First Person

Embracing Discomfort After An Exile On Elizabeth Street

Students in the Sixteen class at the NYC iSchool leave their comfort zones each year to take a field trip to eat dim sum.

On the first episode of MTV’s “Exiled,” a 19-year-old veteran of “My Super Sweet 16” travels to Kenya to experience life in a Maasai village. The conceit of the show is that wealthy American teenagers like Amanda take their comfort for granted, and a trip to Kenya, Thailand or Vanuatu will inspire humility and gratitude. Predictably, Amanda is uncooperative and distant until her transformation towards the last commercial break. And so, in spite of its questionable veracity, “Exiled” presents a useful narrative to discuss in the context of otherness and cultural relativism.

After watching this episode last week, my students jumped on Amanda’s privilege and narrow perspective. But it’s easy to observe ethnocentrism on MTV and scoff at a spoiled teenager for refusing to build a hut with cow dung. It’s a lot harder when you’re the one facing a plate of chicken feet with a pair of chopsticks.

I teach an anthropology class called Sixteen that examines the coming-of-age experience in New York City and around the world, and the closest we can get to Kenya is Jing Fong restaurant on Elizabeth Street. The dim sum field trip is one of the first experiences in Sixteen, and it aims to introduce students to a cultural experience that is wholly unfamiliar and mildly uncomfortable. Like MTV, I’m interested in creating opportunities for my students that challenge them to confront their assumptions.

Many try the chicken feet, most struggle with the no-fork rule, and nearly everyone tries something unfamiliar. They document their experience in film, and draw on this meal throughout the class as an example of how they felt “different” in a space that they wouldn’t have ordinarily thought was available to them. Sixteen has been making the trip to dim sum for nearly two years, and students consistently report that it’s one of the best experiences in the course.

“Exiled” is problematic in a number of ways, not least because it suggests that the Maasai experience is a punishment and an antidote to teenage arrogance. Parts are difficult to watch because it’s so offensive. But there’s such tremendous value in the discomfort it suggests, in the space where we’re each forced to examine why we create the stories and rules that circumscribe our experience. I traveled the Vietnam and Laos this summer on a Fund for Teachers fellowship with my colleague who co-developed Sixteen, and we encountered that question when our host family’s children ate roasted beetles, while we watched a dog being gutted in a river, and as our interpreter told us he was saving for a dowry.

How can we build these types of uncomfortable experiences into our classrooms, even for children who experience adversity? (Discomfort is different from hardship; one is optional and one is not.) Amanda may be wealthy, but all of us draw a line between what we’re familiar with and what we’re not, and that line can be difficult to cross. When young people are encouraged to embrace their unease, they are more empathetic and curious, and are more able to overcome fear and hesitation. Eating chicken feet during third period is only the first step.

Christina Jenkins teaches design, cartography, and many other things at the NYC iSchool. Her interests include learning space design and illustrated fiction, and her classroom is www.roomfourzerotwo.com.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.