First Person

A Graduate’s Case Against Specialized High Schools

When I was a student studying Japanese at Stuyvesant High School, I remember learning the word for “cram school’: juku. Juku are extracurricular private schools that offer tutorial services for regular subjects in addition to intensive university entrance exam preparation. As a Stuyvesant student, this concept was not unfamiliar to me — spending days, weeks, or even months studying for a single exam that would determine the course of my future. After all, that level of focus was what got many of us into Stuy the first place.

At Stuy, students’ study habits really fell into two categories: diligent cramming, or skidding by with whatever means it took to snag a passing grade (granted, there’s passing, and then there’s Stuy passing). My Japanese teacher would deter us from the latter, lazier alternative by snipping off the corners of subpar homework assignments and taping them to the blackboard. “Do not cut corners!” she would chide, and gesture at the little triangles of notebook paper hovering over the chalk as testaments to our indolence.

In the wake of a cheating scandal that has propelled my alma mater into the limelight yet again, I can’t help but reflect on the time I spent at the school that boasts an average SAT score in the 96th percentile and makes college feel like a cakewalk by comparison. When Nayeem Ahsan incited his elaborate cheating ring last semester, he knew he was doing a huge disservice to the hundreds of students taking the exam without outside assistance. But by the same token, to the dozens of overachievers juggling theater practice, sports, music lessons, and hours of studying and homework a night, he offered a solution to an otherwise impossible problem — namely, how do you keep your head above water when so many of your classmates are headed for Ivy League acceptance, and your grade point average is calculated to the second decimal?

I will not condone cheating. Instead, I would like to paint a picture for the parents of future eight graders who think sending their students into a four-year juku is the only path to success.

The SSHSAT is an exam created to systematically sift out the brilliant test takers of New York City. When you remove the most aggressively studious types from all the schools of New York and force them in a school together, you create an environment that is not conducive to learning, but is rather the academic equivalent of a pressure cooker. Here, competition is palpable. I’ve seen students spiral into deep depression over a couple meager points shaved off a test score. I’ve seen tiny students hauling multiple textbooks in their backpacks at once, in a cartoonish display of upper body strength. I’ve seen students skip lunch and dart to study hall to snatch up library textbooks before the next kid, in attempt to cut into that night’s staggering homework load before arriving home after sundown.

The scariest part of all this, is that it only seems outrageous to me in retrospect. When you’re in the Stuy bubble, all of these neuroses seem perfectly normal. Stress is normal. Fatigue is normal. Depression is normal.

My parents wanted me to get into Stuy for the same reason many New York parents do: to get a free ride to four years of superb academics (and to brag, naturally, but that’s beside the point). For many, it’s a way to avoid subpar educational experiences at other schools. But they encounter subpar, and sometimes even damaging, conditions of another type at the city’s beacon of excellence.

Academic reforms have recently been proposed to try and mitigate Stuy’s cutthroat competition and workload: for instance, limiting the amount of homework assigned and asking that all families sign a contract promising academic integrity. In reality, however, these reforms wouldn’t do much more than encourage students to find other outlets to excel (and whether an anti-cheating contract would be effective seems like wishful thinking to me). This is a school that runs on the steam of its vigorous meritocracy, so to try and curb competition would be largely futile. It could be that changing the admissions process, as a civil rights group last week called on the city to do, would effect some culture change. But I believe that fundamental academic reform is something that needs to start in the home.

This is no longer the age where a seat at a top-tier university will guarantee you success and a job. Bachelor’s degrees have been rendered compulsory, and they are useless if not coupled with individual passion. Young people have to be encouraged from a young age to find and hone in on their strengths. I would stress to youngsters that highly selective schools and universities (i.e. those illustrious Ivies and specialized science high schools) are not the be-all-end-all of an academic career. An acceptance letter is not a ticket to success, and it is vital that one’s strengths and interests are not overshadowed by one’s attractive GPA.

Here is the fundamental problem with our standing academic system: Standardization and emphasis on quantifiable achievement have turned schools into assembly lines, throwing individual capabilities to the wind. This is the age of hyper-specialization, and there needs to be a fresh initiative to get students to narrow down their academic concentrations and develop their strengths, perhaps by means of specific academic tracks or concentrations. Likewise, individually tailored mentality needs to be fostered in the home. Parents, I urge you to pay attention to your children’s natural abilities and cultivate them by means of extra curricular activities. Academic advisors should do the same. When I was a sophomore at Stuy, I was perpetually bogged down by pressure to excel at subjects utterly irrelevant to me. By the time college rolled around, I was so forlorn and overwhelmed by options that it took me years to discover strengths I had all along — and that if someone had taken time to notice, I would have capitalized on sooner.

Ask anyone that’s attended Stuy and they will tell you the same thing — that sure, we had some great teachers and neat facilities, but that’s not what made the school. The students were the school’s shining glory, and let’s be real — they would excel anywhere if given the opportunity. They didn’t need to enter the Stuy machine to get into “good” colleges. In fact, Stuy often works against students’ favor in the application pool, because so many of its students apply to the same schools and compete against each other. No one should be subjected to that harrowing cult of achievement.

The aphorism is true — a mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste. It is a shame for our bright young minds to be wasting valuable energy on fruitless efforts. Merit for merit’s sake will only harbor frustration when the fruit of one’s labor does not ultimately translate into success. Competition is only healthy when one strives to achieve something of value — and more often than not, it is not something quantifiable with a test score.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star

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

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.