the educated voter

At an election voting site, a pep talk and a work day for teachers

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Blended learning teachers at I.S. 88 on Election Day. From left, Jared Cohen, Margherita Gallina, Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell and Emily Gordon.

As one of about 700 school buildings to double as a voting site today, M.S. 88 saw democracy in action on its first floor, where Brooklyn voters cycled through hallways and into a gymnasium to fill out their ballots.

But it was business as usual up one flight of stairs, where teachers graded tests and papers, caught up on lesson planning and attended training sessions on reading techniques and new co-teaching models.

On Election Day, schools are closed to students, but have remained open in recent years for teachers for professional development. It’s up to principals to shape the day and each school in the city uses their student-free time a little differently — though the Department of Education offers some hints about what to focus on.

At M.S. 88, a 1,200-student middle school in District 15, Principal Ailene Altman Mitchell said she started the day off with something of a motivational speech.

“The teachers, I wanted them to calm down a little bit,” said Altman Mitchell.

Stress levels were high and teachers were anxious about the negative attention that’s been focused on new teacher evaluations being rolled out citywide this year, Altman Mitchell said. So on a few pink Post-It notes, she jotted down a list of school’s accomplishments to remind her staff of over 100 teachers and administrators about some of the year’s highlights.

There was the $110,000 science grant, and a new pilot course that combines American history with eras of rock and roll music. This month, the school was formally recognized by the Department of Education as an “iZone Ambassador School” for its work at blending technology with in-class instruction to customize lessons for individual students.

Altman Mitchell said that the torrent of changes have been time-consuming for her as a principal, but also useful. A color-coded calendar tacked to a wall in her office showed the dozens of hour-long meetings that she has held with teachers this fall to discuss lesson-planning, instructional strategies and which type of observations they preferred as part of their evaluation.

“But now I have a bunch of best practices that my teachers use,” Altman Mitchell said, ones she didn’t know about before the meetings.

In a sign of just how much time the new teacher evaluations have taken to administer, the DOE extended one deadline for teacher evaluations until after Election Day, and suggested that schools use today to finish up their work.

Upstairs, teachers were just wrapping up a session on co-teaching models. Standing outside in the hallway, Nelia Wolosky, who teaches the Rock and Roll history course, said she had given a presentation earlier in the morning on an English teaching practice called “close reading.”

In a classroom around the corner, Jared Cohen, an eighth-year veteran of the school, was grading papers for students he taught in his blended learning class. The program is part of the city’s School of One program and relies heavily on computer software that tracks student progress on assignments and quizzes in real time.

Each paper Cohen pulled from a stack was entirely different from the one before it, a sign of the different kinds of lessons that students received.

“They all have different homework assignments because they are all at different skill levels,” Cohen said.

Being Election Day, opinions on the mayoral race were easy to come by for the teachers. Cohen, for one, said he wasn’t a single-issue voter who thought only about education when voting for mayor.

“I don’t disagree with everything that Bloomberg did,” Cohen said. “But I’m looking big picture. I’m not just a teacher. I’m a city resident, I’m a human.”

But Cohen said he was supporting de Blasio because he thought he was more in touch with what New York City will need in the coming years, including universal pre-kindergarten programs. Still, Cohen said Bloomberg deserved credit for things he got done during his 12 years in City Hall, including the things that may not have worked.

“If you’re going to swing and miss, at least swing your hardest,” Cohen said. “He did swing his hardest. It’s not a complete miss.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”