First Person

A college counselor, his students, and the vision of a life beyond poverty: an exclusive excerpt from “Hold Fast To Dreams”

Hold Fast to Dreams traces the paths of 10 low-income students and their college counselor, Joshua Steckel, through the college application process and the four years that follow. 

Steckel, who had previously worked as director of college counseling at an Upper East Side private school, started working at the Secondary School for Research (now Park Slope Collegiate) in 2006 as its first college counselor.

It is rare that public school students have someone to help them through the details of the college admissions process. A 2012 report by the New York City Comptroller’s office noted that over half of all high school students reported receiving college guidance “never, rarely, or only sometimes.” 

Even students who receive good guidance face steep challenges, as do their counselors.

This excerpt zooms in on a fraught moment in the application process: writing the college essay. For low-income students from an under-resourced public school, Steckel knows, these essays are a crucial way to stand out as individuals and to provide context for their achievements. But he is unprepared for the complexity of asking students to write about their lives when, in many cases, they have been shaped by struggle and trauma.

Josh knew that Kennetta and her family lived close to the edge economically. That summer, Kennetta and her friend Chiquita Hamblin had approached him to ask if subway fare could be provided for travel to Let’s Get Ready, the SAT prep program at the school. The student Metrocards they received for travel to and from school only worked during the academic year. Their families had trouble coming up with the extra four dollars each day, they told him, and they knew this was the case for others as well. Josh was able to secure free Metrocards for all the students, and was grateful to Kennetta and Chiquita for their courage in making the request, helping their peers overcome an obstacle he hadn’t anticipated.

The extent of the struggles his second class of seniors faced became even clearer that fall, when Josh began working with students on their personal essays in English class. After graduation the previous spring, the twelfth-grade English teacher, Menucha Stubenhaus, had been hit by a car on Coney Island Avenue, and her leg was seriously injured. Until she was able to return to school, Josh had agreed to cover her classes together with Leah Grossman, the school’s literacy coach.

Josh and Leah began the class by introducing the personal essay and distributing examples written by seniors from the year before. Leah read the class a brief definition she and Josh had put together: “A personal essay is an essay you write about your experiences. Typically, personal essays show how a memory of the past significantly affects the present or the future. They weave together the story with the explanation for why this memory is significant in your life now. Try telling the story of an important memory and why it is important to you.”

Midway through one of the first in-class writing assignments, Kennetta put her head on her desk. Josh walked over and asked, “Why aren’t you writing?” Kennetta didn’t answer. She pushed her spiral notebook toward him. Kennetta had written, in her large, rounded handwriting,

Do you know what it’s like to live my life?

Sharing one room with three siblings, living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people. Hearing and seeing fights, gunshots all night, yelling and screaming every day. Scared to walk anywhere by myself, not eating for a day or two because we don’t have any money, almost being homeless a couple of times. Going to school trying to keep a smile on my face so my struggles at home don’t show. Having to listen to my friends tell me about their problems and having to encourage them while yet, I’m hurting inside myself. Running to almost everyone I see just for attention to make my pain go away.

That’s my life.

Josh looked back at Kennetta, but her head was still down. He stared at her notebook again, unsure what to say. For a moment he felt removed from the noise and movement of the classroom. Kennetta’s writing pushed back against the future-focused momentum of the college process, asking him, it seemed, to stop, and to try to stand inside her experience.

Josh knew from his first year at the Secondary School for Research how wrenching his students’ essays could be. But Mike, Abby, Kennetta, and others in Josh’s second class of students told stories that revealed with even greater rawness the poverty, trauma, and instability they experienced at home. Chiquita wrote about the day, the year before, when she came home to find her mother with suitcases packed, saying, “Let’s go, C.J.! We’re leaving! Get your things.” Chiquita stopped, paralyzed. Her mother screamed and cursed at her stepfather, then went into the bathroom and attempted suicide. Chiquita described her own psychological reaction:

All that year, I was so focused on my mother, I forgot how to be a kid, I forgot about Chiquita, how the simplest things in life make me smile. Seeing my mother’s pain affected me physically. I didn’t take care of myself, and I blocked out what mattered most to me: my social life, and, most importantly, my schoolwork. I felt like I was trapped in a glass bottle, like no one could be going through what I was going through, like no one could hear me because no one could understand.

Many students resisted writing about painful memories. “Why would anyone be interested in this?” some said, or “I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.” For most students, maintaining their poise meant blocking out the images that reminded them of their vulnerability. Angelica Moore, who Josh knew as high-achieving and charismatic, active in the Senior Committee, and earning mostly A’s, described how in high school her self-possession “was all a front. I can’t even say how insecure I was.” She explained, “I was always told since I was younger not to show my weakness because people will take advantage of it. It’s better to walk around with my head high and make it seem like I have it together.”

Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.
Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.

Angie described how the effort to maintain her “front” in school could be debilitating. During her freshman and sophomore years, she had experienced the sudden deaths of many people she loved. “I turn my head to the left and in a blink of an eye somebody else has died,” she wrote in her personal essay.

When Josh had first seen Angie’s transcript, he was shocked to see that during her first two years of high school she had earned C’s and D’s. Trying to explain why this happened, Angie speculated that “with stuff taking place at home, and then me coming to school and trying to pretend that everything is normal and realizing it’s not—that, I guess, took a toll on me.” Angie remembered with stinging embarrassment when, during her freshman year, she broke down in uncontrollable tears in the lunchroom. “I knew that I never wanted to do that again; I didn’t want to actually break down like that.”

Among their peers in class, reading the personal essays out loud seemed to bring responses of empathy, rather than pity or shame. Janet Wu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, described how in her first two years at the Secondary School for Research, she had only “hung out with Chinese people.” Janet had been the target of incessant bullying, and when she went home to her parents, they would reinforce her fears and stereotypes about the kids who picked on her. To comfort herself, she would mentally repeat what her parents told her, “They are not going to graduate,” or “They’ll be out in the world dealing drugs.” Janet’s circles of friendship had widened as a junior, and now, beginning her senior year, Janet was moved by the essays she heard read and by the responses to her own. She began to see the kids who used to tease her as people with complex lives, and she felt they began to understand her as well. “You could see change, after the essays,” she said. “They would stop picking on me. They started respecting me.”

Copyright © 2014 by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Seckel. This excerpt originally appeared in Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, published by The New Press, and is reprinted with permission.

First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.