First Person

First Person: At my school, we let students group themselves by race to talk about race — and it works

Students in the program at the Bank Street School for Children.
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At the Bank Street School for Children’s graduation this June, no one was surprised when some of the eighth-graders used their final moments as our students to reflect on race.

A black student recounted a discussion with a black second-grader. “Does it get harder?” the younger student had asked. “Yes,” the the older student said. “Going forward there are things you’re going to have to face. But surround yourself with allies and you will be OK.”

A white student discussed affirmative action. “Racism was a system built for social and political oppression against people of color so that whites could benefit,” she said. “It is impossible to be racist toward white people — the nature of racism itself destroys any notion of such a thing.”

Students feeling confident enough to stand in front of an audience of 400 and talk about race is not something that happens without the considerable effort from teachers and staff. At Bank Street, the private school in New York City where I teach eighth grade and where I am a parent of two children who attend, we’ve learned that teaching about race requires a formal curriculum and “affinity” spaces that allow students to speak their minds.

We see this curriculum as an opportunity to create age-appropriate ways for children to engage with a topic that people too often pretend that children can’t understand. Our experience matches current research: even very young children do notice race, are able to discuss it, and are able to understand issues of inequality.

See more stories about how teachers talk about race in the classroom.

We, like educators throughout the country, feel compelled to engage our students around the complex issues facing our society, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, and gun control. Through our Racial Justice and Advocacy program, children have opportunities to explore the complex issues of power and privilege. They develop the tools needed to understand, process, and confront injustice.

As an example, classes of 6, 7, and 8-year-olds participate in a lesson where they are asked to suggest what to do if pre-kindergarten students aren’t interested in playing with dolls of color. The students offer a range of answers: “Buy more dark skin babies.” “Have a meeting about it.” “Have the teacher also play.”

While the children’s responses seem simple, through the repetition of themes and dramatic play, our children become adept at talking about race and working toward a more equitable society.

For nearly two decades, our school leaders have also recognized that to best support our students of color, we must hold affinity meetings for those students. Students of color come together with facilitators of color to discuss topics like how to express concern regarding an issue of equity, or current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. It is vitally important for students of color to have a space in which they can interact with each other unaffected by the presence of their white peers.

While some may find the practice of allowing students to self-identify and then engage in group discussion problematic, we know that providing affinity space is an educational best practice. As a white man, I am privileged to live in a society in which I am a member of the majority; the world is my affinity group. My students of color don’t share in this. Affinity groups allow them the experience of sharing a burden rather than carrying it individually. They also allow a group to share in the joy and strength derived from a feeling of belonging.

I consider myself lucky that Bank Street considers racial identity and racial understanding as important as science and social studies. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who are willing to tackle complicated questions with understanding and patience.

In a world where intolerant acts and declarations have become all too common, I consider myself lucky to send my children to Bank Street. Instead of accepting the status quo, they will be empowered to change the world.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

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.