First Person

School is for Humans: A Teacher’s Response To The Current Climate

I teach eighth grade humanities in a New York City public school. This week, we began preparation for the state English language arts exam — the very beast responsible for the now famous, much debated teacher data reports recently published by several city news organizations. Sitting in my classroom, I find I am also seated in the midst of a political and ideological firestorm. As various voices in the news duke this out, we teachers quietly choose for ourselves how to respond on the ground.

In my class this year, we have a motto: “You are not a number. You’re a human being.”

It’s meant to be silly and serious at the same time. Around here, we encourage 13-year-olds to embrace their silliness. So, on Monday, we took a moment to acknowledge and release a bit of the pressure created by the impending state exam. On the agenda, I wrote “Celebration of ELA-related Creativity.” I gave my students the instruction to create something that would help us kick off the test preparation unit. The only guidelines: It must be creative; it can be funny if you like, and overall, it must be positive.

Among other things, my students composed a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style singalong song, performed a re-written Shakespeare scene, showered the audience with paper airplanes containing a mathematical formula that determines the odds of getting a good score by guessing on every question, and choreographed an interpretive dance. I can tell you, for last-second projects with no grade attached and 30 minutes to create, they were awesome. This never fails: I am always humbled and amazed by the outpouring of creative energy that occurs when kids are given the space to express themselves in a non-judgmental environment.

Going forward, of course, I shall dutifully instruct them on reading skills, comparative essay writing, and test-taking strategies. Is it possible to make this instruction interesting and engaging? Sure, to a certain extent. But for those moments when the boredom borders on painful, we now have a poster to point to and sing (to the tune of B-i-n-g-o), “There once was a cow who went to school and studied for the ELA…”

The score I received on my own teacher data report is based on the two years I spent teaching seventh-grade English in the South Bronx. I’m not too concerned with the results: The magical math placed my teaching abilities in the “above average” range. Lucky for me. Also quite fortunate is my current position in a school where I am respected as an educator and an individual and allowed to be thoughtful and creative with my teaching. And, certainly, there are other advantages. I tell people, “Getting this job was like winning the teacher lottery.” Due to the school’s popularity, we evaluate and hand-select each student who comes here. The parents are supportive, their kids motivated and cooperative. We have all the materials and technology we need. I readily admit that these factors make some of what I describe much easier to achieve. But I’ll ask my readers, just for the moment, to please suspend your conclusions until I have reached mine.

Teaching such academically inclined, successful students presents a different set of challenges from those encountered in many public schools. Our kids, quite frankly, are far too stressed out for their age.  The system of high school acceptance in New York City creates a focus on grades and test scores that approaches fanatical among students vying for spaces at the “top” schools.  It begins in elementary school: Fourth-graders are made aware that their state test score will be a determining factor in their middle school acceptance. If they want to come to a school like mine, they had better receive a “top” score and “top” grades.

Imagine your sweet, intelligent, talented 9-year-old child going through the following thought process: I mean, if I don’t get into the right middle school, then I won’t get into my first-choice high school, which besides proving that I’m not as smart as I’m supposed to be, will prevent me from going to the college I’ve had picked out since kindergarten because my genius older sister goes there and then my parents won’t love me as much as her and I’ll end up working at McDonald’s and my life will be ruined forever. Obvi.

An over-dramatization for effect?  Perhaps. But believe me, it isn’t so far from the truth. I watch my eighth-graders spin those wheels for months out of the year. Soon they’ll have similar thoughts about college, and on and on it goes. Some people will tell me, well, that’s just life: Be realistic — if you want to be the best, if you want to be successful, you have to be competitive. This, Ms. Lacey, is “the way the world works.”

I am so over that argument. The world is hardly static. Things change so rapidly that our slow adult brains need kids to explain the continual shifting of popular Internet memes. Yet, people still seem to think we should be educating for the way the world once was, or is right now, and so we unwittingly limit our children as we have limited ourselves. A poignant symbol of this phenomenon is the education community’s obsession with quantifying people’s value. We have been reducing students to data points for years, but now that the same has been done very publicly to teachers, people seem ready to have a real conversation about it. I have no problem with using valid data to measure performance and help us improve, if we can find a way to do it wisely; Bill Gates already made that argument for us. The consciousness of our culture is clearly tuned into this issue at this moment, so my hope is that we will use the momentum to move in a positive direction.  A possible first step in that direction?  Let’s adopt my classroom motto and begin our conversations from there.  “You are not a number.  You’re a human being.”

Teachers are human beings; usually, the types who feel compelled to do something beneficial for the rest of humanity. You can’t reduce to data the complex human exchange that occurs between teachers and students. Where do you account for the value of teaching empathy and service to community? Of celebrating a child for her own quirky personality, talents, and uniqueness? How about the building of self-awareness and esteem? Sparking an interest in something that will bring a student joy for the rest of his life? You know as well as I that this list could go on forever.

Teachers are in a position to plant seeds for a positively evolving future. We chose this job because we understand the need to educate our fellow humans in a way that nurtures their potential, compassion, and vibrant inner lives. In my school, I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to act on this understanding. Students need to be respected, supported, and appreciated in order to grow and flourish; their teachers need the same. I choose to envision a future in which we all receive those things in abundance.

Trina Lacey is an eighth-grade humanities teacher at East Side Middle School as well as a writer.

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.