Meeting Lucas for the first time

Colors at seaFor some students, remote learning has been a hurdle while for others, it’s transformed their lives for the better.  Today I’m going to focus on the latter.

Lucas* is a 12th grader who initially started as a like-able yet hot-headed 9th grader—quick to get embroiled in conflict, yet also quick to smile.  Over the years, we saw him mature, and even see him as a calming force for some friends.

He also has some challenges: Lucas is the devoted father of a sweet 18-month-old baby.  However, as he has needed to take more responsibility in providing for his child, he started missing school in favor of work. Continue reading

School is home

wp-1584280807084.jpgIt has been a surprisingly rich week for me to work in a public high school.  I saw my staff’s dedication in a new light, and I saw what school means to kids with the very real possibility of schools being closed.

Let me say upfront that this is not a piece for or against closing schools.  My school is in learning and preparation mode: we’re preparing for schools being open with low attendance, or schools being closed—and in both cases, the need for supporting students and families at home.

A week ago, as coronavirus awareness started to spread, a few students asked giddily, “Is school going to be closed?” Continue reading

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1”

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Watercolors by 9th graders line our hallway

In most high schools, something very dramatic happens every 45 to 60 minutes: students transition from one class to another.  A school that seems peaceful and quiet while everyone is in class, suddenly erupts as hundreds of teenagers are in the hallway.

When my school first opened in 2011 with 90 students and 4 classrooms, those transitions were easy.  However, as we grew to almost 400 kids in 16 classrooms, 2 floors, and multiple hallways, transitions became harder to manage.  Students would engage in longer and longer conversations with their friends, or kiss each other on both cheeks and squeal as if they hadn’t seen each other for years. Some kids would just stand, and not move.  (That drove me crazy.) Continue reading

Why I love 9th graders

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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

83 and Entropy

color caos photoThis 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 no longer want to be a teacher”

Kids writingI 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

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

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