First Person

What motivated my students to memorize Shakespeare: Another teacher saying it was ‘too hard’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Sean Davenport, principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy For Learning And Social Change

When I was in school, I wasn’t the best student. It wasn’t because I was incapable of learning — I just had no interest in school. My parents, my mother especially, always sent me to the school where I was the only black student in class, or maybe there were one or two in the class. I had no relationships there.

I had to grow up trying to navigate a system where I was an outlier. I didn’t belong and that affected me academically because sometimes I didn’t think I was smart. I didn’t like to read, not because I couldn’t read — I could read. The books they were giving me, I had no interest in. I didn’t want to read that stuff. They didn’t care.

But then I got this book — I think I was in fifth grade. It was the biography of Muhammad Ali. A funny thing happened when I read that book: I think I remembered every word on every page.

That experience changed me a little bit. I still wasn’t a great student, but I had someone I could relate to, someone who made sense to me.

Fast-forward: I’m in college — grad school — and I write this paper about my family. It talked about how I had an aunt who would make us go to church on Sunday morning, but she was always cussing us out on the way to church. She called us all a bunch of names to get us out of that house. Then she’d be singing in the choir.

My professor just loved that paper and for some reason, out of the blue, she said, “Sean, you need to be a teacher.” It didn’t make sense — how are you going to read a paper and tell me I need to be a teacher? And she said, “No, there’s just something about you. I think you really need to be a teacher.”

Well, I graduated, and lo and behold, I started teaching 10th grade English and speech at Theodore Roosevelt High School [now closed] in the Bronx. First day on the job, I go in there and I’m excited. The kids take out their books. I was going to have the kids do a little reading aloud.

A couple of kids went first, and I got to this one kid, he said, “Um, I’m not reading.”

I said, “What do you mean, you’re not reading?”

“I’m not reading.”

So I’m confused now, because I went to a school where you couldn’t tell a teacher that. And here’s this young man telling me, “No. I’m not doing it.”

I don’t know what to do. If I back down, the rest of the kids will say, “I’m not reading.” But a young lady saved me and she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll read.” And she read, and someone else read.

One of the things about Theodore Roosevelt, the English department, we had our own little teacher’s lounge, and a lot of ideas were shared in there. So I went back to my colleagues afterwards and I spoke about this instance where the young man said he wasn’t going to read. One of the teachers said, “Well, don’t let that bother you. A lot of times when they say that, they can’t read.”

I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know he can’t read? He’s in 10th grade.” Sure enough, you do some research, you do some checking: He couldn’t read.

I started saying, “What kind of system are we in that you get to 10th grade, and you’re sitting in a classroom, and you really can’t read? Is this what I’m really cut out for?”

So I started to find ways of making my class more interesting. Being in the English department, I’d hear the other English teachers recite Shakespeare. So I said, I’m going to make my kids learn Marc Antony’s speech. We were reading “Julius Caesar.”

I thought, “That will give them some confidence.” So I go in and I say, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

The kids are looking at me. And I go on, and I go on. And they’re like, “What the heck is he talking about?” So I’m saying, “You’re going to learn this speech — and not only are you going to learn it, you’re going to memorize it. And you’re going to recite it.”

They gave me a hard time, but I stood fast with it. And one day, a young lady was there to give her speech, and one of the English teachers walked into the room as the one lady was standing up. She struggled through it — got some words, kept trying, and finally, she made it.

And the teacher stopped and said, “Mr. Davenport, you made your kids learn that speech?”

I said, “Yeah. Why?”

And he said, “I think that’s too hard for them.”

He walked out of the room, and the young lady looked at me and said, “What’s he trying to say? Is he trying to say I can’t do this?”

I said, “That’s exactly what he’s trying to say. They don’t think you can do it.”

That was the best teaching tool I ever had. I didn’t have to convince another student in my classroom to learn that speech — because someone who they thought cared about them, who was supposed to care about them, didn’t believe in them.

From then on, I never had another problem with any of my students learning something they were supposed to learn. They might not have all gotten A’s or B’s — but they no longer got D’s and F’s.

So when I come to work every day, and you see my teachers in their classrooms, the one thing I try to instill in them is that these kids matter. They matter to someone.

What I want my kids to get out of school is that they don’t have to be Barack Obama. They just have to be themselves, and if they are the best of who they are, then that’s all right with us.

Sean Davenport is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Academy For Learning And Social Change in Harlem. This is a lightly edited version of a story he shared at a Showcase Schools training event. As a Showcase school, Thurgood Marshall Academy welcomes educators from across the city to observe successful teaching practices.

diverse charters

In launching new charter schools, former Success Academy lawyer aims for integration

Emily Kim at a 2015 academic forum in Washington, D.C.

Former Success Academy lawyer Emily Kim says integration will be a “key” aspect in the design of the charter chain she is aiming to launch.

Kim recently left New York City’s largest network of charter schools to start her own — and given her close ties to Success, Kim’s schools are likely to be closely watched. According to a new website and documents filed with the charter authorizer SUNY, she plans to launch Zeta Charter Schools in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

She also appears to be aiming for the schools to join the growing number of “intentionally diverse” charters. Realizing that goal will likely require substantial outreach to families, since the districts where Zeta has applied to open are overwhelmingly poor and Hispanic. The poverty rate stands at 87 percent in Manhattan’s District 6 and 93 percent in the Bronx’s District 12. The percentage of Hispanic students is 85 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Less than 3 percent of students in either district are Asian, and less than 5 percent are white.

“We believe a diverse student population enriches the school environment and raises the level and depth of learning,” the school’s website states.

New York City schools are largely segregated, and charters are no exception. In the city, 90 percent of charter schools are “intensely segregated,” with white students making up less than 10 percent of enrollment, according to a UCLA report. Across the state, charters often serve fewer students who are learning English or have a disability, according to a 2016 report by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

The lopsided enrollment is often attributed to the mission of many charter schools to target underserved students and neighborhoods. But since they admit students by lottery, rather than attendance boundaries, experts say charter schools in some areas have the potential to create diverse environments.

Kim has not yet filed full charter applications to SUNY for the schools, which would need to be approved by SUNY and the Board of Regents. The preliminary documents say the two elementary schools would launch in August 2018 and grow to enroll 675 students each.

haters gonna hate

Bronx borough president to high school grads: ‘Start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Bronx Academy for Software Engineering, or BASE, graduated its inaugural class on Wednesday.

The tech industry in New York City has a diversity problem. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering was launched to help solve it.

The high school, known as BASE, graduated its first class of seniors on Wednesday. With a curriculum that blends computer programming and social justice, the school will soon provide official Career and Technical Education certification, allowing students to graduate with an endorsement of their job-readiness.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson helped start BASE with the goal of creating a pipeline of talent for a burgeoning local technology sector, and ensuring the city’s diversity is reflected in hiring. In New York City, 53 percent of the population is black or Hispanic, but those groups make up only 20 percent of employees in the tech industry, according to a 2015 report by the Center for an Urban Future.

At BASE, about 30 percent of students are black and about 60 percent are Hispanic.

“The tech sector should look like you. All of you,” Wilson told the graduates. “I want to thank you for showing the world what’s possible … I want to ask you to go out into the world and take over the tech sector. I’m going to be rooting for you.”

About 81 percent of the inaugural class graduated, according to founding principal Ben Grossman. That’s well above the borough average of about 65 percent last year, and also beats the citywide average of about 73 percent. All of BASE’s graduates are college-bound, according to the school.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. — who has pushed for computer science education in Bronx schools, and to attract the technology sector to the borough — gave the commencement speech for BASE’s first class of seniors. Here’s why he almost didn’t graduate from high school — and his advice for defying stereotypes about what it means to be from the Bronx.

This speech has been condensed and lightly edited for length and clarity.

This is a celebration and a ceremony. It’s about a journey that you’ve already been through with your family, and one that you will continue to take as life goes on. I’ll try to not to belabor this, but let me give you a little bit of what you will perhaps encounter during that journey.

Number one: It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s all about where you finish. Why? Even though I’m the borough president, I, unlike you, did not walk and did not graduate during my high school graduation. The reason why I didn’t graduate is because I transferred my senior year, chasing love. I didn’t focus on my studies the way I should. So it took me a little longer. And we got pregnant afterwards — don’t try this at home.

We started a family. I did the best that I could to provide as a messenger for the New York City Council, my first government job. Then I went on and I ran for the New York State Assembly and, at the age of 23, I became the youngest legislator in the State of New York at the time.

So it doesn’t matter how or where you start. It’s how you finish.

But even when you believe that you made it, number two: There are going to be haters. Let them hate.

I say that because even when I was in the New York State Legislature, here I am being sworn-in, I’m 23-years-old. I have my wife and children. My mom and dad. A joyous occasion, just like today. And yet, a colleague of mine at the time, who was there for a long time, he says, “What school did you graduate from again? What college?” And I was still a college student at LaGuardia Community College. And he says, “Well, I’m Harvard. Yale Law.”

Nothing wrong with being Harvard, Yale Law. God bless him. But I just didn’t like the way he said it. He was being condescending. No me gustó. I didn’t like it.

It’s the way people sometimes look at you, about where you come from. And so I said, “Wait a minute. You’re Harvard, Yale Law. I’m LaGuardia Community College. And here we are, sitting next to each other. Either I’m a great success, or you’re just a terrible failure.”

He was trying to throw shade at me. You got to let the haters hate. You’ve got to understand that people are going to judge you because, perhaps you have an accent. Perhaps you did not go to MIT. Perhaps you didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. Maybe your parents aren’t affluent or wealthy. Or maybe just because you come from the Boogie Down Bronx.

You got to go out there, and you got to conquer. Do the best that you can and be representatives for yourself, your family, your community. And break the mold.

We’re at a place now where corporate America, the tech world, is looking at our borough, like they’re looking at other places, to try to find a home. This is where you come in. This is where you start breaking the mold of what the face of techies look like.

There’s a sensitive time in this country, where even coming out of the White House, there’s this vilification of diversity. We come in all shapes and colors. We embrace them and we know that diversity is our strength. You go out there. You get your degrees. You conquer the world. And you represent BASE, you represent your family, and you represent the Boogie Down Bronx as well.

You represent evidence that, if you give a young man, a young woman from our community — with all of that swag — you give them resources, they’ll conquer the world.

Understand that you’ve already started in a better place than some of us. You’re already equipped with the backing and the love of a community — whether it’s your parents or your educators. You have the attention of giants in the fields that you want to go into.

Some might say you’re lucky. Luck is but an equation. Luck equals opportunity, plus preparation. I believe that BASE has prepared you to go out there and seize all the opportunities that will be presented in front of you.

Oh, by the way. That young lady I was chasing? Twenty-eight years later, she’s still my wife.