First Person

How a refugee father gave me hope — and a new outlook on teaching U.S. history

PHOTO: Via Flickr Creative Commons

Stephen Lazar is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan and a longtime Chalkbeat contributor. This past Monday was the last day of a class he teaches called American Stories. His students were anxious about the election and still reeling from the death of one of their classmates 10 days prior and his funeral over the weekend. Here is what he told them.

lazar

I normally don’t give speeches to end my class for the same reason I normally don’t share who I’m voting for: I don’t want you all to learn to look to authority figures for answers to big questions that matter. I want you to find those answers yourselves, alongside your peers.

But given that, this past Saturday, many of us attended the funeral of one of our students and friends, and given that tomorrow this nation could potentially elect Donald Trump president, I’m going to make an exception today.

It’s always easy to become cynical. Given Saturday, and what could happen tomorrow, it’s even easier now. But what I want to think about today, and what I hope that you all will take away from this class, is hope.

I want to share with you all two stories about why I choose to continue to have hope despite all the terrible things we experience. The first is about teaching, the second is personal.

The very first class I taught was in Providence Summer School when I was 21. Here I am, this white Ivy League guy with two other white wannabe teachers, teaching a diverse group of students about U.S. history. We decided to teach a class about all the problems of U.S. history — racism, sexism, and classism — and how some have tried to fight against those things.

Toward the end of the first week, we had a parents night, and I’ll never forget one father who asked a question. He was a refugee from El Salvador who had come to the U.S. with his family maybe 10 years earlier. After we explained our plans for the class, he asked us, “What do you plan to teach my child about liberty? What will you teach him about freedom?”

I don’t remember how we answered that question, but I do remember the conversation we had after. This man, who was very well educated and clearly knew more about U.S. history than I did, told me that he and his family had escaped civil war in El Salvador, a war that had killed much of his family. He told me how he now raised his family in this land where, despite the very real problems that he knew about and that we intended to teach about, he knew his children would have a better life here than they possibly could have dreamed of back home. Here, they had hope.

That conversation changed my outlook on how I teach U.S. history.

The second story is a personal one. As you know now, when I was 16, one of my best friends died suddenly. The night before Josh’s funeral, there was a gathering at the local Jewish Community Center to help prepare people for the funeral. Hundreds came, and the session became overwhelming for the group who were closest to Josh, and we left to go cry in another room.

Coincidentally, a very famous rabbi named Harold Kushner was speaking at the JCC that same night, and someone thought to bring him over to speak to us. Rabbi Kushner is famous for writing a book called “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” At that time, one day after losing one of my best friends, the only thing I could imagine worse than that was losing your child, as I would later learn Rabbi Kushner had years before.

I remember the rabbi talking about how for a long time he was angry at God for taking his son. How he didn’t know how he could get out of bed, let alone be a rabbi to his community, with that knowledge and that anger.

The answer he came to, which I share not because I believe it literally but because he did, is that God wasn’t responsible for the death of his son, or war, or the Holocaust, or other terrible things. Rather, God is what allows us to find comfort in the hug of a loved one, gather the strength to get out of bed, and feel the power of community in terrible times. God is what lifts us up and makes us able to continue.

There, I realized if this guy, who had lost his son — the worst thing I could imagine at the time — could have hope, I could find it too.

So here’s what I want to say to all of you as we end our class together. My hope, more than anything, is that you all will choose to find hope of your own. In times of tragedy, I have been able to find hope in the comfort of friends, family, and my community. And even if Trump wins tomorrow, I will choose to find hope in the fact that this country is constantly changing, and still values liberty and freedom.

More than anything, I find hope in you all. I have no idea how to solve injustice, but I have hope that you, who in 20 years will have thoughts and experiences I can’t even dream of yet, will do something to make this world a better place. I have hope because we don’t know what you will do with the future, and I choose to have faith that you all will do wonderful things to this world you will inherit.

So if you take nothing else from me, I hope you will take this: that no matter what happened to our friend who is gone, that no matter what happens tomorrow, choose to find hope.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.