First Person

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New York

Learning The Power Of Storytelling With My ESL Students

I have long had a curiosity about the power of storytelling and realized that I could connect this passion to my teaching. In reflecting about my teaching with English language learners in the summer of 2011, I thought about inspiring the imagination of storytelling as bridge between the spoken word and the written word. Ultimately, as a teacher of English Language Learners, I am on a quest for fluency. Only by attaining proficiency in writing as well as speaking can we truly say a student is fluent in English. In my experience, the level of engagement has a significant impact on my students' progress, and designing lessons that are consistently relevant and engaging to my students, has been both a challenge and inspiration to me. So I designed a project in which my students would write their own stories. Working with graduate students in creative writing from Columbia University, my English as a Second Language students described their experiences leaving their families and home countries and living in the United States. Students read their stories aloud to seniors at the Cobble Hill Nursing Home, and we published a book of those stories, "Stories That Changed Us Forever." Proceeds from book sales will go into a scholarship fund for the students who worked on the project. My guiding questions for myself for this project were: 1. How do adolescent immigrants find their voice in writing and in life? 2. What strategies engage students in using their voice to transform their writing, while also building confidence, strengthening literacy skills, and providing real audiences for their stories? My guiding question for my students for this project was: What impact does my story have on peoples' lives? Below are excerpts from my students' stories and from reflections that they wrote after reading their stories aloud.
New York

The Worst Eighth-Grade Math Teacher in New York City

For 10 months, Carolyn Abbott waited for the other shoe to drop. In April 2011, Abbott, who teaches mathematics to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Anderson School, a citywide gifted-and-talented school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, received some startling news. Her score on the Teacher Data Report, the New York City Department of Education’s effort to isolate a teacher’s contribution to her students’ performance on New York State’s math and English Language Arts tests in grades four through eight, said that 32 percent of seventh-grade math teachers and 0 percent of eighth-grade math teachers scored below her. She was, according to this report, the worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City, where she has taught since 2007. “I was angry, upset, offended,” she said. Abbott sought out her principal, who reassured her that she was an excellent teacher and that the Teacher Data Reports bore no relation to her performance. But, the principal confided, she was worried; although she would enthusiastically recommend Abbott for tenure, the Teacher Data Report could count against her in the tenure process. With a new district superintendent reviewing the tenure recommendation, anything could happen. Using a statistical technique called value-added modeling, the Teacher Data Reports compare how students are predicted to perform on the state ELA and math tests, based on their prior year’s performance, with their actual performance. Teachers whose students do better than predicted are said to have “added value”; those whose students do worse than predicted are “subtracting value.” By definition, about half of all teachers will add value, and the other half will not. Carolyn Abbott was, in one respect, a victim of her own success. After a year in her classroom, her seventh-grade students scored at the 98th percentile of New York City students on the 2009 state test. As eighth-graders, they were predicted to score at the 97th percentile on the 2010 state test. However, their actual performance was at the 89th percentile of students across the city. That shortfall — the difference between the 97th percentile and the 89th percentile — placed Abbott near the very bottom of the 1,300 eighth-grade mathematics teachers in New York City.
New York

Looking Back On Student Journalism At Bronx Science

The student press, at least legally, is not a free press. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school newspapers are legally subject to administrative review. As many — including the comic book character Spiderman — have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and indeed, we usually count on the good faith of school administrators in these matters of content regulation. At the Bronx High School of Science, however, whether administrators acted in good faith on these matters is not clear. Last year, I was one of two editors of the Editorial page on the school’s newspaper, the Science Survey. While disputes between teachers and administration have received a high profile in media coverage, here is a side of the story you probably have not heard before. Trouble In The Math Department At the end of April 2010, the union complaint the math teachers had earlier filed through the city union was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Principal Valerie Reidy’s side anyway and more or less ignored the arbitrator’s findings. (In December, an arbitrator ruled that Lamphere's low rating should be discarded.) At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and next year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in several city newspapers), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue. Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously.