First Person

First Person: Bringing the Olympic spirit to my fifth-grade classroom

PHOTO: Mackenzie McCluer
Track and field star David Oliver joined students from 51st Avenue Academy at Madison Square Garden in 2012.

Last spring, I felt as if all of the energy and momentum of the first half of the year was being sucked into a vortex. Was it caused by consecutive years of teaching the same grade, or was the inevitable arrival of test season to blame? I knew my students were feeling it too; I found myself refereeing more than the usual number of disputes over pencil ownership and hurt feelings. It was about that time that a link appeared on GothamSchools: “How to get an Olympian into your classroom. Teachers, apply here to adopt an Olympian to work with your school.” It sounded like something that would be good for kids, so I applied. The truth? I am a full-on Olympics fanatic, so I applied.

The organization behind this intriguing offer was Classroom Champions. Their stated mission is to use Olympians and Paralympians as role models for success and goal-setting, while increasing students’ digital literacy. They would accomplish this by connecting athletes and students via blogs, videos, and live video chats.

I teach a fifth-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class that includes general education students and students with special needs. Engagement and community are always issues. I was hoping that Classroom Champions would give me a boost in these areas. It sounded so cool; what kid wouldn’t want to meet an Olympic athlete? But I’m never really sure that what thrills me will have the same impact on my students.

Each class is paired with an Olympic or ParaOlympic hopeful, and each month the program has a theme, such as Community or Goal Setting. I know that my students hear me remind them to treat each other well or to do their best. I suspect that to them, I sound like the adult in a “Charlie Brown” cartoon- mwa, mwa, mwa. It turns out, however, that they do listen when their athlete sends them a greeting and a message in a video. At first, they just sort of parroted the sentiments: I will treat people with respect; I will set a goal and work toward it. But the videos that the students create using the program-provided Flip video camera show that Classroom Champions is touching something deeper. Sometimes their videos have the raw intensity of a reality-show confessional:

Some people laugh at me; how I dress and talk. I want them to stop. But I know that I also need to be nicer and friendlier.

If you were the new kid, I would show you around and sit with you at lunchtime. I would make you feel at home.

I want to be a better friend.

I’m going to read at least one book a week to raise my reading level.

Kids think I’m bossy. Sometimes I get involved in issues that are none of my business.

I started to see my students in a different light. I thought that they would be reticent about having others see their videos, but the exact opposite has been the case. They write, revise, and film their own thoughts and skits, and can’t wait to share them. One child, who never speaks, not even to her teachers, has recorded three videos. On camera, she shines like the sun. My principal has commented that my students are unafraid to express themselves, and I believe that she meant it in a very positive way.

It turned out that Classroom Champions has put some powerful bait in my room. The self-motivated are all over it, and the reluctant learners are sitting up and taking notice. Students who struggle to complete writing assignments will write and revise in order to use the Flip camera. Geography is more interesting when you use map coordinates to track your athlete. It’s more fun to do a landmark data project when you use your athlete’s stats, and see your work posted to the program’s website. Classroom Champions does not make the content connections for me; it’s been a conscious effort on my part to integrate the program into the curriculum. Teachers have to post two lesson plans per month to the networking site, so I’m sure that as the program grows, so will the bank of lesson ideas.

Through its technology sponsors, Classroom Champions has provided its classrooms with teleconferencing equipment for “live chat” with our athletes. We are preparing for this now, and it would have been the high point of the year, except that my class had the unexpected thrill of watching our athlete compete live and then meeting him in person at Madison Square Garden. It was an intense experience for some of the kids, one of whom cried with joy, and another who found it a bonding experience and told me in a letter that “it felt like we were a family.”

Last spring I clicked on a link and made three wishes: to engage students, to improve their communication skills with the use of technology, and to provide them with some useful life lessons. The program, for us, has delivered. It is a resource, not a cure-all. Some of my students still don’t like each other, but they manage to get along. Not everyone is sticking to their plans in order to reach their goals, but many are. Yes, it requires a little extra work on my part. I have to find ways to integrate it into my plans, but I like being able to mold it to my needs. I never know when our athlete’s video will post, so it’s up to me to keep the momentum going. This is not difficult, as we enjoy all the photos and videos that the other athletes and classes are posting. Every time we make a video, I wish we kept the room neater. C’est la vie; I stopped stressing about it. Our athlete may not always come in first, but there are lessons, important ones, to be learned about how to handle disappointment and adversity. The bottom line is that Classroom Champions is what you make of it. You can choose to bring it to the forefront, or you can keep it in the background and draw from it as needed.

Classroom Champions said that it would connect students and athletes, and it has. David Oliver, a 110-meter hurdler, is our athlete. You can be sure that my students and I will be watching all of the Classroom Champion athletes competing this summer in London, but we will be cheering longest and loudest for David. He is my students’ hero, and he is their friend.

Lois Kivelson teaches at 51st Avenue Academy in Elmhurst, Queens. Classroom Champions is accepting applications for next year’s class-Olympian partnerships through March 31.

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.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.