Questioning Columbus

What New York City students learned about Christopher Columbus when their own classroom was ‘discovered’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Mariana Souto-Manning flashed an image of a square with a diagonal line through the middle. The associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College asked a crowd of educators what they saw.

A box with two triangles? A couple of sandwich wedges? How about tally marks?

Souto-Manning explained this is how she learned to count by fives in Brazil: Instead of the hash-mark method used in American schools, students draw the four lines of a square. A slash through the middle signals a group of five.

Souto-Manning was making a point about the cultural nature of knowledge, and the need to be aware of that in diverse classrooms.

“We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative — as if that was the only story,” she said.

Across New York City, parents are calling for more racially and economically integrated schools. But for many, enrollment policies that mix students of different backgrounds is a just small piece of what’s needed to make schools more inclusive.

In order to truly integrate, advocates say educators need to take a close look at the lessons they teach. In other words, schools need to be adept in culturally relevant teaching — making sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught.

“Rethink who is the curriculum, who is the teaching, centered on?” Souto-Manning said.

Teachers College recently hosted educators from around the world to explore diversity in a way that goes beyond simple demographics. Among them were three New York City teachers who explained how they weave culturally relevant lessons into their practice.

Here is a glimpse into each of their classrooms.

Who discovered this classroom?

With Columbus Day nearing, Jessica Martell wanted her second-graders to take a critical look at the narrative that European explorers discovered America. Working with fourth-grade teacher Abigail Salas, she hatched a plan: The fourth-graders would swoop into the second grade classroom while the younger students were out for gym, taking over the new territory they had “discovered.”

A video clip shows that when the younger students returned to their classroom, they found the fourth-graders settled on a large rug. The second-graders stood frozen at the sight. One little boy elbowed his way to the front of the bottleneck, his chin dropping once he laid eyes on the scene. Someone declared she felt like crying.

“This is our room. It was empty,” Salas informed them. “We discovered this room.”

Students quickly made the connection to Columbus’ interactions with native people. They wondered how someone could be credited with finding a place that others already called home.

Among the questions students asked: “Why couldn’t the two groups just share?” and “How did Columbus communicate with the indigenous people? Did they speak the same language? If not, we know the story is untrue.”

For Salas, such critical questioning signals the lesson was a success.

“I wanted to get away from that story of the people in power,” said Salas, who works at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. “Story acting is a culturally relevant teaching tool because it helps students develop empathy and understand multiple perspectives.”

Going beyond birthday cake celebrations

Birthdays are a big deal for elementary school students — especially in Martell’s second-grade class.

Martell, who teaches at Central Park East II in East Harlem, makes it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday in a particularly personal way: She invites parents into the classroom to tell the story of the day their child was born. It’s a year-long project that includes family interviews and reading Debra Frasier’s children’s book “On the day you were born.”

“Each child has a history. That history is important,” Martell said. “How do we learn that history? Not from a cumulative file that we get at the beginning of every year, nor from an assessment binder.”

The visits impart valuable lessons about different places, periods in time and all the different forms a family takes. In one instance, an adoptive mother told the class about the tribe in Africa that her daughter was born into. Another time, a boy served as translator for his grandfather who communicates in American Sign Language. And in another case, a lesbian couple assured the class they were both “real” moms.

“Through these oral history projects, students come to understand the importance of each other, and what a treat it is to learn from and with families,” Martell said.

Learning how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly

One student in Carmen Llerena’s kindergarten class often needed extra reminders to follow directions. When she spoke with the boy’s mother about his difficulties in class, the mother cut her off.

“He always says ‘Mommy, my teacher doesn’t know my name,’” the mother said.

It turned out Llerena, a teacher at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, had been mispronouncing the student’s name. She apologized, and soon the little boy was much better behaved.

Llerena doesn’t make that mistake anymore.

“I am committed to pronouncing my students’ names in the manner in which their families do. This simple act conveys to students and their families that they are welcome in my classroom and that their identities are honored,” Llerena said.

Now, she makes an extra effort to learn how each child got his or her name. Every year, she makes a class book that tells those stories. Each student gets his or her own page, with a photo of the child and their “name story” written in their native language.

Making sure every family is included is key. Llerena starts with a letter home in backpacks, asking parents to write down their stories. But for those who don’t respond, Llerena seeks translators, conducts interviews at drop-off and pickup, and even involves older siblings if needed.

“Instead of blaming family members for not sending information back, we re-sent the notices and gave them ways to know to look out for them,” she said. “It made space for family literacies to be a central part of our curriculum and teaching.”

family affair

How are Success Academy families responding to the network’s leadership drama?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Wynter Johnson and Serenity Ally, two third-grade students at Success Academy Harlem 2

The past two weeks have been more than a little rocky for Success Academy.

Board chairman Daniel Loeb is in hot water over a racial comment he made on Facebook, a controversy amplified by last weekend’s events in Charlottesville. At a protest Monday, other political leaders rallied around his target, state Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. The state’s top two education officials called out Loeb this week, as did former schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

And Success Academy CEO Eva Moskowitz, who had previously said she was amenable to working with President Donald Trump, apologized in the wake of his actions this week for not being “more outspoken” about her disagreements with him.

So, how are the families of Success Academy reacting to all the news? The question is particularly poignant since about 93 percent of Success Academy students are children of color.

In Harlem on Thursday afternoon, students’ parents and family members said their reaction boiled down to one thing: Does this affect my child?

Jasmine Holst, for instance, who has a daughter in third grade at the Success Academy Hell’s Kitchen, said she doesn’t always agree with Moskowitz, but that does not change the way she feels about her daughter’s school.

“I’m not going to let her personal opinions affect my daughter’s education at the end of the day,” Holst said.

Others were quick to point out their own positive experiences with Success Academy staff. I haven’t “seen any racism from the teachers” at Success Academy Harlem 1, said Coco Rhymes, who has a daughter in third grade there.

Though she said Loeb should apologize for his comments, she also said she would not consider sending her child back to a traditional public school.

“She’s been to public schools and woo, that was really bad,” Rhymes said.

Many of the parents and family members Chalkbeat interviewed had not heard about the comment made by Loeb — who said that Stewart-Cousins, an African American, had done “more damage to people of color than anyone who has ever donned a hood.”

“Fortunately, this hasn’t spewed into the school setting,” said Jasmine Alhyani, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1 and another at Success Academy Harlem West. “I hope it stays at the top.”

When she did hear, Alhyani said Loeb should send a personal apology to parents and students at the school. (Loeb has since deleted the post and publicly apologized.)

Others thought an apology wasn’t quite enough. While at the playground, watching her third-grade cousins who attend Success Academy Harlem 2, Danielle Lucas said Loeb should be forced to leave the board.

“We don’t want our kids to grow up thinking we’re in the old days,” Lucas said. “I think he should be on suspension until they find a better qualified person to run it. Action needs to be taken.”

Parents also bristled — to varying degrees — over Moskowitz’s previous relationship with the Trump administration. Tina Thompson, who has a daughter at Success Academy Harlem 1, said she was at her daughter’s school the day Ivanka Trump came for a tour.

Thompson said unless Ivanka Trump plans to assist the school, she should not have visited.

“It is inappropriate, unless she helps,” Thompson said.

She hadn’t read Moskowitz’s letter about Trump in its entirety, but agreed with the sentiment. “She should have been distancing herself since the beginning,” she said.

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.