Master Class

After fanfare, inside the Bronx classroom of New York’s Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Sara Mosle
Alhassan Susso, New York's Teacher of the Year, leads a class discussion in his Bronx classroom.

Twelfth graders at the International Community High School in the South Bronx were pumped when they watched their social studies teacher, Alhassan Susso, receive the state’s Teacher of the Year award in September, the first time a New York City educator has received the honor in two decades.

When Susso’s name was announced, 18-year-old Eric Parache and his classmates watching a livestream of the Albany award ceremony erupted in applause. “I feel so lucky to have him as a teacher,” Parache said.

Susso returned to the school two days later, where he was mobbed by students and colleagues who were eager to offer their congratulations. “It was crazy,” Susso recalled. But the fanfare soon passed, and Susso was back to the obscurity of the everyday job he loves.

Curious about how a Teacher of the Year practices his craft, Chalkbeat visited Susso’s class on a recent morning, where he was introducing a new unit on civil rights to a social studies class of roughly two dozen 12th graders, including a few late stragglers. He was posing some big questions on race — what it is and isn’t and who gets to decide.

The topic was one, in the nation’s most segregated school system, that both he and his students had clearly given some thought. When Susso accepted his award, he noted that he taught in the poorest congressional district in the country.

Many of Susso’s students are immigrants, hailing from West Africa, the Dominican Republic, or Yemen among other countries. Having moved to the U.S. from Gambia when he was 16, the teacher has a deep affinity for the hardships and challenges many of them face. Susso’s own immigrant experience has informed his approach in the classroom.

Before leaving Gambia, Susso completed the equivalent of eighth grade and was a top student, despite suffering from a rare eye disease— a condition he hid from everyone, including his teachers and parents, and left him nearly blind.

“I shielded myself from anyone knowing,” he said, “because disability is very stigmatizing in Gambia.”

At one point, when he was 11, he traveled to a hospital, but with few medical resources, the doctors there couldn’t help. To compensate, Susso stayed up late at night to memorize textbooks, whose words he could just make out, so he could follow the next day’s lessons on his school’s blackboard, which he never could see.

Once in the U.S., he settled in Poughkeepsie, moving in with a brother’s family and enrolling in the local high school. Because of his age, he was placed in the 11th grade.

In retrospect, skipping two grades, he said, “was the best thing that could have happened to me.” Because he was so miserable, he doubts he would have graduated if he’d had to make it through all four years.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have the ability,” something he said was also true about his students, many of whom arrive at the school reading far below grade level. “There is not an achievement gap,” he insisted. “There is an opportunity gap.”

Like some of his students, Susso often arrived in class feeling angry, hungry, or exhausted and forever out of place. “I was the only African student,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends.” Sharing a home with his brother’s family proved untenable, and within eight months, Susso was living on his own and having to support himself with after-school jobs in a country he still scarcely knew or understood.

“Based on what I went through,” he said, he tries to provide many “different opportunities for students to feel relaxed and comfortable” in his fourth-floor classroom. “That is the only way,” he said, “that learning can occur.”

His room is lined with inspirational quotes, and he likes to begin each lesson with upbeat music. That morning, Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” was playing on Susso’s computer as two boys with basketballs under their arms and a girl in a sweatshirt began to saunter in. The girl was happily mouthing the lyrics — “Take back my life song/Prove I’m alright song” — as she pulled a notebook from her backpack and greeted additional classmates as they entered.

Susso then led the class in a series of affirmations — “I am somebody” and “I will leave my mark on my generation” — which were like a pledge of allegiance to the students’ future selves. Susso then had students begin a “do now” exercise, which asked for written responses to a prompt: “Should citizens follow all laws passed by the government?” He then invited students to turn to an “elbow partner” to discuss what they had written.

Up to this point, the lesson was briskly paced and well-organized but not dramatically different from other classrooms. Where Susso really shined was in the ways he got students to think hard about complex issues and the clear rapport he’d already developed with students so early in the year.

Susso believes this personal connection is critical. He’s been known to visit students’ families in the hospital and stays after class to help them learn “life skills.”

At Susso’s Poughkeepsie high school, the adults weren’t always so supportive. He recalled one incident in a math class, when a teacher asked him to solve a problem on the board. Still hiding his vision problems and unable to see the equation, Susso replied simply, “I don’t know.”

The teacher responded by mocking Susso. “We know the people who are going to drop out of college,” he recalled the teacher saying, “if they even make it there.”

Another teacher took umbrage when Susso wore traditional African garb to class.

“If people want to wear their funny clothes,” the teacher said in front of Susso’s classmates, “they can stay in their country; this is America.”

Yet Susso said he and this teacher eventually became extremely close. “He got to know me as person,” Susso said. “He saw how hard I was willing to work.” By year’s end, the teacher was having students interview immigrants around Poughkeepsie and collected their stories in a bound book for the school community to share.

Still, Susso was often carrying a heavy weight, as he knows his students frequently do as well. Back in Gambia, a beloved sister contracted Hepatitis B, and the family worked to get her a visa to travel to the U.S. for treatment. But the visa was denied. Four months later, she died.

In the years immediately after, Susso became determined to go to law school to become an immigration lawyer so he could help families avoid the fate his had endured. Many of his students now, he said, worry about their legal status and that of their families.

In college, a counselor suggested that if Susso really wanted to “empower young people,” he should become a teacher instead.

Susso followed this advice and fulfilled part of his student-teaching requirement at International Community High School in the Bronx. The principal was so impressed, she promised him a job once he got his master’s degree. At age 34, he has now been teaching at the school for more than five years.

Bespectacled and darting about the classroom in brown pants, a beige dress shirt and navy-and-pink tie, he probed his students’ views with good-natured insistence.

When he called on one student who hadn’t volunteered to speak up, she moaned, “Noooo!” And he replied with a coaxing and enthusiastic “Yessss!”

Perla Novas, who is from the Dominican Republic, said she particularly liked how Susso is funny and lets students “talk a little bit” instead of demanding silence. “He cares about us and talks about values and why we should strive to be a better person,” she said. “Not a lot of teachers do that.”

Parache, the student who had watched Susso win his award in class and who is also Dominican, argued that citizens had a special responsibility to follow “all the laws,” because, he said, “when you become a citizen, you take a vow, you make a promise, to be good.”

“So what if the government passed a law that said ‘All Dominicans are to be deported next week,’” Susso inquired. “You said we’re supposed to follow all the laws.”

A female classmate chimed up, “But it’s not just ‘all the laws,'” she objected. “We also have rights.”

“So a law can be unconstitutional?” Susso asked, before sneaking in a review of some key terms and historical concepts, such as the 14th Amendment, the three-fifths compromise (in which slaves were counted as a fraction of a human being), “myth” and “segregation,” which he asked note-taking students to define or explain.

Susso then handed out sheets that contained a historical account of a Chinese family traveling through the American South in the 1950s, beginning to tie their debate to the unit ahead. Susso asked where such a family might sit — at the front or back of a bus — given the era’s Jim Crow laws enforcing racial separation.

“The middle?” one student asked.

Susso laughed, noting there was “no middle” in those days. Some students insisted Chinese passengers would be considered “colored”; others maintained they’d pass as “white.” Susso then had students take turns reading out loud from the passage. The Chinese passengers, it turned out, had been instructed to ride with whites but felt more kinship with blacks and so insisted on sitting at the back.

One student, Nicole Mendez, noted how Susso always went  “very deep into a topic” and was “very good at explaining things,” she said.

Susso again played music — this time a segment from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” — as students sought out new partners to discuss what they’d written about the 1950s story.  Susso said he always provided a two-minute break about halfway through the class, just to make it more inviting. About 60 seconds later, the class was again attentive and focused.

What would happen, Susso asked, if he woke up one day on the wrong side of the bed, “and decided I am now white,” he wondered. Could he do that as the Chinese family had? Why or why not?

A discussion ensued about how Susso and students perceived race in each other and themselves — whether they were “brown,” “black,” “cinnamon,” or “pink.”

Susso asked where “the best place to see segregation” was at their high school.

One girl called out, “The lunch room!” Students nodded knowingly, as they described the self-sorting that went on. “I hang with the Dominicans,” one girl, who indicated she was mixed-race, said.

Bringing the conversation back to the American south, Susso asked who got to decide what race someone was.

“The whites determined where people sat,” one girl said, which then led to the formulation of a more general precept: “The ones with the privilege get to decide.”

Another student countered that race was just “a myth,” utilizing the vocabulary word from earlier in the lesson, and that race didn’t refer to any biological difference. But, she added, “Myths can be powerful.”

Students then summed up what they’d learned in a final individual writing assignment, their “exit ticket,” which he could review later. As the students studiously finished up, a woman’s voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Period one is now over.”

In just 45 minutes, Susso had gracefully and expertly moved his students through several different exercises: reading, writing, and deep class discussions, and provided some music and fun besides.

“He’s an immigrant like us,” Perla Novas said, as she gathered up her books to head to her next class. “He asks questions that make us think.”


First Person

I was too anxious to speak in class. Then the adults at my school teamed up to help me.

PHOTO: Getty Images

“Which group wants to present first?” the teacher said.

That day, the whole school had worked on mini-projects in groups, and now it was time to share our work with students from different grades. I was surrounded by a lot of faces I had never seen before. I was only a freshman and everything felt new.

My heart started beating fast, like it was trying to pop out of my chest. I started sweating, even though the air conditioner was on. I tried to dry my trembling, clammy palms by rubbing them against my pants. I wanted to raise my hand and say I wasn’t feeling well, but my mouth clamped shut and it felt like gravity made it impossible for me to lift my arm.

Usually I would get a little nervous when I had to do presentations, but I could always get through them. This day was different.

When the teachers closed the classroom doors, I felt trapped. I wanted to run outside, take a deep breath of fresh air, and calm down. To distract myself, I started to pinch my arm under the table. Then it was my group’s turn, and somehow my legs managed to make the motions to get me in front of the class.

When it was my turn to speak, the words I was supposed to say didn’t come out. I froze. Finally a familiar voice brought me back to reality. It was one of my groupmates presenting my part for me.

After we returned to our seats, I hugged my book bag. It wasn’t as soft as my pillow, but it was the only comfort I was able to find. I stared at the floor, which seemed like the only thing in the room that wasn’t disappointed in me. Once the bell rang I speed-walked past everyone to the train. As soon as I got home, I cried.

Unfortunately, memories of that awful afternoon stayed with me. I began to panic every time I had to talk to new people, which had never been a problem for me before.

The night before a presentation I wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat. I was afraid to tell my teachers how I was feeling; I didn’t want to be seen as asking for special treatment. Fortunately, when I did presentations, I managed not to freeze like before, but I still got incredibly nervous and sometimes stuttered out my words. If I had the choice, I’d make sure I wouldn’t have a speaking part in group presentations.

In 10th grade, my English class read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” I thought it was going to be just another lame book, especially since I hated reading. But when we finished the first chapter I felt the main character, Charlie, was speaking directly to me. It’s made up of letters he writes to an anonymous person. Charlie has a hard time talking about his emotions. When something bothers him, he stays quiet.

As an introvert, I related to Charlie. Besides the anxiety I got around presentations, I often felt bad about myself. So I decided to write an honest letter to someone I trusted: my English teacher, Ms. Boeck. I wrote about all my insecurities: my weight and my appearance, and how I felt worthless. While I was writing, I realized that I was depressed, my anxiety was getting worse, and I needed to get help.

I woke up early so I could approach Ms. Boeck before class. As I stood in front of her door, I got the sudden urge to turn around and throw out my letter. But then I remembered why I had written to her. I could tell she cared for each student, and I had seen other kids go to her for help.

I walked into the classroom and Ms. Boeck greeted me with a smile. All I had to do was give her the letter I was clutching tightly in my right hand. I knew this was the first step toward letting go of the pain in my chest that came from silently holding onto my struggles.

“This is a letter I wrote explaining something personal about me, and I wanted you to read it so you can help me,” I said, my voice cracking.

“Thank you, I’ll make sure to read it.” My teacher smiled and held eye contact, as if to assure me that whatever I’d written, she and I were going to find a solution together.

Around that time, I also told one of my closest friends about my anxiety. She understood, even though she didn’t have anxiety herself.

“Don’t worry, Natalie,” she said. “If you need help, you can come to me.” For the first time, I felt supported by people who cared about me.

After Ms. Boeck read my letter, she invited me and my friend to have lunch with her in her classroom. I learned that Ms. Boeck had also been diagnosed with anxiety. I couldn’t believe it, since she spoke with confidence in class.

Two weeks later I wrote another letter to my crew leader, Mr. Afghahi. Unlike the letter to my English teacher, this one acknowledged that I’d been having suicidal thoughts.

I found Mr. Afghahi in the hallway on a Friday after school. “I wrote you a letter,” I said.

“Is something wrong?”

I shook my head no as he took the letter. I left before he could ask any more questions.

On Monday morning Mr. Afghahi pulled me aside. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” he said. “The part of your letter about your suicidal thoughts concerned me. I don’t want to lose your trust, but I think it’s best if you go see a counselor who can help you. ”

I nodded. I didn’t want to speak to a stranger, but I knew it was the right decision.

A few days later, Mr. Afghahi walked me to the counselor’s office. She introduced herself with a warm, welcoming grin that showed all her teeth. I forced a smile.

After Mr. Afghahi left, the counselor talked about my letter as if she had memorized every word. It made me uncomfortable. I had only intended for Mr. Afghahi to know these things.

As I looked around the counselor’s office, a photo of her and her daughter caught my attention. It made me imagine the sadness a parent must feel when their child tells them about the kinds of feelings I was having. I pictured my mother with sorrow in her eyes.

The counselor asked me to clarify what I meant by suicidal thoughts, and when my depression and anxiety started. My vision began to blur as tears started forming, but I managed not to cry.

She told me I had to talk to my parents. In fact, the school required their approval for me to keep seeing her. I didn’t want my parents to know because they already came home tired and stressed. I wanted to be the “perfect daughter” to make their lives easier. I was also nervous because they were too busy to come to my school, and they don’t speak much English.

When I got home, my mom told me to go with her to her doctor’s appointment. In the empty waiting room, I told her that I was going through a tough time in school and felt anxious and depressed. I looked down when I saw her eyes redden and the first tear roll down her cheek. I had seen her cry before, but I had never been the reason.

I wanted to cry too, but I held it in. I felt as if my mom was asking herself what she’d done wrong, which broke my heart. My mom wrote a letter in Spanish saying I could see the counselor.

Over time, talking to my counselor got easier. After a month, I felt comfortable expressing myself to her. I even consider her a friend. Talking about my insecure feelings has helped me understand them better. I feel better about my appearance. The counselor made me do an exercise where I had to consider the positive aspects of my body, which helped me a lot. I’m less anxious now and I don’t feel as depressed. I keep my mind busy and have more support and people to talk to than I did before.

The counselor also taught me breathing exercises that help me calm down when I’m anxious. I close my eyes, inhale, and wait for two seconds to release the breath. When I close my eyes it feels like the world has stopped. No one else is around; it’s just me and my blank mind. My body is no longer tense. The silence is comfortable, not awkward. When I exhale, I feel like I’m letting go of everything that made my day bad.

Now I encourage myself to try new ways to practice speaking in front of people. I’ve started participating in Socratic seminars, which are open-ended discussions we have in class. I make sure I’m prepared and say something, even if I’m feeling nervous. Though I still don’t speak a lot, I usually get at least one idea out.

I’m a junior now, and hopefully by the end of the year I will be able to speak at least three times in one discussion. I still get really nervous in large groups and new situations. But when I feel like running away, I think of the progress I’ve made. I may still stutter or mess up in a presentation, but at least now I know that I’ve tried.

It was hard to open up, but having people to talk to about my anxiety has been a big help. Besides my counselor, I’ve told some other friends, though I didn’t go into the details. I also talk to my three brothers now, and they help boost my confidence and make me feel safe. My parents know about my anxiety, but I only tell them about my accomplishments, like participating in a discussion, so they are able to feel proud of me.

Now, before I have to give a presentation, I do things to prepare and feel more confident. I drink water to hydrate my body, do my breathing exercises in a quiet area, and practice my presentation with a friend. This year, we had to give another group presentation like the one on that awful day when I was a freshman. When it came to my part, all my fears went away, and I spoke loud and proud.

Natalie Castelan is a student at Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in Brooklyn. This piece originally appeared in YC Teen, a project of the nonprofit Youth Communication. 

the best

Indy counselors share secrets to get middle schoolers on track for college scholarships

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkebat
Students at Northwest Middle School

Indiana makes a promise to students from low-income families: maintain a 2.5 GPA and fulfill basic steps throughout high school, and the state will foot the bill for up to four years of college tuition.

But there’s a catch: For students to qualify for the aid, they must sign up for 21st Century Scholarships by the end of eighth grade, before many students even begin considering how to pay tuition. It falls on school counselors to let families know about the program, help them apply — and follow up relentlessly.

So it was a feat when counselors at Northwest Middle School in Indianapolis Public Schools were able to get nearly 100 percent of eligible students to register for the scholarships in 2017, the latest year with state data. That’s nearly double the signup rate across Marion County.

Now, the city is hoping that other educators can learn from Northwest and other successful schools. In May, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s administration launched Indy Achieves, a campaign to help more residents go to college or other post-high school training. One piece of the initiative is a coordinated effort to boost participation in 21st Century Scholars that includes a newly released toolkit for other guidance counselors.

The toolkit explains how educators can track which students have enrolled in the program, and it includes sample recruitment plans and letters to parents. It also offers practical tips, such as giving parents the paper worksheet instead of asking them to apply online and sending the form home with other permission slips. Finally, Indy Achieves offers administrative assistance submitting applications.

“I’m here today in no small measure because you all have this process figured out,” said Hogsett in a ceremony Monday.

At Northwest, the campaign to get students money for college had two prongs. First, it depended on getting students, teachers, and even counselors excited about the scholarships, staff say. Classes competed against each other to see who could get the most students signed up, with the promise of a pizza party for the winning class.

Last year, they upped the ante by offering ice cream and candy bars to students when they brought in their applications. When students saw others getting the rewards, it was a reminder to bring in their own forms, said counselor Vernita Robinson.

It was also important that teachers were enthusiastic about the effort, say the counselors who led the initiative. Even the counselors developed a spirit of competition as they tried to sign up as many students as possible.

“You just have to make it fun for the kids, and you have to make it fun for yourself,” said counselor Theresa Morning.  “I don’t know if we really changed any of our methods last year except for, we made a point to make sure last year that we had every child signed up.”

That dedication to getting students signed up is the second reason why educators at Northwest believe they were so successful. Beginning in September, they told parents about the scholarships, and for months afterward, they used a spreadsheet to track which students had applied. They sent home official letters telling families about the program. And as the year progressed, they called families to follow up.

“I think the key is to not stop at a handful of applicants,” said counselor Nicole Reid. “Just keep going until you have everyone on your roster that’s in eighth grade enrolled.”

All three counselors have left the school for other Indianapolis Public Schools campuses this year, following a districtwide high school reconfiguration that ultimately led Northwest to convert from a school serving grades seven through 12 to a dedicated middle school.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim superintendent Aleesia Johnson challenged the new students at the school to continue the success. “You all have to now carry on that legacy,” she said.

“We are all as a city committed to our students and our young people being able to go on and be successful,” Johnson said. “You do your part, and we commit to do ours.”