First Person

Finding the four children of the Passover haggadah in my classroom

One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder has always been the discussion of the Four Children. The traditional seder discusses four children — The Wise Son, The Wicked Son, The Simple One, and The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. Each of these sons has his own question, and the haggadah explains the appropriate response for each one. Since entering the classroom, I’ve had my own thoughts about each of these children, and their manifestations in my own classroom.

The Wise Son asks, “What are the laws and statutes by which to fulfill the commandments of Passover?” This son is exalted, because he seeks to learn more about the rituals of Passover. Furthermore, this question is considered wise, because it shows understanding of the story of Passover and seeks deeper meaning from the seder.

A wise child in the classroom hopefully offers the same sort of questioning for the teacher. A wise child is not content with the cursory understanding of a topic or a strategy, but asks for more information. While too many children are willing to absorb knowledge passively without further elucidation, a wise child asks for more.

More often in my classroom, however, it has been the “wicked” child who challenges me as a teacher. The response to The Wicked Son’s question, “What does this ritual mean to you?” has always bothered me. The haggadah instructs us to “set his teeth on edge.” Had this child been alive during the time of the exodus, the haggadah explains, he would not have been redeemed. Harsh.

The haggadah’s interpretation that this child has excluded himself from the community and rejects the tradition of Passover only partially explains the reaction to The Wicked Son’s question.

I know the frustration and anger all too well of a child who scoffs at the rules and routines of the classroom community I’ve created. However, a child who refuses to include himself or herself in a classroom community is also one of the sadder experiences I’ve felt. Is a violent rebuke really the best response?

I’ve also felt that this child’s questioning is also equally valuable as the wise child’s. What does this mean to you? Whether it’s the story of the exodus, or reading, writing and math strategies in a classroom, we all should feel obligated to understand and explain our own connection to a community. This isn’t to absolve the Wicked Son of his disrespect, but all rituals, whether religious or pedagogical, are ultimately strengthened when they are challenged and questioned.

The third child, the Simple Son, is perhaps the most prevalent in the high-needs classroom. But while the Simple Son of the haggadah is implied to be too young for rebellion or wisdom, the “simple” children of our classrooms are not the youngest. Rather, these students populate our classrooms because of a number of factors that yield huge gaps in reading, writing and mathematical skills.

When presented with tasks that require higher-order thinking, their response echoes that of the simple child, “What is the meaning of all this?” These children require more than the equivalent of the haggadah’s instruction to explain the core meaning of Passover. We as teachers are challenged to create scaffolds and tiered lessons that allow these children to engage in critical thinking consistently until they too are challenging us in the same ways as the wicked and wise children.

Finally, we have the children who do not know how to ask. These are the children in our classrooms who suffer most needlessly. Without the means to attract attention via rebellion like the wicked child, or loquaciousness like the wise child, these children fall through the cracks. Too often, the quietness of these children is lauded as good behavior. They may be partly or completely lost, but they’re scared or unable to verbalize this confusion. As a result they become practically invisible.

The essential challenge of a teacher is to recognize and help all of these children learn in the classroom. The haggadah offers some ideas for how each child demands a different response, but the reality of our classrooms is very different than that of a Passover seder. There are no one-sentence answers for these children. Rather, our classrooms require a sophisticated, diligent approach that makes all children feel welcome and able to learn. I’m not sure it’s possible to create a classroom that erases these sorts of differences in one year, but I’m reminded of the words of another figure from the seder, Rabbi Hillel, who said, “You are not obligated to complete the task, but nor are you free to desist from it.”

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.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.