First Person

Learning My Students’ Stories, And Sharing My Own

This piece is the first in an occasional series about a college readiness curriculum in use at the High School for Arts and Business in Queens. Future installments will include stories produced by HSAB students through the StoryCorpsU program.

The first day of my ninth-grade English class at the High School for Arts and Business this past year was like any other: full of nerves, anxious glances around the room, and fresh notebooks. But this year would be different, I informed the class. We would be embarking on a marvelous opportunity where their voices would be heard — literally and figuratively — through a program called StoryCorpsU.

To start, I directed students to get out of their seats for an activity. I handed out index cards with questions on them and within minutes the room was abuzz with discussions about students’ vision of a perfect day, their hopes and dreams for the future, and the three objects they would bring to a space station. Thus began our first StoryCorpsU class and we were on our way.

StoryCorpsU is a college-readiness curriculum consisting of 29 lesson plans, centered on content produced by StoryCorps, the nonprofit organization that helps people across the country share their personal stories. The goals of StoryCorpsU are to improve students’ speaking and listening skills, boost their self and social awareness, and promote school connectedness, or the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. My school was picked to partner with StoryCorps after being introduced through the Association of American Publishers Adopt-a-School program.

Rigorous testing schedules often don’t allow time for students and teachers to share stories and get to know one another, so my students eagerly look forward to StoryCorpsU Fridays. Having this opportunity allows for a break from test preparation, while still holding students accountable for producing a meaningful product with measurable results. StoryCorpsU also allows for building trust and respect amongst students and teachers in the classroom. It was an excellent way to start the year because the curriculum is student-centered and interactive. The activities foster sharing of experiences and I got to really know the students and they got to know each other.

If students come to school and feel isolated and unknown in their classes, will they feel driven to ask the tough questions that will allow them to reach their full academic potential? Both the research on school connectedness and my 15 years of teaching experience tell me the answer is no. Over the following months, my students shared stories about important people, places, and events from their past. They then began to reflect on how these stories impact who they are today. These stories illuminated strengths and aspirations I knew the students had but did not previous have a way to express. The StoryCorpsU lesson plans allowed me to learn that Jose wants to be a pilot, Christian’s family owns a farm in the Dominican Republic, and Jennifer has studied Jiu-Jitsu and has a green belt in karate.

The students aren’t the only ones sharing stories. I’ve shared stories reflecting on my challenges and successes as well. One story in particular stands out. I recorded a story to model an assignment that asked students to share an important event from their past. My story was about the unconventional path I took in earning my undergraduate degree. I was nervous as I cued up the recording in class. I’ve spent the past 15 years in front of students in the classroom but this was different. I was sharing a story that was personal and I felt vulnerable. I worried about what my students would think as I hit play. When the recording finished the students asked a barrage of questions about my life and journey to being the first in my family to graduate from college. I was all too happy to share in the hopes that I might inspire my students who face challenges to push past them toward their futures.

Through the curriculum we’ve created a safe space where students’ stories, families, and experiences are honored and welcomed. It’s a space I look forward to each week, just as my students do.

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.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.