The other day, I found two boys hanging out in a small alcove in front of our school health clinic. I can always relate when I see kids hanging out and not wanting to be bothered– as a teenager, this was all I wanted. But now is now, and I have a job to do. “Hi gentlemen, nice to see you both. I’ll need you to go back to your classes now.”
“We have passes,” they said politely. Each handed me an official pass to the health clinic, waiting for me to profusely apologize to them and allow them to keep hanging out.
“Great, thanks,” I said. “The health clinic doesn’t open for 10 minutes. You can come wait in my office while I work so you’re not in the hallway.”
There was an awkward silence. “Oh, OK. Thanks.” I had taken away their privacy.
In the last unit of 12th grade English, our students write “100-word stories,” modeled after the New York Times column “Modern Love Stories.” At the end of the unit, each student submits their best story to the New York Times.
To be honest, I never took the assignment that seriously. I never thought I’d be the one to get published.
It all started with my class’s science fair. We were outside in the field for one of the science experiments. My friend and I were hungry and we wanted to eat burek, an Albanian food you can get at the pizzeria. We asked our teacher and of course she said no. I knew we shouldn’t leave in the middle of the science fair, and I had never cut class, but it seemed like such an adventurous thing to do. We were outside, there were lots of kids, no one would notice, and it was the end of our senior year.
So we still snuck out and ate burek. I felt a little guilty, but we didn’t get caught and I ended up winning the science fair.
A few days later in English class, I thought, why not write about that experience? I finished the story in 5 minutes.
Years ago when I started this blog, a colleague asked me why I was writing it. She didn’t understand and for some reason, I felt embarrassed explaining. She kept asking, “But why?” and I kept giving reasons that were like bland, mushy oatmeal: “I like writing”, “It’s just a thing I want to try.” It never occurred to me to say, “Why not write a blog?”
I now have answers to both questions.
Why do I write this blog?
I am in awe of my job as a principal, and I want a record of it.
I write myself out of my worst disappointments.
I am happiest when I am creating something.
It brings my students to life.
I want more truth to be available about myself than untruth.
In a diverse high school like ours, students’ clothing can fall at two ends of the spectrum: revealing, or very conservative. Students from Dominican Republic might see a crop top as normal school wear, while a student from Yemen might see a female’s bare arms or hair as taboo. It’s an interesting balance.
Where do I stand with it?
Part of me doesn’t want to think much about it. When I founded our school in 2011, our students wore a uniform, but enforcing it became too much of a full-time job. Instead of saying, “Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?” I wanted to just say, “Hi!” Parents and kids said they wanted the uniform but so few wore it that we abandoned it. Now, students can mostly wear what they want.
As a principal, I usually operate with generosity. That doesn’t mean my mind isn’t stingy.
A student can enter the school system at any point in the year, September to June. As a Bronx public high school for newcomer immigrants, we take kids in at any time, no matter when they arrive. About half of our students come from an NYC middle school, and the other half arrive throughout the year, days after their planes landed at JFK. We’ll welcome a student whenever they arrive.
On June 1st, I got an email from the Bronx office of enrollment: a student, Makeda,* had just arrived from Panama and was being placed in the 10th grade. I forwarded the email to my school’s New Admit team and wrote, “We have a new student.”
At our school this year, we do a “grab and go ” lunch in which students can grab a packaged hot lunch and take it home, or eat it in a classroom. We did this to avoid using the cafeteria due to COVID. To make sure students don’t get hungry earlier in the day, we give them a mid-day snack.
We discovered early on that some lunches were more popular than others: chicken nuggets and french fries? There would be a frenzy of students and not a single meal would be left over. Fish and green beans? We’d end up with 50 leftovers. (Unfortunately the healthier the lunch, the less popular it is. Luckily we had a teacher who took the leftovers to a food pantry where they were much appreciated.)
To get our lunch quantities right, I assigned myself the job of visiting the cafeteria kitchen every morning. I chat with the staff, learn what they’re serving, and then together, we make a lunch estimate so there’s minimal waste.
It’s been a quiet year to work in a school building: 10 or fewer kids per class seated six feet apart, wearing masks, while the other 2/3 of our students did remote learning from home. No more interruptions or discipline problems. I felt almost like I had an office job, hopping onto Zoom meetings and online classrooms most of the day.
Before the pandemic, we had a system for responding to discipline or other classroom problems: teachers would send a group text, and an administrator or counselor would respond. However, this year, we hadn’t received a single “need help” text.
Suddenly, one day in May, I got a text from a teacher, Ms. M. “Can you come to room 304? I need help.”
Like all public high schools in New York City, my school is operating remotely. Overall, it’s going well, yet it’s also easy for students to disappear.
To find these students, I’ve started to do home visits with my assistant principal Yan. We look up the addresses, create a route, and set off on our journey. We usually don’t announce our visits.
Such was the case with Xavier.* As he was new to our school this year, I had never met him in person, and we didn’t even have a photo of him. Xavier had done a few assignments in September and October, but had since drifted away, completing nothing and never coming to online classes. When we called his mother, she seemed confused: “He’s on the computer all day!”
We arrived at Xavier’s apartment on a sunny Friday afternoon, crunching through a layer of snow on the sidewalk. We hit the buzzer until a neighbor let us in. Continue reading →
In my last blog, I wrote about a student who is thriving with online work. In this blog, I’ll write about a student who has struggled: Adam.*
Adam has had his ups and down as a student. in 9th grade, he arrived in the United States from Yemen. 9th and 10th grade were successful years for him , but 11th grade was a disaster: he cut classes and failed exams, leading to a serious conference with his father at the beginning of this year.
The conference worked. Adam shifted in 12th grade: he attended his classes, participated, asked questions. He even walked with purpose. Every day, he’d pass my office and say, “Hi miss!” as if to say, “See? I can do this, and I know you’re proud of me.”
Yet somehow, when we shifted to remote learning, we lost Adam. We gave him a Chromebook, but he wasn’t completing work. A staff member learned that Adam’s internet was spotty, so we helped him order a free, internet-enabled iPad through the New York City Department of Education, which was delivered in a couple of weeks.
Still, even with the iPad, he wasn’t completing work or returning phone calls. And we were unable to reach his father, who previously had been such a partner. Continue reading →