How I Teach

‘I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had’: Why a Brooklyn teacher gave up professional photography for the classroom

PHOTO: DeMario Palmer
Una-Kariim Cross

Una-Kariim Cross’ teaching career was supposed to be brief.

But after spending a year as a substitute teacher in Lansing, Michigan, she had a hard time shaking the experience.

“I was already on this pathway to go to graduate school — so I kind of stuck with that plan,” she said. After completing her MFA in photography and honing her craft behind the camera and as a freelance writer, Cross found herself itching to get back in the classroom.

Now, she uses her arts background at the Gotham Professional Arts Academy in Brooklyn, where she teaches language arts, and works to connect students to the local arts community.

“I wished I had a teacher that was invested in me as a young person and a person of color,” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher that I wished I had.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

School: Gotham Professional Arts Academy

Current grade/Subject: High school / Language arts, art criticism

What does your classroom look like?

My classroom is a print- and image-rich learning lab. There are traditional desks and chairs, but what’s most important is what is on the walls, what students see when they come into this space.

On the border above the chalk/white board is a culmination of images of writers, artists, and educators that have worked in New York and at Gotham Professional Arts Academy. Additionally, there are images from class trips we’ve taken and leaders in the community that my students have met, and art from a recent exhibition at BRIC in Brooklyn. That border gets significant attention from students and guests. It consists of writers: Langston Hughes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., Tupac.

What apps, software or other tools can’t you teach without? Why?

I cannot teach without Digital Schomburg because it has amazing and accessible online exhibitions, historical documents, images and artifacts — from general treasures of the New York Public Library to the African-American migration experience, and more. My absolute favorite is “Ready for a Revolution: Education, Arts, and Aesthetics of the Black Power Movement.”

Using art as a point of entry has really pulled some of my scholars in. The images ignite their curiosity in a way that leads them to autonomous research.

How do you plan your lessons?

Lesson planning always begins with assessment, which allows me to see what skills students have when they are entering a classroom. I’m assessing basic reading comprehension, if they have analytical abilities, and basic writing.

Usually, they’re coming from middle school and they’re just doing basic comprehension. They personalize everything [instead of analyzing the text], and I have to see if they’re still doing that. Or I can have students who are getting it and develop their own critical questions. And that determines whether I can do a short re-teaching mini-lesson or can move on.

What makes an ideal lesson?

An ideal lesson, or an ideal moment in the classroom, is over 50 percent student engagement. It’s a lesson or a day where the students are leading, invested, demonstrating learning, and on fire! They are filled with passion and they show it.

What’s your go-to trick to re-engage a student who has lost focus?

This is likely one of the most challenging moments in the classroom. The most important thing to have in one’s teaching arsenal when confronted with this scenario is to know your scholars. Know what makes them tick, know what you can leverage, know who they are and what their interests are, find out what is causing the lost focus and bring them back.

Depending on the scholar, I can also ask them to re-engage by creating a leadership position, such as facilitating a discussion or even something smaller such as writing names on the board as we prep for discussion.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

The best advice I have received was from artist, author and former educator Faith Ringgold. I was struggling with the realities of teaching young people whose lives are often in crisis and I was talking to her about it when I visited her studio in Englewood, NJ. She said: “Your job is to teach the children.” I remember that essentially she was saying, ‘No matter what their circumstance is, your responsibility is to educate.’ That always keeps me focused.

Detroit

Week in review: A raise for some Detroit teachers — no pay for others

PHOTO: John/Creative Commons

The situation at the Detroit charter school where teachers won’t get their summer paychecks is a reminder about the precarious finances that can affect both district and charter schools.

Charters don’t typically have historic debts like those that nearly drove the Detroit Public Schools into bankruptcy last year, but Michigan does not provide charter schools with money to buy or renovate their buildings. Unlike districts, charter schools can’t ask voters to approve tax hikes to pay for improvements. And when charter schools borrow money, that debt isn’t supported by the state or backed up by district taxpayers the way some school district debt is. So when a charter school shuts down and money stops coming from the state, there could be many people — that includes teachers — who simply won’t get paid.

Scroll down for more on that story as well as updates on the just-ratified teachers contract and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news.

— Erin Einhorn, Chalkbeat Senior Detroit Correspondent

 

Paying teachers — or not

  • Detroit teachers who mailed in ballots this month have narrowly approved a new three-year contract in a vote of 515 to 474. “We certainly deserve more,” the union’s president said in a statement “but the package offers us the opportunity to build our local, move our school district forward and place students first.”
  • The new contract, which will now go to a state financial oversight board for approval, would raise teacher salaries by more than 7 percent over the next two years but would not increase wages enough to bring them back to where they were before pay cuts a few years ago.
  • Meanwhile, teachers at the shuttered Michigan Technical Academy charter school — which had a lower school in northwest Detroit and a middle school in Redford — were furious to learn that they won’t get money they’re owed for work they did during the school year. The money will instead go to pay off debts. More than 30 teachers are collectively owed more than $150,000.
  • The school is the second Detroit-area charter school to run into financial problems affecting teacher pay. Educators at the Taylor International Academy in Southfield say they haven’t been paid since their school shut down abruptly in early June. Taylor and MTA also have this in common: Both schools had their charter authorized by Central Michigan University.
  • Meanwhile, across the state, Michigan’s average teacher salary has dropped for the fifth year in a row, and many districts say they have trouble retaining high quality teachers because of low pay. The finding is included in a six-story series on state teacher pay from Michigan Radio that already has detractors.
  • An investor service says the controversial changes Michigan made to its pension system are a “positive” for the state.
  • A University of Michigan economist says substitute teachers are paid less in Michigan than other states — part of why the state has a sub shortage.
  • A suburban district got 952 applicants for a single teaching job but the district’s superintendent says that doesn’t mean there’s not a teacher shortage.

On the home front

In Detroit

Across the state

  • A judge has blocked the state from spending public money on private schools. A Catholic leader explains why he thinks private schools should be entitled to the money.
  • MIchigan has dumped its school ranking system in favor of a dashboard.
  • An advocate who wants schools to face tougher consequences for poor performance slammed Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent school reform efforts. “Parents are tougher on their kids when they don’t eat their vegetables than Detroit’s turnaround plan is with its hometown failure factories,” he wrote.
  • Many of the hurdles that make it difficult to provide enough early education in Detroit also exist in rural Michigan communities.
  • A New York writer says Betsy DeVos might be powerful and influential in Michigan but in Washington without her checkbook, she’s “like a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

In other news

money money money

New York City teachers get news they’ve been waiting for: how much money they’ll receive for classroom supplies

New York City teachers will each get $250 this year to spend on classroom supplies — more than they’ve ever gotten through the city’s reimbursement program before.

The city’s 2017-18 budget dramatically ramped up spending for the Teacher’s Choice program, a 30-year-old collaboration between the City Council and the United Federation of Teachers. More than $20 million will go the program this year.

On Thursday, the union texted its members with details about how the city’s budget will translate to their wallets. General education teachers will each get $250, reimbursable against expenses. (Educators who work in other areas get slightly less; teachers tell the union they spend far more.)

Money given to New York City teachers for classroom supplies, measured in dozens of tissue boxes.

The increase means that Teacher’s Choice has more than recovered from the recent recession. In 2007, teachers were getting $220 a year, but that number fell until the union and Council zeroed out the program in 2011 as part of a budget deal aimed at avoiding teacher layoffs. (Some teachers turned to crowdsourcing to buy classroom supplies.) As the city’s financial picture has improved, and as the union lobbied heavily for the program, the amount inched upwards annually.

“With this increase in funding for Teacher’s Choice, the City Council has sent us a clear message that they believe in our educators and support the work they are doing,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement. “At a time where we see public education under attack on a national level, Council members came through for our teachers and our students.”