The lonely kid

Bridge Ahmed blog

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.

In my school, we have a team to support students struggling with online learning. Through that team, I was assigned to help Adam.

I called all the numbers listed for Adam’s family in our database: each call was a series of rings with no answer, or a number not in service.

On the fourth number, I suddenly heard, “Hello?” from a confident young voice, a combination Arabic and New York accent. “I’m his older brother. I’m working in the deli but I can talk.” The brother explained that his father had travelled to Yemen, but was now stuck, concerned about traveling home due to the virus.

Adam’s struggles all made sense now: his dad, his greatest support, was away.

Still, his brother was clearly trying to help Adam: “How about this, when I get home tonight, I’ll call you and we’ll talk to him together,” he told me.

The brother was true to his word. At 4:30 I got the call, and his brother passed his cell phone to Adam. I asked Adam to jump onto a video call with me, and he agreed.

I waited. After 5 minutes, I found myself getting impatient. I texted his brother, who assured me Adam was getting on the call.

After 15 minutes, I heard the “ping” of Adam joining, and I suddenly saw the friendly face and thick curls. “Hi miss!” he said. I noticed he looked tired.

We logged onto all of his classes together, answering a few questions in each class, helping him understand the platform. Adam assured me he’d get to work. A few minutes after the call, he texted, “Thanks so much for care, Miss.”

In the next two weeks, I saw Adam’s grades pop up from failing to passing.

When I reflected on Adam, there were so many things that made remote learning tough on him:

His father, his main support, wasn’t around. Adam missed him deeply.

Adam is also not the strongest reader. In school, his in-person friendliness and excellent speaking skills covered some of his literacy needs.

Also, simply being in school creates routine, structure, and a separation from home that is helpful for many kids. I had been impatient with Adam for taking so long to get on the video call, but my boyfriend Sathya pointed out, “Maybe he was trying to clean his room, or getting dressed. He might have been embarrassed. You’re the principal, it was probably weird for him.” Back in school, walking past my office to say “Hi,” Adam had felt a sense of pride, whereas it might have felt odd to open up his home, and himself, on video.

Adam is now on-track to graduate, but it hasn’t been easy. A kid like Adam misses being with people. He was fed by attention from his teachers, hanging out with his friends. A kid like Adam is lonely these days.

*The names of students have been changed.

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

In my school we sat on benches

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Student portrait, art class at High School of Language and Innovation 

As a school for newcomer immigrant English Language Learners, our students come from all over the world: Dominican Republic, Yemen, Bangladesh, several countries in Africa, Albania, China, Vietnam, to name a few.

However, we don’t know much about school in our students’ countries.  Recently, I decided to simply ask: what was learning like in your country?

I was prompted to do this because our school had visitors last week.  A group of new teachers were touring the school to learn best practices for supporting English Language Learners.

As part of the visit, I organized a student panel with two of my teachers.  The teachers choose five 9th and 10th graders and ensured they represented several countries:  Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Albania.  The students had lived in the U.S. anywhere from 4 months to 2 years.  Continue reading

I can tell you anything, right?

20190202_122445.jpgJeetu, a 12th-grade boy, sat in my office, eager to talk.

“You’re the principal, so I can tell you anything, right?”

I was tickled by Jeetu’s question.  A lot of kids might have the opposite thought: You’re the principal so let me choose my words carefully and make sure you don’t find out whatever I’m hiding.

Jeetu took New York State Regents exams* in January.  I was meeting with every 12th grader who had taken exams and experienced at least one disappointment in failing an exam.  Continue reading

How to be a man

Sky view

This year, my school is focusing on raising the achievement of boys. I’ve learned that supporting boys goes beyond good teaching: we need to show boys more options for how to “be a man.”

Most boys have an idea of what it is to be a man. It’s often a child’s idea of being “hard” or “tough,” “independent.” A principal colleague of mine said he and his staff consciously teach their 9th graders to lose the “tough guy” attitude and just be kids; be students.

This week, I found myself in a conference with a student, Hassan,* and one of my teachers, Matt. Hassan had hit another student who had been calling him a “little boy” and making teasing gestures towards him.

In the past, we might have said, “The next time someone teases you, tell a teacher or administrator.” However, we saw that an 18-year-old boy who sees himself as a man may not want to run to a teacher to solve his problems.

Continue reading

Teaching Integrity

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Students at the High School of Language and Innovation collaborating in science class. 

 

The first week of school, I learned that most of my students didn’t know the word “integrity.”

As a tone setter, my assistant principals and I visited classes and did a presentation around our core values: integrity, perseverance, respect, and responsibility. We’re using a new approach, Responsibility Centered Discipline (RCD).  In RCD, we coach kids to make choices that embody these core values, rather than simply reminding them of rules.  An RCD conversation would go like this: “Jaime, I love when you participate in this class because you have a great sense of humor.  Your participation makes a difference.  When you stopped doing your work and put your head down, you weren’t showing perseverance.  If you can keep showing perseverance and never give up, you’ll not only learn, but you’ll be a role model and leader for your classmates.  What can you do when you get frustrated with the work and want to put your head down?”   Continue reading

I’m here, and I hear you

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Student artwork sale at the High School of Language and Innovation

I remember my first interview for a teaching position in August 2000, part of the first cohort of New York City Teaching Fellows.  I was standing in line at a hiring fair at the Brooklyn Marriott Hotel.

When I got to the front of the line, a harried-looking man introduced himself as a district representative hiring for a position teaching 8th grade in a middle school in Brooklyn. Continue reading

Undercover Boss

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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

Sitting alone in the cafeteria

20180406_181850.jpgNothing makes me sadder than a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria.  Sometimes, a student is sitting alone by choice—he or she simply prefers to be alone, perhaps reading a book, or taking a break from interaction.

Other times, a student sits alone because he or she is new, and is the only person who speaks his or her own language.  The High School of Language and Innovation is a school for newcomer English Language Learners.  Most new students that have a large same-language, same-culture group—Spanish, Arabic, Bengali, Albanian, French—will be quickly adopted into the group.  If a student speaks a language like Vietnamese or Chinese, which are both small populations in our school, they might be alone if their 1-2 compatriots are absent.   Continue reading