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.

Read to be Ready

McQueen takes stock of Tennessee’s literacy campaign after first year

A year ago, Tennessee began a quest to address its lagging literacy rate.

It started with its youngest readers through an initiative called Read to be Ready. The goal was to change the state’s approach to reading instruction beyond alphabet recognition to “authentic” experiences in which students read to learn — and for fun.

On Thursday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen took stock of the progress after one year, laying out next steps that will focus on classroom instruction and teacher support.

The initiative, she said, must outlive its funding, which includes $4.2 million that pays mostly for a literacy coaching network and an additional $30 million for reading camps to serve 30,000 students during the next three summers.

Year Two will be about “building the framework” that can be used for years to come to teach Tennessee’s youngest students to read.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
McQueen holds up a report detailing the second year of Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

“We know the gains that we want to make will not happen overnight,” she said during a celebration event in Nashville attended by about 120 stakeholders. “The reason I’m truly optimistic is the success we have started seeing in such a short period of time.”

Researchers found that schools participating in the state’s new literacy coaching network invested significantly more time in reading comprehension last year in grades K-2 — 67 percent, compared to 37 percent in 2015.

But Tennessee has a heavy lift ahead. Only a third of its fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. The state wants to get 75 percent of its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025.

The new network of literacy coaches sprawls across two-thirds of the state’s districts and includes 200 teacher-coaches. Working with other teachers, they select texts designed to engage and challenge students to practice more on reading and writing, and less on filling out worksheets.

“That’s why we’re investing so much in you as teachers and educators, saying your knowledge matters,” McQueen said.

Michael Ramsey, an instructional coach in Grainger County, is already seeing changes at his elementary school.

“With the coaching network, teachers have the opportunity to reflect and take (instruction) to the next step,” he said.

But, “it takes time,” Ramsey said of training the teachers and working with students. He urged state and local leaders to “just stay consistent and give us time.”

How I Teach

When the class is off-task, this fourth-grade teacher knows it’s probably time for Justin Timberlake

PHOTO: Cynthia Rimmer
Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary School in the East Grand School District, works with students.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

For Cynthia Rimmer, a fourth-grade teacher at Fraser Valley Elementary in Granby, building relationships with students is one of the best parts of the job. She eats lunch with them, reads to them, asks about their hobbies and attends their out-of-school events when possible.

Rimmer is one of 24 teachers selected for the 2016-17 Colorado Educator Voice Fellowship, an initiative of the national nonprofit America Achieves. The program, which also includes principals, aims to involve educators in policy conversations and decisions.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a teacher because I love helping kids: to learn, to reach their goals, to realize their dreams, to help them to develop into the people they are capable of becoming.

I had several teachers growing up that made a big impact on my life, but none was more influential than my third grade teacher, Ms. Deanna Masciantonio. She not only taught me about space and fractions, but more importantly, she taught me how to communicate and resolve conflict, and how treat friends. She made us feel special and valued. I still carry her lessons with me today.

What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a warm and organized space where everyone can feel comfortable learning and working together. Student writing and artwork is displayed on the walls and there are a variety of seating options where students can go to work independently or collaboratively in partners or in groups.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?
Sense of humor. Teaching children can be overwhelming at times. It is important to be able to take a step back, remember what is important, and enjoy the moments we have with these incredible young students.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Last year, my teaching partner and I worked with our physical education teacher to create a project where students researched topics related to the Coordinated School Health Standards. While the students created their projects, I was able to address a variety of English Language Arts standards, as well as working on the students’ technology and presentation skills.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I have tried to create an environment where students are encouraged to take academic risks and mistakes are celebrated. When someone doesn’t grasp a concept, we work together to understand things in new and different ways, making sure to address the student’s variety of learning styles.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
When individual students are talking or off task, often times they simply need a quick pat on the shoulder or a friendly reminder to refocus. Some students may need a quick brain break or a few laps on the exercise bike to get back on track.

When the entire class is off task, I stop and reflect on what is happening. Often times the directions were unclear, or the students were being pushed too hard, and we all need to make time for a brain boost. But sometimes, we just need to stop and dance. Our favorite class dance break this year is Justin Timberlake’s, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” After a few minutes of singing and dancing, the students are ready to tackle the most challenging math problems.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Building relationships with students is one of the most important and one of my favorite parts of being a teacher. Talking to the students, having lunch together, telling them about myself, reading to them, getting to know about their interests and hobbies, and letting them see that I am a real person all help build healthy relationships. I also try to attend the students’ outside events whenever possible, which I’ve found goes a long way in creating a trusting and long-lasting relationship.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
In one memorable meeting, a parent requested that I move her son into a more challenging reading group. Although test scores and classroom observations didn’t dictate this switch, the parent shared some struggles that the family had recently dealt with that she felt were holding her son back from doing his best.

After I changed her child’s grouping on a trial basis, the student began to flourish. He developed more confidence and began to work harder, quickly becoming a role model and a positive leader. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. When we take the time to partner with parents and understand where they are coming from, great things can happen.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
I just finished Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullay Hunt. I enjoy reading the books my students are reading so that we can discuss our excitement for the stories together. I recently started My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I enjoyed his book A Man Called Ove and I hope this book will just as charming.

What’s the best advice you ever received?
About 20 years ago I was considering pursuing another career. A trusted friend and mentor advised me to re-enter the teaching profession. I can’t thank her enough for that wise counsel.