First Person

Breaking down perceptions of others helps students learn

Following the direction of John Keating — masterfully played by Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society — it was time to stand on the desk. Time to change not only our view but our approach as well. The students with whom we work each and every day — Gen Z’ers as they are now known — needed something more.

So at Yuma Middle School on Colorado’s eastern plains, we created MindWorks.

MindWorks is a combination of Brainology — an online program created by Drs. Carol Dweck and Lisa Blackwell of Stanford University — and project-based learning using inspiration from the works of Dweck, Blackwell, Angela Duckworth, and others in the field of brain development. To reinvigorate a passion for learning, MindWorks breaks down perceptions (one’s self or others’) that often limit what students are able to accomplish.

MindWorks has been incorporated into our counseling program at Yuma Middle School. At the helm of our counseling program is tech-geek/problem solver Elaine Menardi. She explains the need for the course this way:

“MindWorks is an integration class. Where core classes focus individually on math or science or language arts or social studies, MindWorks is a time to practice all of those skills simultaneously. Middle school students make up the core population of Generation Z and easily outpace our adult skills with their digital native intuitiveness.

Combine this with their uncanny ability to multitask and consume media and you have an explosive opportunity to take them to the next level academically. These students must be challenged to persevere through difficulty so we are focusing on key character traits like grit and curiosity.”

In addition to words like grit and curiosity, setback and obstacle, one will also hear us use the term growth mindset. It is a concept that is gaining popularity in the field of education and beyond. Research has shown us that one who possesses a growth mindset does not shy away from setback and failure; rather, the growth-minded person is one who uses those challenges as motivators to try harder and improve his or her character.

On the opposite side of the growth mindset is the fixed mindset. The fixed-minded person is one who is unable to move forward when faced with obstacles. He or she operates with a perceived “ceiling” of ability disallowing for any type of positive, vertical movement.

I am passionate about using MindWorks to instill in students a growth mindset and to redefine what 21st century college and career readiness should mean. My support for this endeavor is inspired by an even greater cause: I want to shatter the misconception of what rural schools can achieve.

Rural districts like Yuma are faced with smaller budgets, limited personnel resources and inaccessibility due to location. Often the perception is that these limitations mean students cannot or should not be expected to compete with students in urban and suburban districts. This is a myth.

Still in its developmental stage, our desire is for MindWorks to instill in students a growth mindset and to reenergize and feed the intellectual fire that we know all students possess. In doing so we seek to uncover each student’s potential and help him or her embark on the educational journey with renewed energy.

The class meets for 30 minutes every other day and students engage in small group activities, online research and team collaboration.

Menardi further describes how students spend their class time.

“For the first semester, we have been focused on how our brains absorb and process information. If we view the brain as a muscle — which it is — students learn that practice and hard work in school grows their mental abilities in the same way that athletes improve at their sports.”

“By the end of the semester, we will have blogs, videos, Slide Shares, Blackout poems, cartoons, infographics and newspaper articles posted on the student website It is a very exciting time at Yuma Middle School.”

There is a lot of misconception out there as to what a counseling program can truly provide a school. All too often, counselors are remanded to menial tasks and occasional chat sessions with students. Our philosophy is that a good counseling program can serve to meet the needs of the individual as well as the masses.

Standing on a desk shouting O Captain! My Captain! helped us envision a larger world for students and create a new path of learning that does more to meet the true needs of students. Already we see their growth and renewed energy for education.

I invite you to follow the research that has inspired us and to check us out on the web. The class website is You can also visit the Yuma School District-1 YouTube Channel for a great look at some of the projects that have taken place thus far.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.