First Person

Long lines, few supplies, fearing the boss: One teacher says his Bronx school was ‘just like Poland, 40 years ago’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Tomasz "Tomek" Krzyzostaniak sharing his story

At first blush, the New York City school system and Communist Poland would seem to have little in common. But Tomasz “Tomek” Krzyzostaniak, a Bronx teacher whose family emigrated from Poland in 1991, says his dad saw many similarities between the two— from long lines to a shortage of supplies.

Tomek drew the comparison during Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for New York City teachers. Held in June at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share stories based on the theme “Best (Blank) Ever.”

Here’s Tomek’s story on the Best Bulletin Board Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

When I was thinking about the topic for today, I was thinking a lot about the early years [at my previous school], the beginning, when things were really tough. Everything was new. It was difficult. And I would call my parents and share stories, and my dad would consistently say the same thing. (If you didn’t know, I am Polish. I was born in Poland.)

In his thick Polish accent, my dad would say, “Just like Poland, 40 years ago.”

Now to put that in context, Poland 40 years ago was in their final dictatorial communist regime that was corrupt beyond imagination. So I would talk about, for example, the long lines waiting to pick up the ELA [English Language Arts] test. How many of you here have done that? Wait for 40 minutes. You have to sign a stupid form and all you get is a stupid test back. And I would say, “Just waiting in line.” And he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.”

I would talk about the shortage of supplies, or copiers. “Poland, 40 years ago.” I would talk about favoritism and nepotism. “Poland, 40 years ago.” Same thing.

I would talk about the symbolic walkthroughs — the superintendent is coming! All of a sudden, schools have to have everything in order, just for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

But with all that said, I would talk about the close friends I have, the colleagues that support each other and love each other, helped each other out, and he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.” When times were tough, and you were part of the resistance, you made friends and you did the best you could.

So, with that in mind, my biggest nemesis in the public school system was the dreaded bulletin board.

I hated the dreaded bulletin board, not because of philosophical ideas about bulletin boards — it could be a beautiful thing, sharing our students’ ideas and beliefs. The way the bulletin boards looked, at least in our school, was you could only put up not-actual work, because you had to put up perfect work. Everything had to be spelled exactly right, all the standards had to be there, all the descriptions. The work wasn’t authentic. It was all for show.

They would make you put up this bulletin board, they’d make you stress out over it, come around, and give you feedback: “Oh, I like the color,” or something. That’s it. It didn’t have any meaning, it wasn’t done for the kids. It was done for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

So, with my friends Ruben and another teacher, who we’ll call Sloman, we were over it. So, Sloman and I made a bet on who could create the best bulletin board.

Ruben volunteered to be our judge, and as Ruben would, he created rubrics, thought very closely about what it would take to make this very personal, progressive bulletin board.

[And I] worked so hard on it. Put out my students’ best work on it. My bulletin board was 3-D. It was interactive! Second grade social studies. We made longhouses from the Native American tribes here in the Northeast. They were so cool. They were so beautiful. Kids did such a great job on it.

So the day came, and Ruben came with his clipboard. He looked at my bulletin board first. He made some notes. I think he was impressed by the 3-D nature of it. Unlike anything seen at the school previously.

We went upstairs. I looked at Sloman’s bulletin board. And I didn’t win.

Sloman didn’t have a three-dimensional board, but Ruben’s feedback — which was more feedback than we had received from any administrator ever — talked about transformative skills, authentic work, the level of rigor, a lot of really smart stuff that we missed in my bulletin board.

The Best Bulletin Board Ever, the title, went to Sloman. But after that feedback, after that authentic feedback, I’d like to think that my bulletin boards after that were the best ever.

Tomek Krzyzostaniak is the lower school academic director at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary. Originally from Poland, he has worked as an educator in New York City for 10 years. He started as a second-grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

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.