First Person

How a very unlikely school visit improved my students’ writing

When I was named principal of St. Mark the Evangelist School three years ago, I didn’t expect that my students would end up learning to write using a model borrowed from a charter school in Brooklyn.

As principal, I was charged with continuing the school’s long history of faith-based education in Harlem while revamping our academic program. Our team has always been committed to teaching students the skills they need as learning standards and career opportunities change. But as a small community, we have grown more and more isolated over time.

To fix that, we did something unorthodox. Rather than turning exclusively to other private schools for insight, we looked to charter and district schools in our city for models to help us improve classroom instruction.

We did this through our new relationship with Schools That Can, an organization that builds cross-sector networks of district, charter, and independent schools. As debates about whether district and charter schools can effectively collaborate continue across the city, our experience made it clear to me that it is possible for different types of schools to learn from each other.

Schools That Can gave us access to talented educators in our city who offered us the chance to observe the way they approach a wide range of challenges. I was particularly concerned about finding ways to improve my students’ writing. It was clear from our middle school students’ performance on last year’s New York State exam—the first aligned to the Common Core—that we needed to find a way to help them build stronger, evidenced-based responses to writing prompts.

In November, I visited Hellenic Classical Charter School in Brooklyn to learn more about the school’s approach to teaching writing at the middle school level. The school is different from ours in many ways: we’re a small, private Catholic school, and HCCS is slightly larger public charter school where all students learn Greek. But I had heard about their robust writing program and wanted to learn more, particularly because the majority of students at both of our schools come from low-income backgrounds.

As I walked through teachers’ classrooms at HCCS, I saw walls filled with student writing. While displaying student work isn’t uncommon, I was struck by the comments that accompanied the writing.

Students and teachers used handwritten notes to sustain an ongoing dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of each piece of work. I was particularly impressed by the level of feedback students were able to give each other, including suggestions about improving sentence structure and using stronger adjectives to bring the piece to life.

After observing student work in the hallways, I looked through students’ portfolios and saw that students were using their peers’ feedback to improve their subsequent work. I read the essays students had written over the course of the year and saw, for example, that a student who received feedback on one essay encouraging the use of more vivid language  developed a stronger, more dynamic writing style in her next essays.

It was refreshing and motivating to see a clear, painstaking approach to teaching writing in which students and teachers both took ownership of the writing process.

Following the path laid out by HCCS, we introduced a schoolwide writing rubric and checklist tool at St. Mark. Teachers shared the checklist with their students, showed them multiple models of exemplary work, and walked them through the process of critiquing writing samples. Students are now expected to reference the checklist whenever they write, as well as when they critique their classmates’ writing.

We’ve only been using these tools for a few months, so it’s too soon to know their full effect. But throughout the school, I see students digging deeper into texts to find details to support their arguments, and critiquing each other’s writing in more nuanced and sophisticated ways—all skills called for by the Common Core standards. Teachers who were initially unsure how to adapt their classes to the standards are gaining confidence, in part because they have the checklist to ground their feedback to students.

As a school leader, knowing a school needs to improve is an important step, but actually making a plan to change it is where the real challenge arises. It can be tempting to turn inward for solutions, but no one teacher, coach, or administrator has all the answers. For my school, looking beyond our classroom walls gave us the chance to learn what we needed from a school that is very different from our own.

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First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk