Being the adult

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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

Just a fun class

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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

The graduation finish line

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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.

Continue reading

A test and a passion for eggs

eggs.jpgOur 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

We want a mascot

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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

Come for the pizza, stay for the math

Flat lay composition slices of pizza with bacon, cheese and tomaOur 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

Walking out with respect

20190325_174235.jpgThe New Zealand mosque shooting had particular resonance for my students.  My school is for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners and many of our students are Muslim.  The day after the shooting, a girl who is not Muslim came in with a poster she had made on her own stating “We stand with our Muslim neighbors.” It was the first of several events last week that showed me a new level of leadership among my students.

Our school is housed in a building with five other public high schools.  Students from one of the others schools decided to organize a student walkout on Friday in response to the New Zealand shooting to protest hate crimes, gun violence, and show support for the victims.  It would be peaceful, no longer than 40 minutes, and take place on the athletic field.  Students from our campus had participated in last year’s walkout around the Parkland school shooting, and it had been safe and organized.  All seemed fine.

On Tuesday, my assistant principal called me: “Julie, did you know that our students were planning on walking out tomorrow– Wednesday, not Friday? Apparently there’s a big thing on social media.   Continue reading