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
Our students are passionate about food. This past week, I was reminded of how that passion can actually support learning.
Our school is participating in NYC’s innovative Participatory Budgeting Program for students, in which the student body is given $2000 to spend on the school, using a democratic process to propose ideas and vote on them. The first thing the students came up with was “better food.” Given that our students are from cultures all over the world, this was not a huge surprise. Through the program, the students learned that spending the money on food would not be a sustainable project; it would result in perhaps one to two meals for the entire school, and then the money would be gone. They quickly moved on to other ideas.
However, the students’ passion about the topic gave me pause. Continue reading
Each year, one of the most exciting things we do is interview and hire new teachers. Now, in our school’s 8th year of existence, I realized a new possibility: we can hire our former students as teachers.
Since our school’s first year in 2011,* we have had students serving as tutors to other students. It started out as tutoring each other over the summer: kids who had passed state exams in math tutored those who had failed. The tutors earned a small stipend. That summer, many students passed the math exam.
Over the years, we’ve shifted the tutoring opportunities. Now, we give seniors who are on-track to graduate the opportunity to tutor their 12th-grade peers who need support or to serve as teacher assistants in 9th and 10th-grade classrooms. Continue reading
Trees on Pelham Parkway that greet our new students and families.
One of my favorite TV shows is “Undercover Boss.” In the show, the CEO or president of a large company is given a disguise and goes undercover as an entry-level employee in their own company for several days. From that vantage point, the CEOs are able to see the inner-workings of their company from the ground-up: the good, the bad, the perplexing.
I often create what I call “undercover boss” moments in my work. Of course, I don’t wear a disguise, but when opportunities appear where I can quickly do a task that I normally wouldn’t do, or briefly fill in for an employee, I take it. I gain invaluable insights into my school and a deeper appreciation of the work my staff does on a daily basis. Continue reading
I founded the High School of Language and Innovation in 2011 with eight teachers teaching 90 students. We have now grown to 28 teachers and 350 students and have interviewed hundreds of candidates over the past seven years. In our interviews with teachers, we ask questions about topics like teamwork, teaching, taking responsibility for student results. But there is one question that tells us volumes about the candidate.
The question is, “Tell us about a time you received a piece of critical feedback. What was the feedback and how did implement it?”
Candidates have several reponses to this question. Continue reading
Last week, I saw my school through new eyes.
We had a visit of 11 first-year teachers from other high schools, part of a new teacher support initiative in the Bronx. My school was one of 15 schools chosen for the visit with a focus on teaching methods for English Language Learners, as the majority of our students are newcomer immigrants who are learning English.
I told my leadership consultants, Ariel and Shya Kane, about the visit. “First-year teachers? They’re going to compare themselves if they feel insecure,” said Ariel. “Set them up to not compare, and look at your school with a beginner’s mind so they can learn.” Continue reading
I remember my school having a Career Day when I was in 10th grade. I eagerly signed up for journalism, picturing an exciting, glamorous session around undercover reporting. At the end of the day, I was clear that I didn’t want to be a journalist. Getting clearer on what I didn’t love got me interested in other careers. The experience was invaluable.
This past Friday, my school held its first-ever Career Day.
I walked into the auto mechanic presentation. Joe, a friend of mine, had brought a huge bag of tools from his auto shop and laid them out on a table. A student, Yonas, who immigrated from Eritrea last year, looked fascinated. * Continue reading
In my first year of teaching, I was never observed by an administrator. I started to think that not being observed might be a good thing, as I was struggling mightily to keep my classroom under control.
I taught 8th grade English in a public middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The school itself was struggling and had been placed on a state list for low student achievement. The principal and assistant principal were both brand new in their jobs and in hindsight, I have empathy for the difficult situation they were in (although I certainly had no empathy at the time). I got used to the idea that administrators were people who helped when things went badly—for example, when a discipline problem forced me to call them and get help. Maybe it was better they weren’t visiting, I thought. What would they see in my classroom? That I was a failure?
The 55-25 retirement option
In my third year of teaching when I was 24 years old, there was an option to sign up for “55-25.” “55-25” was an early retirement option for educators, which meant that once you turned 55 and had been teaching in the system for 25 years, you could retire early and receive 50% of your average salary.
I remember several veteran teachers asking me if I had signed up for 55-25. I barely registered their question. I figured, there’s no way I’ll still be in education in 25 years. Continue reading
Awa sobbed in our office. “Can’t you just let me try?” she pleaded.
Awa, an 11th grader who came from Senegal in 9th grade, was begging to take the New York State English Regents exam in January. We told her she’d take it in June when she had completed the coursework for the exam. She left in tears.
When I started our school in 2011,* I thought that the experience of taking a state exam was so valuable that it was worth letting a student try, even if they weren’t 100% prepared. Continue reading