First Person

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New York

When Turnaround Came To My School

A week ago, as I walked into Flushing High School to start my day, there was a strange energy in the air — a mixture of anxiety and strangely, a little optimism. In the mailroom there was a colorful bulletin board of pictures from a recent rally held by teachers and students on the sidewalk in front of our school. The images were uplifting: smiles and enthusiastic faces marching together for a common cause — to save our school from possible "turnaround," a form of closure. The reason that morning stands out so vividly in my mind is that the public hearing about the city's plan was to take place that evening. The fact that this was real — and that this was really going to happen — set in when I passed the auditorium around 1 p.m. and saw the final adjustments being made to the tables, chairs, and microphones that would facilitate the contentious meeting. I was unexpectedly hit with feelings of sadness and resentment; the auditorium where I had participated in so many concerts, plays, poetry readings, and awards ceremonies was being “invaded” by bureaucrats who had never visited our school, or interacted with any of our students. I joked with my students that it felt like the penultimate scene in "E.T." when scientists set up shop in Elliot’s house. As I recount the details of that evening, there will be one recurring theme: I am so proud of my students! An hour before the hearing began, about 15 students gathered at the end of a hallway to make posters supporting our school. The posters expressed many different ideas: “Save Our School," for example, or “You Can’t Destroy our Dreams" and “137 Years Strong, We Belong!”  The poster-making session was accompanied by lively discussion that included anger, optimism, pessimism, and cynicism. “How can they close our school?” one student asked. “Mr. Albertson, do you think there is any chance that they may vote to keep our school open?”  In a nearby office, students helped each other draft and edit speeches that they would present at the hearing. We walked to the auditorium as a group and immediately signed up to speak. Some of the students meandered through the growing crowd and were collecting signatures on a poster reading: “Save our School!” Within minutes there was no free space for any additional names.
New York

Making Failure An Option

My ninth-graders and I are still working our way through "Romeo and Juliet." I’ve taught this play before. For the most part, I’m using lessons I’ve used before, just tweaking them to suit my new students. I’m not being lazy. I’m being smart. My lessons are good and I know they work. In the middle of Act III, however, we got to my favorite scene in the play. It’s the one where Friar Lawrence chews Romeo out for being self-absorbed and melodramatic. While I love this scene, I’ve never figured out an effective way to teach it: it’s filled with long speeches that students often find very difficult. In the past, I’ve just walked the students through the scene, making sure they get the key points. It works, but it’s kind of boring. This year, rather than reuse my old lesson, I planned something new. I put the students into groups and had them divide up the speeches amongst their group members. In their groups, the students created contemporary versions of the scene, translated into their own contemporary language and supplemented with stage directions. It was a two-day lesson and my plan was to have the students perform their versions of the scene at the end of the second day. As it turned out, I was too ambitious. While a few groups completed everything in two days, none of them had a chance to rehearse for a performance. Many groups didn’t even complete their stage directions. According to the goals I set during planning, I — or my students, or both — had failed.
New York

Million Hoodie March, Victor Hugo Edition: Les Miserábles in the South Bronx

It's a Tuesday after ninth period and I'm walking down the hallway of my South Bronx school toward what looks unmistakably like a fight. A tight circle of high school boys are gathered around two other boys on the floor outside of the classroom where I teach theater. One of the boys appears to be pounding the other with his fist. The other kids are chanting, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" The scene doesn't make sense to me. Sure, we have our fair share of hallway scuffles, but compared to most schools in the neighborhood, ours isn't terribly violent. I get closer and recognize that all the kids in the group are cast members in Les Miserábles, the spring musical I'm directing. Now I'm even more confused. Some of these kids may struggle academically and some have tough home lives, but there's not a bully or a thug among them. Even so, the energy of the scene automatically triggers memories of my early days as a new teacher breaking up fights in the back of my classroom, memories that are quick to surge up and flood me with adrenaline despite the trusting relationships I've built with my students, the leadership work they've done over the years and the creative challenges we've faced together while developing a musical theater program at Bronx Prep. The chanting gets louder. I race down the hall. When I get to the scene, the circle of kids unknots itself and I struggle to make sense of what I'm seeing. George — the student on the floor — is laughing so hard he can barely breathe. The boy kneeling over him is not punching him, but hugging him and slapping him on the back with enough enthusiasm and force to have toppled them both over. Several of the boys around them are wiping tears out of their eyes. At first I assume they're tears of laughter. I ask what's going on.