First Person

What this teacher learned when her discipline system went awry — for all the right reasons

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Trilce Marquez recently shared her story at a Teachable Moments event in Harlem.

My first year teaching, at a school in the South Bronx, I taught across the hall from a woman who had been teaching for 25 years. The year that I started was the last year before she retired. Mrs. McCants kept me from quitting more than once, and was always checking in on me at the end of the day to see if I was OK.

I, in turn, was constantly in her classroom, watching her and her kids. I watched how quickly and quietly they would line up, or how when one kid tripped on the way to the rug, others crowded around him and asked if he was OK. During book club conversations, students would argue about parts of a book, but end with, “I hadn’t thought about it like that before.” I spent most of my time thinking, “How does she DO that?!”

That year, I tried so hard to emulate her. But I never figured out what she was doing that was so different from what I was trying. During closing circle, she’d ask her students about their favorite part of the day, and they’d begin a compliment chain. I asked my students and five yelled “recess,” two did cartwheels and one was sticking her finger in a socket. If we had a good day, it felt like an accident. I couldn’t tell you what I’d done to make it good.

I’m in my 10th year of teaching and I still think about Mrs. McCants all the time. I spent the last five years teaching in an ICT [integrated co-teaching] setting, which is where there are two teachers in the classroom. Most of that time was spent at a “no excuses” charter school, where every moment was regulated by a behavior system. The wiggle of a pinky could get you in trouble.

When I first got there, I thought, “So this is it! This is how Mrs. McCants did it — she watched their every move and gave consequences accordingly.” It took me a long time to realize that the joy in her room didn’t come from the consequences she gave. But at the time, I felt I’d found an answer.

This year feels a lot like my first year again because I’m on my own, no longer at the charter school. It’s just me and the kids.

I’m still struggling to figure out a behavior system that feels right. This year, my kids and I came up with one: Kids can earn stars or reminders. A reminder is if you’re interrupting learning so much so that you have a hard time getting back on track and so does everyone else.

At the end of the week, we have “choice time,” which is a period of free play, and you get to go to choice time if you have less than five reminders for the week.

Now, I try not to give reminders. I try to give conversations, notes, deathly teacher stares. But sometimes, you get a reminder.

The first week we tried this system, my student Joshua got 13 reminders. “Joshua, please don’t tape all of the pages of the book shut.” “Joshua, please stop singing ‘Let it Go.’ It’s silent, independent reading.” “Joshua, Post-Its are not confetti. Please stop throwing them in the air.” Joshua didn’t make it to choice time that week.

At the end of the next week, we’re getting ready for choice time, and I see that Joshua has way more than five reminders again. I’m thinking about what to do when Adam raises his hand.

“Can we change something?” he asks. “Can we give away our stars to other people, and the stars can erase their reminders?”

I’m thinking, “Sure, that sounds nice. You can give stars to other people.”

So Adam immediately says, “OK, I want to give a star to Joshua.”

And then another hand goes up and Valerie says, “I want to give a star to Joshua, too.”

I’m sitting there marking the stars on our behavior sheet, and when I look up, almost everyone else is waiting with their hands up.

“I want to give a star to Joshua.” “I want to give two stars to Joshua.” “A star for Joshua …”

And I look over at Joshua as students are giving their stars, and he’s sitting slouched down in his seat, pulling the top of his shirt over his face, crying.

When the kids are done, I’ve run out of room on the sheet — it’s covered with Joshua’s stars.

Joshua wipes his tears, and he goes to choice time with everyone else. Later I ask him, “Earlier, were you feeling really happy or really sad?”

He looks at me and says, “Really happy.”

I’m happy I didn’t quit that first year. Back then, I felt like everything good that happened was a lucky accident, but now I know there’s not much that happens by accident. Almost everything, like a group of kids coming together for a classmate, happens when you let go and give them room to love.

Trilce Marquez is a fourth-grade teacher at P.S. 11 in Chelsea. She shared this story as part of a recent Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for New York City teachers. If you have a story you want to share at the next Teachable Moments, email [email protected].

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.