First Person

Using The Boy Scouts To Advance Inclusion In My Class

Recently, when I picked my second graders up from lunch, several of the girls rushed toward me in a tizzy. “Ahmed and Mohammed told us we couldn’t sit at their table at lunch because we’re not Boy Scouts,” they reported indignantly. I dropped my jaw in front of the offending boys, put my hands on my hips and said the words that I hope inspire some sort of dread amongst my little ones, “We will have to talk about this when we get back to the classroom.”

Now, as a fourth-year elementary school teacher in a public school in Brooklyn, I am no stranger to lunchtime drama. No matter how much work I do toward creating a positive classroom community and a supportive learning environment, all bets are off when my students enter the lunchroom. Typically, my co-teacher and I brush off these cafeteria skirmishes by encouraging our students to deal with their issues during lunch and not bring them back into the classroom. But every now and again a problem pops up that needs to be addressed with the entire class back upstairs in our room. The Boy Scouts issue certainly merited further discussion.

I wanted to be thoughtful about the way I addressed the boys’ behavior at lunch. My students know that there’s not much that gets Ms. Krent truly upset, but excluding classmates or otherwise hurting other students’ feelings is the fastest way to do it. I am a special education teacher in an Integrated Co-Teaching classroom and issues of inclusion are very close to my heart. My co-teacher and I work hard to create a classroom that a stranger could enter and not know who is labeled as a special needs student and who isn’t. I taught for two years in self-contained classrooms and my students in those classes were much more self-conscious of their special education status than the students I’ve taught for two years in ICT classrooms.

Creating a classroom community where everyone feels welcomed is incredibly important to me. In both types of settings I’ve taught in, there have been students who clearly stick out a little more than the others. I have worked hard to speak honestly about difference with my students while at the same time, I’ve more or less forced them to include any and all of their peers in class activities. We don’t let our students call an activity “easy” and we explicitly teach that what’s easy for some isn’t easy for all and we never want to make anyone feel bad about trying their hardest. Of course, this is second grade and kids are kids. There will always be kids who are nasty to each other for whatever reason, but we try our hardest to foster empathy amongst our students and to make them aware of the effect their actions have on others.

I have believed strongly in an inclusionary model of teaching since I studied psychology at Wesleyan University and finagled my way into writing a psychology thesis about inclusion and special education. My summer training for the New York City Teaching Fellows program intensified my already strong desire to unpack issues of inequity in education. I entered the classroom knowing I wanted to teach through a lens of social justice.

Because of this social action orientation in my teaching, I knew I couldn’t just tell my students they had to let the girls sit at their table and that was that. Instead, we had a class conversation about the differences and similarities between girls and boys. We talked about all the jobs both boys and girls can grow up to have (police officers! bus drivers! teachers!), all the likes and dislikes boys and girls might have (the color pink! SpongeBob SquarePants! video games!), and why it’s important to let everyone sit wherever they want to sit. Both my female and male students mentioned that it seemed unfair that our school only offers Boy Scouts after school and not Girl Scouts. I had inquired about this when the Boy Scouts first started using our cafeterias once a week after school. I didn’t receive a very compelling answer, but then again, why do we still have Boy and Girl Scouts anyway? Can’t we just all be scouts together?

Either way, I felt fulfilled by the conversation I had with my students. They engaged with the questions I posed to them and while they probably didn’t radically alter their views on gender, I can feel satisfied knowing I exposed them to new ideas. I certainly don’t have any answers when it comes to equity in education, but I have a lot of questions and as long as I’m teaching, I’ll keep working through them with my students.

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.