcomer education have evolved significantly since my time with Fahad. But it’s always been a tough balance to strike between focusing on academic gains and creating safe spaces for children who have sometimes unthinkable backgrounds, and not all teachers get the help they need to make those minute-by-minute decisions. As an education community, we have a lot of room for growth here.

Now, I am working to help other teachers in positions like mine and to support other schools and districts in meeting these students’ unique needs. Fahad and his classmates continue to be my best teachers.

Louise El Yaafouri (Kreuzer) is a veteran teacher at Place Bridge Academy, Denver’s refugee magnet school. She is also the chief refugee/immigrant consultant at Sterling Literacy Consulting and the author of The Newcomer Student: An Educator’s Guide to Aid Transition.

guest perspective

People who say geography means rural areas can’t share in Trump’s school choice vision are wrong. Here’s why

PHOTO: Danielle Scott / Creative Commons

Do some school choice programs make sense in rural America? For students like Paige Knutson, Daniel Lopez Gomez, and Merle Vander Weyst, the answer is certainly yes.

President-elect Donald Trump and his choice for secretary of education insist that private-school vouchers are a good idea. I strongly disagree. But there are examples across America that show how public school choice options can help rural students and families. Having worked with rural schools for 28 years, I know that geography isn’t an insurmountable hurdle.

These options include district schools-within-schools, alternative and magnet schools, charter schools, distance learning options, and dual high school/college credit programs. With federal support, the best of them should be identified, strengthened and replicated.

Why? Let’s start with Paige, Daniel, and Merle.

Some years ago, Paige Knutson brought Minnesota legislators to tears as she explained how a rural Minnesota alternative school had saved her life. Knutson, an honor student and cheerleader, was the oldest in a large farm family that was in danger of losing their property. When she became pregnant, she was kicked off the cheerleading squad and removed from the honor society. These weren’t appropriate responses from the school. But they were the reality.

She thought about taking her own life. Fortunately, a friend told her about a nearby alternative school that welcomed her. Her testimony helped convince Minnesota legislators to permit state per-pupil dollars to follow youngsters who attend alternative schools across district lines.

Dozens of communities in rural Minnesota, like Blackduck, Cass Lake, and Redwood Falls, host these alternative schools. One of the most inspiring programs I’ve seen anywhere in the U.S. is the annual MAAP STARS conference, where alternative school students perform, display projects, and earn statewide recognition.

Daniel Lopez Gomez is one of them. He came to the small town of Worthington, Minnesota from Guatemala in 2013, speaking little English. But he blossomed at the Worthington Alternative School. He recently was named “MAAP Student of the Year.”

Thousands of Minnesota students, many of them in rural communities, attend schools of choice, including but not limited to alternative public schools for youngsters with whom traditional schools have not succeeded.

Merle Vander Wyste, who attends the online Blue Sky Charter School, represents another form of rural school choice. Online schools, including Blue Sky, aren’t successful with all students. But they work very well for some young people.

In an award-winning essay, Vander Wyste explained:

“I was never popular in school. Because of bullying I suffered from social anxiety and depression. I often had suicidal thoughts. In my own home, I didn’t have other students telling me how I needed to act. I did not have anyone pressuring me to try drugs. No one told me that the brand of clothing I was wearing was inadequate. I was able to experience my own personal growth as a person.

Attending Blue Sky Charter School has been a great experience for me. It has allowed me to continue my education in a safe, relaxed setting in my home … I work better at night … and I am able to schedule lessons around work or another activity.”

There are other forms of school choice that work in rural settings. They include:

District schools within schools: One way for rural districts to offer more choices is to innovate within the space they already occupy. Forest Lake, Minnesota features two schools in one building, one of which is Central Montessori Elementary. For many years, International Falls Elementary School did the same — one school had traditional grade-level classrooms, and the other operated more like a one-room schoolhouse, with several grades of students working with each other.

Rural charter schools: Most charter schools aren’t in rural areas. But some are: According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 732 rural charters enrolling nearly 200,000 students in 2014-15 school year. Charisse Gulosino has provided fascinating maps of rural charters located, for example, on rural American Indian reservations. She also noted that rural charters serve a slightly higher percentage of low-income students than the national average. One of the most well-known is in tiny Henderson, Minnesota, where students at the Minnesota New Country School study and contribute to the local community.

Dual-credit programs: Minnesota and Washington allow 11th and 12th graders to spend time on a college campus (or in Minnesota, to take college courses on a campus or online), with state funds following students paying for the tuition. Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options law also pays for the students’ books and lab fees. Thousands of rural students use these great programs.

I hope that President-elect Trump, DeVos, and Congress will listen to rural, as well as urban and suburban, families that are making great use of these opportunities. Using multiple measures, the federal government can help identify the best of these programs. Then it can help share information, expand and replicate those that are unusually successful.

Joe Nathan has been a public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, National Governors Association project coordinator, researcher, advocate and weekly newspaper columnist. He directs the Center for School Change.