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

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

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
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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
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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.