First Person

I was frustrated with my toughest high school students. Then we went to a farm to scrub pumpkins.

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If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 15-year-olds.

But that’s exactly how I spent one Friday last fall — and it was the best thing to happen to my relationship with my toughest students.

I had handpicked those students to be in a class I’d designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer otherwise them. I called the course Connect because my sole goal was to reconnect these kids with learning.

Designing and teaching this class was an interesting experiment. Small moments would made me glad to be a teacher — a perfectly worded sentence, or 100 percent engagement, even if it was only for 10 minutes. I also hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project would be just the ticket, only to see it fail miserably. These kids were tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one who cracked on that Friday.

We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they were probably more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally, so much so that on the morning of the field trip, I told my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

I felt like hovering by the space heater by my desk and tossing them a few worksheets to make a point. But I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm.

When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub mold off of huge pumpkins piled in giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I was praying for a storm to come so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there. Meanwhile, the kids hopped off the bus like they were penny-pinchers on “The Price Is Right.”

They got right to work like old pros. And watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk. I walked around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then: These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things — unmotivated, frustrated, bored — at school, but they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I had promised them a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

As Americans, and as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposites.

That means I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

The bottom line is that I want success, and a lifelong passion for learning, for every kid who walks into my classroom. Of the 20 kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a veterinarian to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try styles she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign a shoddy contract because he knows to what words really mean for him and his business.

The key, for me, is finding the best ways to translate the motivation those students showed for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to the skills that will help them live the best life they can. That’s the grand experiment.

We ended that day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we felt only a mist as we paced through the woods together.

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is 15, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then.

I needed to remind myself that learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.

This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
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Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
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I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.