next steps

How hip-hop, a field day and letter-writing are helping NYC students take action after the election

Students work on a writing assignment in Ian Levy's class.

The day after the presidential election, Ian Levy started class the same way he normally does. The South Bronx guidance counselor invited students to share anything on their minds. A discussion erupted when a student responded with just one word: “Trump.”

“They’re all feeling a lack of value and issues around their voice, where does their voice fit in the landscape of this new presidency?” said Levy, who works at New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science II.

Levy knows something about helping students find their voice. His school office is home to a recording studio where students learn academic lessons and work out their personal concerns through hip-hop. Now, he said, they are pouring their questions and feelings into a song about the election they hope to finish in the coming weeks.

“A lot of them had questions about what they could do moving forward,” Levy said. “Now they can use their culture to push back.”

Levy isn’t the only one trying to create a space for students to express themselves. Educators across the city are looking for ways to engage students and channel their fear and frustration into action.

In This Together” is another attempt to do just that. It’s a “spontaneous field day” in Prospect Park this Friday, when schools are closed for Veterans Day, organized by Beam Center, a nonprofit that partners with 20 local schools.

Brian Cohen, the group’s executive director and co-founder, said he was inspired by a text he got Wednesday morning from one of his staffers, who was visiting Brooklyn International High School, a school for new immigrants. “Mood here is somber,” it read. “Kids are afraid.”

“That just took me down all the way,” Cohen said, and it made him want to organize an activity for those students. “We needed to think about something very quickly that we could do to give them a break from those anxieties and let them know that there is a ‘we,’” he said.

Since the organization focuses on collaboration and hands-on projects, he decided to turn it into a day of fun. “This is not a protest, it’s a celebration,” Cohen said. The event flyer — circulated among his network of Brooklyn schools and international schools citywide — promises games, food and a paper balloon launch.

Cohen’s hope, he said, is that it will bring together kids of different worlds and remind them that “they live in a community of support, and that the outcome of an election will not change the way New York City is as a home for them.”

Sarah Camiscoli, who helped start the student-led social justice group IntegrateNYC4Me, is trying to create a similar feeling of inclusiveness for her students at Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters.

After receiving a flood of worried text messages on election night, Camiscoli gave her class the option to write a letter. On brightly colored paper, each stamped with a heart and the words “Love Trumps Fear,” she asked them to to send a message to any community that might need to hear something positive.

Rather than despair, the letters are full of encouragement.

“No matter what happens, we have to accept it and plan to move forward,” reads one, addressed to fellow students. “You have a dream ahead you have to hold onto.”

Another letter, addressed to the LGBT community, says, “I just want to tell you that you are strong, you are beautiful and that you are brave.”

The school’s principal, Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, said he was struck by what he saw the day after the election — teachers seizing the moment to help empower their students.

“It’s a lost opportunity if we just kind of sit in the sadness and go through worst case scenarios,” he said, “instead of going into action for our kids.”

 

One of the letters written by Camiscoli's students.
One of the letters written by Camiscoli’s students.

Teens Take Charge

New York City students and podcasters team up to share stories of inequity in schools

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Teens Take Charge is a student-led organization that hopes to spark change in schools.

If you ask Sherard Stephens, a senior at Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the Bronx, there are two different types of schools in New York City: There are schools where resources are plentiful and students feel challenged academically. But there are dozens of others that barely provide the basics, and those largely cater to black, Hispanic and poor students.

Stephens and other students like him think it’s time to talk about that, which is why they’ve launched Teens Take Charge. The new group, which includes students from almost every borough, wants to give young people a voice when it comes to issues they know well: what goes on in their own schools.

“It’s all about us talking about the fact that we don’t have the resources to reach the same level of success,” he said.

On Friday, Teens Take Charge will host their first event at the Bronx Library Center. Through letters, storytelling and poetry, students will tackle issues such as segregation and standardized testing. They hope their stories, along with student-moderated discussions, will spark change within their schools.

Called “To Whom it Should Concern,” the event will also feature art work and a photo booth, and will be completely led by students. But they’ve had help along the way from Handwritten, an organization that focuses on the art of writing by hand, along with The Bell, a new podcast created by Taylor McGraw and Adrian Uribarri to highlight student voices.

McGraw teaches writing at Achievement First University Prep High School in Brooklyn and Uribarri works in communications. Their podcast, which launched this month, focuses on school segregation in New York City — more than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that separate schools for black and white students are inherently unequal.

The podcast was inspired by just a few lines in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion in that case, in which he wrote that segregation “generates a feeling of inferiority” for minority students “that may affect their hearts and minds.”

McGraw wanted to explore the impact that segregation has on students by letting them speak for themselves.

“I want to know: How does it make them think about themselves? How does it make them think about society and their place in it? And then, what’s their response to it?” McGraw said. “So many of the other inequities that we talk about and hear about stem from segregation.”

He hopes to share clips from Friday’s event in an upcoming podcast episode.

For more information about To Whom it Should Concern, click here. To listen to the first episode of The Bell or read more about Teens Take Charge, click here.

First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.