the teacher project

At Manhattan International, an English learner teaches English learners

Students at East view footage from the protest at their school

This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

The aim for the day was written in large, cursive letters on the blackboard: “What is poetry and how does it convey truth?”

Cinzia Bontempo, the 12th grade English teacher at Manhattan International High School, sat on the edge of her desk, her sleeves pushed up to her elbows. “What about music?” Bontempo asked her students. “Poetry is found in music all the time. Does anyone know any songs in English?”

“Imagine all the people,” one student belted out in a thick Dominican accent. Some of his classmates joined in, creating—just for a moment—a very international Beatles cover band.

“The things that I miss the most are the songs from my past,” Bontempo said before she smiled at her students, some nodding their heads in agreement.

Manhattan International serves more than 300 students who had lived in the United States for fewer than four years when they applied to the school. Students come from more than 50 countries and speaks more than 40 languages.

Bontempo knows what it’s like for them to be far from home. She moved to New York in 1998, leaving behind a successful 20-year career as a furrier in the Italian fashion industry. “I was the best I knew,” she said.

Born in Trieste, a seaport in northeast Italy, Bontempo lived the first 10 years of her life in a refugee camp built by Americans after World War II. The Yugoslavian People’s Army ran the camp after receiving authority over parts of Trieste from the Allied forces, until the border with Yugoslavia was settled in 1975.

“Growing up in a border city was painful,” she said. It was in the refugee camp that Bontempo says she developed her interest in understanding racism and discrimination, which she often discusses in her English classes.

Back in New York City, Bontempo’s students can appreciate the power of borders. When she tells students her stories from childhood, they listen, rapt. “In previous years, I had students from Serbia, Albania, Bosnia, so they were very interested in that,” she said.

She began working with fur because she loved to sew and eventually started her own company. When animal rights activism made a career as a furrier untenable, she decided on a drastic change: to move to New York, learn English, and work in the travel industry.

It wasn’t until she took her first English classes at LaGuardia Community College that Bontempo realized that her heart was in learning and teaching languages.

“I loved to help my fellow students,” she said. “When I took my first travel business class, I thought, ‘This is not me.’ I’m not a businessperson.”

Instead, she worked toward a bachelor’s degree in English and education, and then went to Hunter College, where she got a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language.

Bing, a 17-year-old student of Bontempo’s from China, said having a teacher who understands his struggle to learn English is helpful. “Because she’s good at English and because English is her second language, it tells us that we can do it too,” he said.

Now, Bontempo sees connections between her past life and her work in the classroom. The adrenaline required to work as a furrier in the months preceding Christmas is comparable to the feeling of having to correct 65 essays in less than a week, she said.

“As a furrier, you work like a dog for four months,” she said. “It is a skill that I have inside of me: that sense of urgency. I spend months teaching literature, and that takes time. But then I have to read all of this stuff, and then I have a deadline too.”

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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.”