9th graders’ watercolors in art class
I love 9th graders; this week, I experienced again why.
Periodically, I visit every classroom to deliver a quick “check in” or important message. My visits can be to remind students of an expectation (“Let’s keep our cafeteria clean”), say “Thank you” for an exemplary behavior, or reinforce a value we’re teaching, like persevering through a challenge.
Our building had recently had a rash of false fire alarms being pulled by students from other schools, causing building-wide evacuations. To be proactive, I visited classes with my assistant principals to remind students of expectations when we evacuate, and to explain the consequences of pulling an alarm. Continue reading
Student playing a board game at lunchtime.
Every year, there seems to be a class that gets a bad rap-“that class,” which teachers say is tough to teach. Recently a few teachers met with me about this year’s “tough class.”
The teacher’s solution: they wanted to invite the students’ parents into the classrooms to witness how the students were behaving.
I was surprised: why would the teachers want the parents to see the kids behaving badly? In fact, wouldn’t the kids just be good on that day? “Well,” said one teacher, “if the kids are good, then we can say, ‘See, you were good when your parents came in so why can’t you be this good everyday?’”
I remembered my first years of teaching middle school. When I struggled with a student, I would call parents about the problem. In hindsight, I see that I was asking—and actually wishing for– the parents to solve the problem. But in fact, the problem was mine.
My answer to the teachers’ request was no.
This past August, we celebrated our school’s highest graduation rate ever: 83%. For us, this was a triumph; the highest percentage before this point had been 74%. Other things looked good at the end of the year, too: our 9th graders had done well on their exams, attendance increased, and suspensions went down.
This school year, other things have looked promising as well: we started a “hallway countdown” that’s leading to kids getting to class faster, our school is cleaner, and the overall atmosphere seems brighter, more positive.
Yet, as I was bragging about my successes to my leadership consultants Ariel and Shya Kane, they said, “We’re hearing alarm bells when you say, ‘My 9th grade is in great shape.’ Continue reading
I was sure Sophia* was going to become a teacher.
Sophia was a 12th grader who had shown a passion for teaching. Last summer, she tutored a group of classmates in history and did a great job. After the experience, Sophia told me she wanted to become a math teacher. I told her to reach out to us after college to teach at our school and she loved the idea. I even wrote about Sophia, calling her The First Hire of 2023 (link).
So this past June, I was surprised to see that Sophia had changed her mind. Continue reading
I used to tell students, “Don’t plan on summer school.” I didn’t want kids to feel complacent during the year and figure, “Oh, well, I’ll just go to summer school if I don’t pass.” To create a sense of urgency, and scarcity, I’d say things like, “We might not be able to give you this class in summer school so you’d better pass now.”
Yet now, I’m reminded again of why summer school is special. For kids, they’re with their friends instead of being bored at home. Each classroom, blessedly, has a cold, blasting air conditioner.
For staff, summer school is a unique time with a small group of students.
Street art Mott Haven, Bronx
As I’m hiring for the next school year, I’m starting to see a key teacher quality I hadn’t recognized before: the ability to be an adult around teenagers.
This may sound obvious. What I mean is that the teacher knows that they are the adult, and that the student is a kid who may not yet possess all of the politeness, life skills, and behaviors they need to be productive and have good relationships. The teacher knows that as the adult, they have the main responsibility for creating a respectful relationship.
As I’m interviewing teacher candidates, I see two ways of approaching teens:
The first way is the adult/responsible way, and it ranges from a calm neutrality—“Teenagers are teenagers, they have their ups and downs, let’s keep teaching and not take it personally”—to compassion—“It’s tough to be a teenager and we need to guide kids through this time in their life.”
The second way is the victim way, a constant skirmish between the teacher and student: “They’re making it difficult for me to deliver my lesson” or “I’m not letting Student X back into my class until he apologizes.” Continue reading
A class of 2019 graduate’s cap.
The High School of Language and Innovation was founded in 2011, and this year was our school’s fifth graduating class, the Class of 2019.
Each graduating class has been unique in its personality. They have different quirks and different gifts. As I planned my graduation speech, I thought, “What make this class special?”
Many answers came up, but one word kept rising above all others, a word I didn’t expect.
When I actually stood up to give my speech, I asked the graduates themselves: “What makes you unique as a class?” Continue reading
Student artwork at the High School of Language and Innovation.
The path to graduation is different for every student, and so is our approach.
For some kids, we race to keep up with them: they excel in every course, so we look for new opportunities and train teachers to lead advanced courses.
For other kids, it’s a matter of holding their hand: we offer extra tutoring and pair them up with classmates who can support them. We encourage them. Sometimes, these students need a lot of support in 9th and 10th grade, and then turn into great students by 12th grade.
Finally, there are a few kids we drag towards graduation. Often, these are students who are academically ready to enter college, but find ways of failing courses at the last minute. It might be the fear of change and leaving high school forever, or maybe just needing some attention. For example, a student who has passed all required exams and courses might do everything they can to fail their last semester of gym.
Our high school is made up almost entirely of newcomer immigrant English Language Learners. Every May we give students a required test that measures English proficiency.
The test includes a a 15 minute speaking portion, which is delivered 1:1 by a teacher. The speaking test starts with a simple Warm Up: “A. What is your favorite animal? B. What do you like to do at school? C. Tell me about your favorite foods.” The teacher then asks the student a longer series of questions from a booklet. Topics range from doctors to telescopes.
In our school, we enlist all teachers to administer the speaking test: physical education teachers, art teachers, math teachers, everyone. Continue reading
One of the students’ illustrations for a mascot: a panther.
I’m always fascinated by what gets kids excited about school.
Take a 12th grade student in my school, Rebecca.* Rebecca is known for a sweet smile and enthusiastic participation. However, at some point this year, everything got cloudy for her: nothing in school was fun or exciting. A few teachers told me that she might have had a falling out with some friends, hence the blue outlook, but Rebecca wouldn’t tell us what was bothering her.
A few weeks later, I got an email from Rebecca and some of her classmates: Continue reading